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Kayla Prasek and Bethany Wesley, Forum Communications, Published July 03 2012

Wide Minnesota swath cleans up after storms

BEMIDJI, Minn. – Cleanup from Monday’s powerful storm is expected to take more than a week as city, county and power company crews prioritize work that needs to be done.

The buzz of chain saws filled the air Tuesday, continuing the work from the evening before, after a powerful storm swept through the region about 7 p.m. Monday. Straight-line winds blew in excess of 80 mph, toppling countless trees, downing hundreds power lines throughout the region and knocking out power to more than 8,000 customers.

Funnel clouds were reported four miles southwest of Bemidji, but tornado activity has not been confirmed in any of the damage, according to a press release.

Brad Hopkins, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, said the clouds people saw were rain clouds.

“The storms that developed are what we call a classic bow echo,” Hopkins said. “It has an indicator of straight-line winds, and that’s what happened when the storm started accelerating.”

City crews, from public works to parks, worked 16 hours starting Monday night and were expected to work 12-hour shifts Tuesday.

The focus of the work Monday and Tuesday was on clearing the roadways and getting downed trees off power lines so power companies could restore power to residents.

About 1,500 Otter Tail Power customers still were without power early Tuesday afternoon; the goal was to reduce that number to fewer than 500 by Tuesday night, spokeswoman Cris Kling said. At one point, Otter Tail said it had 4,400 outages.

Workers hope to have the remaining outages fixed today, with isolated outages in the Livinia and Nymore neighborhoods, downtown Bemidji and Cass Lake.

Almost 2,500 Beltrami Electric customers – down from almost 4,100 outages immediately after the storm – were still without power Tuesday afternoon. Additional crews were scheduled to arrive today.

Beltrami Electric spokesperson Mitch Raile said there was no estimate for when power would be fully restored.

The next priority for public works, according to City Engineer and Public Works Director Craig Gray, is to focus on clearing alleys of downed trees.

Residential clean-up

Starting next Monday, city employees will canvass neighborhoods to gather residents’ collected debris.

Homeowners who now are working to clear their yards of trees and debris have two options for disposing of their yard waste.

They can pile the logs and wood 2 to 3 feet away from the curb for future collection by city employees or, if they are able, haul debris to a city drop-off site at the Rako Yard on Rako Street, west of the police training facility. The drop-off site will be open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, including today, Independence Day.

“I think (today) will be a big workday,” Gray said Tuesday morning in a press conference.

Wood and logs are welcome at the drop-off site, but “root balls” cannot be accepted, as the city plans to chip the entire pile once collection is complete, Gray noted.

He asked homeowners to also clean off the stormwater catch basins located along curbs near driveways. Some are buried 2 to 4 inches in debris.

“If it rains, we don’t want flooding situations,” Gray said.

Homeowners cleaning debris and piling it along the roadway are asked to finish piling it by 8 a.m. Monday.

“We really need everyone to keep that stuff out of the street,” Gray said.

Gray urged the public to be patient, as city crews are working as quickly as possible. For residents who are collecting their debris later than others, he advised them to watch other neighbors’ yards to see if city crews have already come through.

“Once we do your street, we will not be coming back a second time,” Gray said.

Safety warnings

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp advised homeowners to be careful in cleaning up their yard waste. He noted that the lone fatality from last year’s Hennepin County tornado was a man who suffered a heart attack while cleaning his yard after the storm.

Hodapp said the good news was there were no reported injuries or deaths related to Monday’s storm.

“That’s really important to note,” Hodapp said. “It means everyone paid attention to the warnings and got out of the line of danger.”

As the clean-up process continues, Hodapp warned that people need to watch their health, too.

“We don’t want anyone to go down from extreme heat or overexertion,” Hodapp said. “We’d like to prevent any heart attacks from happening during the clean-up.”

Park damage

The storm damaged and uprooted trees throughout the region, also impacting those in public parks.

Diamond Point Park, one of Bemidji’s cornerstone parks, was badly damaged in the storm – more than half of the trees were impacted by the straight-line winds.

“Diamond Point Park is closed until further notice,” Gray said. “(It has) a lot of downed trees, a lot of work to do.”

The gate is closed at the park, but with today being the Fourth of July and Diamond Point Park being a popular destination for residents watching fireworks, city employees strongly urged the public to stay away from the park for the time being. The damage has not all been assessed or addressed.

