The first winter storm of 2017-18 came in a fury Friday - causing mayhem for municipalities and travelers across the Northland and dousing a warm fall in a coat of snow and slush.
Lake Superior waves caused major damage to the Duluth Lakewalk and Brighton Beach, causing city officials to close large parts of those popular recreation areas until further notice. The waves - pushed by wind gusts in excess of 60 mph, and coming on top of already-high lake levels - caused flooding in Canal Park, on Park Point, on Madeline Island and near Ashland, among other areas.
The snow totaled more than 10 inches at the Duluth International Airport - a new daily record for the city in October. Rain quickly changed over to snow during the Friday morning commute in downtown Duluth, causing havoc for drivers trying to navigate the avenues.
Inside the Hampton Inn Duluth in Canal Park, Friday breakfast guests ate peacefully as waves crashed furiously outside, covering the Lakewalk for as far as the eye could see in floodwater, and spraying droplets against the hotel windows.
“I knew Lake Superior could get ugly, but not like this,” said Minneapolis resident Brad McConkie, visiting Duluth with his wife, Eileen, for their anniversary - “if we even make it to Lutsen,” he added.
Guests at the Hampton Inn reported being awakened by the crashing sound of waves as early as 2 a.m., and observing a lake assault that went on for hours and long into the morning.
The waves came in long and tall rows, hunting one another to the shoreline. The snow was wet and heavy and came fast on the wind. Floodwaters pooled along streets and in parking lots in Canal Park.
Alrea Siler, a kitchen employee at Hampton Inn since 2004, marveled alongside with the guests.
“I’ve never see that happen before. I’ve never seen rocks blown around like that,” said Siler, noting the riprap and other rocks, logs and debris strewn about hotel lawns by the waves.
Across the Aerial Lift Bridge, snow blew in the face of one homeowner as he fought to shovel the flooded storm sewer drain clear of debris in front of his house - while the backyard continued to cough up large chunks of itself to the raking storm.
“My fence is totally gone,” 70-year-old Gale Kerns said. “There used to be a 6-foot dune here. There used to be a garden here. There used to be a yard. It’s the worst storm since the Socrates in the fall of 1985.”
The freighter Socrates grounded on Park Point in that historic November storm. Friday’s storm didn’t wait for November’s gales - coming inauspiciously on a weekday in October, even before the anniversary of the memorable arrival of the Halloween blizzard of 1991.
The waves eroded the Park Point beaches - which already had been diminished in size by the high lake levels. As of Oct. 1 the big lake was more than 11 inches above its average level, and more than 4 inches above the level seen a year ago.
At the 12th Street Beach, the water completely covered the beach and reached the edge of the grassy dunes in places.
Duluth’s shoreline takes a beating
City parks crews will have plenty to work through this weekend as the storm clears and the damage becomes easier to assess.
“There’s some damage we haven’t experienced in some areas before,” said Robert Dunsmore, the city’s lead parks maintenance worker. “This ranks in the top 10 of the nearly 23 years I’ve been here.”
Sections of Lakewalk boardwalk were dislodged and tossed about by the waves, and much of the path was covered by rocks and other debris. The city closed the Lakewalk from Endion Station to and including the Portland Malt Shoppe stairway until further notice because of the damage, and there were barriers up because of additional damage near 16th Avenue East.
Crews will continue working to clear the Lakewalk today, reopening areas to the public once they’re cleared and safe.
Meanwhile, waves severely damaged a section of Brighton Beach Road in Kitchi Gammi Park. The waves pushed rocks and tree trunks on top of the road, and several large sections of pavement were broken. In some places, the soil under the road had been washed away by the waves, causing the road above it to collapse.
Two city utility workers, Chris Olsen and Bryan Hemming, had driven down around midday to see how the culverts were doing, but found the road impassable, so they called the street department to come close it - which they did; the park remains closed to vehicles and pedestrians until further notice, the city announced Friday.
“The culverts look like they are pretty solid,” Olsen said. “They are probably just dirty, and we’ll have to clean out the ditches, but this road - I don’t know when they are going to get around to fixing that.”
The road sustained extensive damage after the flood in June 2012, when 10 inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours. The culverts and road surface were replaced after that storm.
“We’ve got a motto: ‘We’ll be back,’” Olsen said. “It looks like we’ll be back again.”
Hemming said the large rocks along the shore are supposed to help prevent erosion and protect the shore from the waves, but Lake Superior is particularly high this year.
“It’s supposed to help prevent this, but when the lake is as high as it is now, that’s when you get problems,” Hemming said.
“The water goes right over it,” Olsen said of the rocks.
