Berrien County sees flooding, evacuations

Feb 23, 2018


Shamrock Park (foreground) and River Springs Trailer Park (back) sit in water from the overflown St. Joseph River to the left. Seen from the Old U.S. 31 bridge near Berrien Springs on Thursday February 22.

Berrien County, Michigan like other places around Michiana has been hit by flooding and high water as rainfall and snowmelt mix.

Just downriver from where Old U.S. 31 crosses the St. Joseph River in Berrien Springs, Shamrock Park is underwater. A little further downriver, so is River Springs Trailer Park. Both have been evacuated.

Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey said it’s likely to be a while before residents can get back into their homes.

“I don’t think we’re going to be getting back in this trailer park until sometime next week, it’s that bad. It’s going to take a while for the water to recede. All these trailers are going to have to be inspected by the inspector of Berrien Township before anyone can even go back into them. Sad to say that I think most of these trailers are gonna be a complete loss.”

Some of the people that lived there are now staying at an emergency shelter set up by the Red Cross in Berrien Springs Middle School. Their number fluctuates around 50.

Martha Lohrstorfer is the shelter manager.

“We’ll be here until they no longer need us. There’s no way of knowing how long that will be. We haven’t been given any concrete information yet, but we will be here as long as we’re needed.”

Lohrstorfer said they’ve been amazed by the help community members have offered.

The Red Cross Shelter at Berrien Springs Middle School.
Credit Jennifer Weingart

“The challenges are all positive because we’ve had such an outpouring of community support that the hardest thing is to find ways to channel it all.”

Most people living in the parks likely lost everything. Dennis Malone is staying at the shelter with his mother and children.

“Right now I know I lost all my furniture, all my food, all the dressers, all the beds, I know I can get my TVs, the kids’ toys are not salvageable they was in the closet and on to the floor, the clothes I can’t rescue.”

Lohrstorfer said she hopes the community continues to give when people start to leave the shelter. Several churches in the area are excepting donations of clothing and household goods.

“Well as people find out, and they do not know yet, the condition of their home, we’re hoping and praying that the community will continue to be as engaged with them when they leave our shelter as they are trying to be now.”

Malone said they had almost no time to get ready to leave, “Our maintenance guy that comes around and fixes things, knocked and told us we had ten minutes to get out.”

Talking about everything he’s lost is hard for Malone, especially because he said he lost everything in a house fire once already. He’s still looking on the bright side, though. “Material things you can always get back, buy back, but you know, lives you can’t get back.”

There have been other evacuations in Berrien County; in Royalton Township, Sodus and St. Joseph Township--all along the river.

Over in Niles there have been a few voluntary evacuations, but flood waters have covered the area by the river. The St. Joseph River at Niles crested early Thursday morning at 17 point 3 feet, more than two feet over the record set in 1950.

Lamposts reflect on the water filling Riverview Park in Niles on Thursday evening, February 22.
Credit Jennifer Weingart

Wonderland Cinema and other businesses are flooded, and riverfront Park is underwater. Residents like Mark Cook and his daughter were out checking out the historic flood. “Just kind of documenting this because it seems like such a weird crazy thing and with the lights, like, on in the water and it just seems really surreal. So just trying to capture it.”

Some were doing more than just taking pictures, Levi Burlingham and a friend were just strapping their blue kayaks to the top of a jeep and getting ready to leave. “I mean you don’t see this everyday, not in Niles. I mean, this has never happened before, so we got some pictures and went kayaking.”

It’s really not safe to venture out into flood waters. Officials are saying even if the current doesn’t get you, sewage overflow and the closing of water treatment plants means the water is likely filled with some gnarly bacteria.

Sheriff Bailey said the county is waiting to declare a state of emergency, because once they do they only have so long to provide a damage assessment to the state.

He said they have lots of boots on the ground and want people to get in touch if they need help. “We want people to call in if there’s any issues, or anything that they need.”

Flood waters in the county are receding, but it’s going to be a while before levels get back to normal.