By Timothy Cox
County commissioners in Mercer and Auglaize counties issued a disaster declaration they hope will pave the way for state and federal assistance to help recover from this week's epic ice storm.
Although most rural roads remain passable, many are at least partially blocked by tree limbs, power lines and other debris. Some township roads remain ice-covered and hazardous. The Mercer County Sheriff's Office asked the public to refrain from driving after dark, but there was a lot of activity around Celina Thursday evening.
"In the event you encounter power lines or water upon the roadway, you are urged to turn around and find an alternate route," said a news release from Sheriff Jeff Grey's office. "Driving through a power line or into water can be hazardous or even fatal."
Only one Mercer County road remained closed this morning -- state Route 219 east of Montezuma.
Following the commissioners' early morning disaster declaration, Gov. Bob Taft added Mercer, Auglaize and 12 other counties to an original disaster declaration made following the Dec. 23 snowstorm that paralyzed the Miami Valley. Mercer County was on the fringe of that storm and was not included in the first disaster declaration. Taft eventually will ask President Bush to support the disaster declaration and make federal assistance available to local governments and citizens.
"What we really need is the presidential declaration," Mercer County Emergency Management Director Wanda Dicke said. "That would get some aid in here."
Until Bush acts, local governments still can draw on state resources and equipment to help recover from the icy mess.
"We will continue coordinating missions and operations to assist local governments in helping people recover from these storms as quickly as possible," said Dale Shipley, executive director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.
Several area state lawmakers, including Sen. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, and Derrick Seaver, R-Minster, had urged Taft to intervene in a letter earlier Thursday.
"This area of the state has been hardest hit by the recent ice storms," Faber said. "We are asking Gov. Taft to not leave the hundreds of thousands of Ohioans who have been impacted by this storm out in the cold."
Area officials also are closely watching tonight's weather. The National Weather Service is predicting some light freezing rain for the area.
"They think it's gointg to be pretty minor," Dicke said of tonight's anticipated frozen precipitation. "It's not expected to be of major consequence. It will probably scare people though."
Several state agencies are involved in disaster relief services. Ohio Department of Transportation crews are clearing debris from roads, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials are testing drinking water in flooded areas and the Public Utilities Commission continues to monitor the power situation statewide as nearly 250,000 Ohioans still are without power.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture also has its hands full with the disaster. Two meat packing plants, including one in Darke County, are closed due to flooding while a third is without power. Dairy farmers in Holmes County reportedly are struggling due to the loss of power.