Oak Hills Christian College

Oak Hills Christian College received significant damage from the storm, Vice President of Advancement Joan Bernston said.

“We did lose the roof off West Hall dorm,” Bernston said. “We had several buildings that had trees on them, and there were a large number of trees down on the campground but not on the camp itself.”

West Hall was not occupied at the time of the storm, Bernston said.

However, Camp Oak Hills did have 40 fourth- to sixth-grade campers who took refuge in a basement.

“The kids weren’t aware of what was going on,” Bernston said. “They just sang worship songs while the camp director let their parents know they were safe.”

The campus is still assessing damage, but Bernston said the fall semester would start on time and Camp Oak Hills will continue.

Radio outages

Paul Bunyan Broadcasting went out around 6:30 p.m. Monday, about the time the storm hit, and wasn’t back on the air until 11:30 p.m. Monday.

Engineer Mark Anderson said the stations have never suffered an outage that long.

“When it finally did come back on, it was only a few blocks that were back,” Anderson said. “We were completely back up and running by 11:45 p.m.”

Anderson said he called Otter Tail Power for information after the storm.

“They were too swamped to actually be able to do anything for us,” Anderson said. “We just waited until the stations came back on by themselves.”

Regional damage

Other areas in the region that were hit include the Rosby Acres subdivision, Wilton and Cass Lake.

Much of the damage in Cass Lake was similar to the damage in Bemidji, Sue Uhrinak, Cass Lake city clerk, said.

“We have lots of trees down, a lot of power lines are down,” Uhrinak said. “There were trees on houses, a few on vehicles. A few side streets are closed, too.”

Uhrinak said she had not heard of any injuries from the storm.

According to a press release, the North Star chapter of the American Red Cross delivered water and refreshments Tuesday morning in Cass Lake and Deer River to aid community efforts to support residents until power could be restored.

The storm, which went through Cass Lake around 7:30 p.m., also hit Norway Beach Campground near Cass Lake, Uhrinak said.

“They had crews out overnight just making sure everyone is okay,” Uhrinak said.

Uhrinak said Cass Lake’s plan for recovery included the public works department cutting and moving any fallen trees.

“We have a contractor coming in with a boom and a truck to move all of the trees,” Uhrinak said. “I’ve also seen many power companies working to restore power.”

The state Department of Natural Resources evacuated and closed La Salle Lake State Recreation Area and discouraged day visits to Itasca State Park, according to a press release.

Both parks had fallen trees and blocked roads. There was also some damage to cabins, cars and camping equipment.

La Salle Lake State Recreation Area is closed until further notice. Itasca State Park expects to be able to honor all existing camping and lodging reservations.


Power restoration

Restoring power continues to be a priority for the city and power companies.

Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said power companies were “working diligently” Tuesday with large crews toward a goal of restoring power to the region.

Ninety percent of the city lost power at some point, Mastin said, noting that a band of properties along Highway 197 near Walmart were not affected.

Hodapp said the county dispatch received more than 150 calls regarding downed power lines Monday night.

Officials urged the public to continue being cautious around power lines. As they are re-electrified, they again can become dangerous.

Paul Bunyan Communication’s telephone communications were working, so those with “corded” phones through Paul Bunyan had telephone service. But without power, cordless phones did not work.

Also, any machine that required electricity, such as a computer, wireless routers or TV, did not work because the power was out, not because the infrastructure was damaged.

The storm barreled through the area shortly before 7 p.m. Bemidji Fire Chief Dave Hoefer said the department called Solway, Kelliher, Lakeport and Lake George fire departments for aid as it received 38 calls for service in three hours, including several calls for small fires.

Small fires are possible again now that the power lines are being re-energized, he noted.

Damage documentation

City Manager John Chattin noted that the city’s water and sewer operations remain operational.

The region has not been declared by Federal Emergency Management Agency to be an emergency zone, but in case it is, Mastin said Beltrami County Emergency Management advises the public to take photos of the damage and to keep a written record of the cost and time spent in cleaning up the damage. Homeowners should call their insurance companies and retain all information in case FEMA does get involved.

Emergency Management also is seeking volunteers with chainsaws who are willing to assist those unable to clear their yards of downed trees. Mastin said there are elderly residents who are unable to leave their homes because their driveways are blocked by trees. To volunteer, call 333-9111.

The forecast for today calls for a chance of more severe storms.


Prasek and Wesley write for the Bemidji Pioneer


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