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Four Miller Hill Mall stores temporarily closed amid concerns about snow-laden roof

A crane operator lowers a load of snow from the roof of Miller Hill Mall in Duluth on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, 2014. (Steve Kuchera /

A small section of Duluth's Miller Hill Mall was blocked off with yellow tape and a handful of stores closed Sunday, while crews assessed the structural integrity of a portion of the shopping center's roof which apparently was compromised by recent heavy snows and massive drifts.

"For your safety, this area of the mall is temporarily closed," read signs affixed to the warning tape.

Mall Manager Katie Altrichter said a crew from Lakehead Constructors was expected to work through Sunday evening to shore up a bent steel roof joist first noticed Friday.

"I heard a large boom," said Royce McNett, an artist from Coloma, Wis., who was selling his painted mirrors in the mall at about 4:30 p.m. Friday. "About 10 minutes later, I heard another large boom."

About another half-hour to 45 minutes later, Thomas Meyer, his business partner, said they heard yet another boom accompanied by a sound "like metal on metal."

Meyer said they looked up and could see a crack had formed in the gypsum board ceiling, which was beginning to bow.

McNett said that when mall management was notified, staff were quick to the scene and swiftly worked to help relocate his kiosk to another part of the shopping center.

"We were really impressed with the way they handled it all," McNett said. "They were very considerate and genuinely concerned about our safety."

Other mall tenants affected by the closure include Pam's Hallmark, a Regis hair salon, Pro Image and T's Me. Those stores will remain closed at least through Monday morning, Altrichter said, until engineers give the all-clear for operations to resume.

Foot traffic through that portion of the mall was rerouted through the neighboring Younkers department store.

The engineering and architectural firm Krech Ojard & Associates was called in, and Altrichter said she heeded their advice to clear the area in case the situation worsened.

"We're erring on the side of caution right now," she said. "We want to take every precaution we can to keep people safe."

Altrichter said mall staff had been monitoring the roof since a storm Thursday into early Friday dropped more than a foot of snow on the area. Initially, the roof appeared to be performing well under the weight of the new-fallen snow, but subsequent heavy drifting led to problems, she said.

Wearing snowshoes, Altrichter inspected the roof and reported drifts as high as 15 to 20 feet atop it.

AW Kuettel & Sons was on the scene Sunday morning, using a crane to lift snow loaded onto a massive tarp off the roof and down to the ground below.

Until the section of compromised roof is deemed stable, Altrichter said snow removal workers have been told to hold off tackling it.

The 41-year-old shopping center had one prior significant roof problem related to an unusually heavy snow and ice load in December 1983; this month's event is the first major issue to arise since then. The 1983 incident involved a 26- by 35-foot section of roof located near JC Penney. Altrichter explained that the mall took steps to reinforce its roof in the aftermath of the earlier failure, and newer portions of the shopping center were built to more demanding standards.

Through Sunday, Duluth has received 83.8 inches of snow this winter, about 21 inches more than normal for this point in the season. The city has received 29.5 inches of snow so far this month, which is nearly 20 inches above average.

And with the region experiencing an abnormally cold winter, much of what has fallen has failed to melt. The snow depth at the Duluth airport on Sunday -- not counting drifts -- was 32 inches.

Last week's storm caused problems for buildings elsewhere in the region, too.

A Kmart store in Eau Claire, Wis., closed after a portion of its roof collapsed under heavy snow on Thursday evening, the Leader-Telegram newspaper reported. There were no reports of injuries.

And the roof of the Nauti Pine bar near Hayward collapsed on Friday morning, the business reported on its Facebook page. The bar, located along Wisconsin Highways 27 and 77 a few miles north of Hayward, had already been closed for the season.