They had to see it coming.
The National Weather Service issued a Winter Weather Advisory through 7 a.m. Monday, Jan. 27. Forecasts called for an inch of snow Sunday night, followed by additional snow Monday and wind chills as low as minus 25.
The Indiana Department of Transportation reported difficult driving conditions Sunday, Jan. 26, on U.S. 33, U.S. 20, S.R. 19, S.R. 119 and S.R. 15, leading schools, churches and businesses to quickly began announcing Monday cancellations.
But not the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners. Despite drifting snow that made many roads impassable, they waited until 8 a.m. Monday to declare a state of emergency in unincorporated parts of the county.
Delaying the decision created uncertainty and put drivers’ lives at risk. Commissioners need to begin anticipating emergencies, not reacting to them after they’ve already unfolded.
People here get up early to leave for their work shifts. County snow removal crews began finding stranded motorists around 4 a.m. Monday. Jeff Taylor, the county’s highway manager, finally called Commissioner Mike Yoder around 6:30 a.m. to recommend closing the roads.
Making that decision involves the sheriff’s department, all three county commissioners, the highway department and emergency management. The entire group could not be assembled until 7:30 a.m., Yoder told an Elkhart Truth reporter. They announced a state of emergency about 30 minutes later — too late for many commuters who found themselves in travel limbo.
“What about the people that are already at work?” Mikki Taylor asked on The Elkhart Truth’s Facebook page. “I guess it sucks to be us.”
“This should have been done before employees had to risk life and limb to get to work,” added Kim Whippen Wininger.
Commissioner Terry Rodino agreed — but only up to a point.
“There were some issues, and the decision was not made as soon as it should have been, but we didn't have all the data to make the decision,” he told an Elkhart Truth reporter.
Wrong. County officials had all the information they needed to declare a state of emergency long before rush hour Monday. They simply didn’t do anything with it.
Rodino raises a valuable point, however — if county officials believe they cannot act quickly in emergencies because they’re forced to wait for necessary data to accumulate, then change the way you gather information.
Based on weather forecasts, set up systematic checks of roadways vulnerable to ice and drifting snow. Monitor the information in real time, and use technology to assemble all the parties necessary to reach quick, informed decisions.
Finally, set up a system allowing the county, cities and school districts to announce critical decisions at the same time, eliminating confusion about where and when the public can travel.
Hazardous weather also tested the county commission’s ability to act effectively less than two years ago.
In June 2012, the National Weather Service issued a special weather statement for northern Indiana warning that high temperatures, low humidity and a lack of rain combined to create a significant fire risk.
“The dry conditions will only get worse, with increasing fire danger,” forecasters noted.
Counties to our east and west immediately banned outdoor burning. But our commissioners waited two days before declaring a state of emergency — and when they did, it did not include fireworks. Not for days.
We won’t need to worry about burn bans for months. But in the meantime, the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners must develop a more aggressive, streamlined approach to weather emergencies.
Our safety depends on it.