By Tim Cox
Mercer County Commissioners have declared portions of the county disaster areas following severe thunderstorms and possible tornadoes that moved through the area last month.
Commissioners made the move despite the lack of widespread damage across the county. The storms caused far less damage than the 2005 ice storm or the 2003 flooding, two of the county's most recent disasters. County officials are hoping the declaration will lead to state or federal assistance to remove logjams from the St. Marys River.
The June 22 storms and likely tornado in the northern part of the county downed numerous trees and limbs. When that debris ends up in the river, it impedes the flow of the water and can cause flooding when the river rises.
A resolution passed last week by Mercer County Commissioners says the debris in the river threatens the flow of the river and in turn "endangers the health and safety of Mercer County residents."
If Mercer County is declared part of a larger disaster area in Ohio caused by the June storms, some emergency relief money could become available to help clear the river. Commissioners said they are unsure of exactly how bad the storms clogged the river, which already was seeing an increasing number of blockages, especially since the 2005 ice storm. State and federal emergency management officials rejected the county's claims for clearing the river, but paid many other bills related to the disaster.
Rick McCoy, Van Wert County's emergency management and homeland security director, urged Mercer County officials to seek relief for river blockages after county officials there did the same thing. The St. Marys River flows through only a small portion of Van Wert County near Willshire before it flows into Indiana.
The St. Marys River winds on a 55-mile course through Shelby, Auglaize, Mercer and Van Wert counties before flowing west into Indiana. The river winds through Fort Wayne before meandering its way back into Ohio where it empties into the Maumee River.
Logjams are a common problem along the river and a problem local governments have tried to address in recent years. The Ohio counties where the river flows participated in a joint project that spent $800,000 on logjam removal several years ago. That work was paid for with a $300,000 Ohio Department of Natural Resources grant and property tax assessments charged to property owners along the river. In many cases, local government jurisdictions covered the tax assessments for citizens.
A maintenance fund remains in place to pay contractors or citizens to remove jams, but there is not enough money to keep up with the work. The county engineer's office can also intervene, but tends to keep its resources focused on roads, bridges and other projects.