County councilman expected to propose floodwater fine increase

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times police warn the public about the dangers of driving through floodwaters, a few motorists still wind up taking the chance by driving into flood-prone areas.

Every time they do so, they not only put themselves and their passengers at risk, but they also put emergency responders in peril.

Lately, it seems as though it’s happening in Jackson County with much more frequency, county council President Dave Hall said.

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Police and first responders have conducted at least 15 water rescues since Dec. 1. No injuries or deaths have been reported in any of the incidents.

Hall, however, believes it’s time to get motorists’ attention and raise the fine from the current maximum of $500 to $1,000, a proposal he expects to make during the council’s Feb. 20 meeting at the courthouse annex, 220 E. Walnut St., Brownstown.

He said the number of incidents lately is a reason he’s considering doubling the maximum fine, but he quickly added it would be up to the council to consider it and determine what amount it should be.

If the council were to adopt the change, it would take several months before it would be enacted. It would then have to be advertised before becoming effective.

Hall said the final amount may not end up being $1,000, but he wants to start a conversation to raise the amount of the fine from the ordinance last updated in 2012.

His proposal would call for the county to keep half of the money from each fine for education and advertising programs associated with the dangers of floodwaters. The other half would be distributed to local township volunteer fire departments for water rescue equipment and training, he said.

The council is the governmental agency that approves budgets for the departments, so Hall is familiar with the funds.

Hall said he got the idea as he read about the incidents in the two-month period and also when he looked at penalties for other offenses in the county.

“It’s a $500 fine for driving on the walking path by the fairgrounds,” he said. “It’s also $1,000 for driving a semi on the road near Walmart Distribution.”

Hall said those scenarios don’t put as many people at risk, but the amounts are the same or double.

“While someone could get injured on the walking path, there’s a rescue involved with crews and equipment and a safety issue for first responders in the floodwaters,” he said.

The East Fork White River at Rockford just north of Seymour has been above its 12-foot flood stage six times for a total of 13 days since Dec. 1, according to data from the National Weather Service.

The river’s highest point during that period occurred when it crested Jan. 24 at 16.86 feet, just below a moderate flood stage classification.

The Muscatatuck River, which serves as a border between Jackson and Washington counties, crested at 19.8 feet Dec. 4, according to the most recent data. The Vernon Fork Muscatatuck River, which separates Vernon and Washington townships here, also has flooded during the same time period, but data was not available.

Those who become stuck in floodwaters are initially at risk just waiting for first responders to reach them.

Once police are called, they must respond, assess the situation and determine what equipment is needed.

All of that takes time, Jackson County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Adam Nicholson said.

Police averaged an hour and six minutes from the time they were called to a rescue to when they were back in service during 12 of the 15 incidents for which data was available. The remaining three incidents were reported to county dispatchers but handled by other agencies.

Nicholson, who provided the data, said that time includes the call, getting the necessary equipment, assessing the situation, making the rescue and post-rescue work. He said most of the rescues occur shortly after the call is made.

Nicholson said in many scenarios, motorists are rescued within minutes.

Many times, however, police have to wait for conservation officers assigned to the county or nearby counties to get their boats and respond.

Hall said many people have suggested using road barriers and locked fences on roads.

He said the highway department does use some of them, but given the size of the county (the state’s fourth largest at nearly 514 square miles) and number of roadways that flood, placing barriers everywhere is not realistic.

“You could not possibly barricade every single one of them,” he said.

Plus, the public has vandalized that equipment in the past, leaving the county liable for injuries associated with those actions, he said.

“There were people cutting locks on the gate and leaving them to swing open,” he said. “The county could be liable if someone can’t see a gate and runs into it.”

Hall said people have still driven through those areas but should know better.

Sheriff Rick Meyer said he has assisted in many cases of floodwater rescues throughout the years, and some motorists have said their GPS system has led them down roads that have been flooded.

But Meyer said motorists should seek an alternate route.

“It may take you an extra 10 or 15 minutes, but it’s worth it every time,” he said. “You can still see when roads are covered in water and ice.”

Hall agreed and said it is foolish to use that as an excuse and people should use common sense.

“That GPS is a fantastic piece of technology, but it doesn’t replace what God put between your ears,” he said. “All you have to do is back up and go a different direction, and that GPS will reroute you.”

Meyer said motorists also take for granted the road is still there when they drive through floodwaters. In some cases, water that has covered the roadway has washed parts of the road away. That’s something motorists cannot see when the water covers the road, and it sets up a dangerous scenario.

“You don’t know if the road is washed out beneath, and swift water will wash out the roads,” he said. “We have to be smarter before someone gets seriously hurt or worse.”

The wintertime makes it more dangerous because there is ice, Hall said. You can see the water moving in warmer months, but sometimes, the ice looks like it could be on top of the water.

The No. 1 concern is with the individuals involved, but once they make that choice, it becomes a safety concern for the police and first responders who rescue them, Hall said.

That’s why he’s calling for a change.

He was originally concerned that a fine increase would not deter motorists any more than usual. He said $500 is a lot of money, but they still do it. Then Hall realized how much of a need volunteer fire departments have for funding and thought it would be a good way to fund upgrades.

“They’re the ones at risk when people do this,” he said. “Plus, the public needs educated as much as possible.”

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Floodwater stats (since Dec. 1)

Water rescues: 15

East Fork White River floods: 6

Days the East Fork White River has been flooded: 13

Average time from call to first responders to when they leave scene: 1 hour, 6 minutes

East Fork White River crest: 16.86, Jan. 24

Muscatatuck River crest: 19.8, Dec. 4

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See the discussion of the floodwater fine raise at the Jackson County Council meeting

What: Jackson County Council monthly meeting

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 20

Where: Jackson County Courthouse Annex, 220 E. Walnut St., Brownstown

Who: Open to the public and press