City officials on Friday night issued a “water conservation request” for Duluth residents through early this morning because of weather-related problems at the Lakewood Water Treatment Plant.
“With the high levels of the lake, the water treatment plant is not able to properly treat the intake of water due to excessive inflow of sediment with current lake conditions,” the city reported, in asking residents to limit water usage.
Damage at Glensheen
Glensheen Mansion saw $10,000 worth of locally made Loll Design lawn furniture washed into the lake, as the Tischer Creek pulsed through the grounds with each oncoming wave - breaking off fist-sized and larger chunks from stone walls built along the shoreline. The already deteriorating Glensheen boathouse lost a protective door panel to the onslaught, drawing waves into the protruding facility.
“We’ll wait for the storm to calm down and then bring in the facilities folks from UMD for emergency repairs, so we don’t have wave action inside as well as outside the building,” said Glensheen director Dan Hartman, of the University of Minnesota Duluth, which owns the historic home-tour attraction on London Road.
The storm wreaked havoc around the Duluth-Superior Harbor, too. WDIO-TV reported that AMI Consulting Engineers’ marina on Connors Point in Superior suffered major damage; company president Chad Scott told WDIO that water levels were 4 to 5 feet higher than normal.
Surfers catch big waves
A few hundred feet west of Brighton Beach, a group of six surfers was taking advantage of the waves near the mouth of the Lester River.
“This is the best big day I’ve seen,” said Cole Grotting, 20, a junior at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He’s been surfing for two years.
His friend, Josh Huninghake, 20, had been watching the forecast since Tuesday and drove up from the Twin Cities to surf.
“It’s only a two-hour drive. It’s definitely worth it,” said Huninghake, a junior at the University of Minnesota.
The two agreed their 5-millimeter-thick wetsuits were “surprisingly warm.” The wetsuits use body heat to warm a layer of water around their bodies.
“I mean, how can you beat this?” Huninghake said. “It’s a freshwater lake, and you’re surfing like it’s the ocean.”
Road conditions devolved throughout the morning commute to near-impassable in parts of Duluth. Uphill routes such as U.S. Highway 53 / Piedmont Avenue in Lincoln Park were clogged with slow-moving lines of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Downtown avenues picked up a coating of snow and ice, and cars were stalled at angles heading down Lake Avenue - not necessarily crashed, but with the drivers not sure how to proceed.
Even the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile - in town for some events this weekend - was caught amid the chaos, first struggling to climb Lake Avenue and later spotted parked on a nearby street.
As snow accumulated throughout downtown and eastern Duluth, it covered road signs and weighed down tree branches. Parked vehicles were coated in snow. The city's population transitioned immediately into winter mode, shoveling and plowing their sidewalks and driveways - an activity that included Jaimie Nere and her daughter Evelyn, 3.
Nere put an adult shovel to work outside her home along 40th Avenue East next to Duluth East High School. Evelyn followed suit with a plastic beach shovel.
“She's loving it,” Nere said. “We moved here from South Carolina in May. She's got grandparents in the Twin Cities, so she's seen snow at Christmas before. But this is the first time she'll remember it.”
“I like it,” said the shoveling toddler whose father took a job at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, bringing the family to the Northland.
Elsewhere, some people took to the weather as if nothing ever changes. A men's running group climbed Lake Avenue in single file over the freeway bridge to Canal Park. Bus stops were either empty or full, as the Duluth Transit Authority reduced service to main roads only for a spell late in the morning while the accumulated snow served to hamstring avenues and side streets. One man wore a sheepskin coat at a bus stop - with khaki shorts.
Other people biked, and one couple walked their dogs. One man on East First Street downtown wore a protest placard as he stepped into the driving snow.
Several thousand homes and businesses lost power during the storm Friday; Minnesota Power reported close to 6,800 customers without power at the peak of the storm, and several thousand Lake County Power customers also lost service.
Line crews worked through the wicked conditions, however, and the number of outages for those two utilities had dropped to fewer than 400 as of Friday evening.
The Minnesota State Patrol reported that, as of Friday afternoon, it had responded to 21 property damage crashes, eight crashes with injuries and 75 vehicles off the road along state highways in the Duluth District. Crash statistics from the Duluth Police Department were not available Friday night.
Flooding in NW Wisconsin
In Northwestern Wisconsin, Lake Superior waves crashed across U.S. Highway 2 along Chequamegon Bay west of Ashland, causing impassable flooding early Friday. The major highway remained closed Friday evening.
The Quality Inn, situated on the lakefront just west of Ashland, was left isolated due to the highway’s closure.
“There are high winds, lots of water coming off the lake,” said Zach Weber, who made it through the weather earlier Friday morning to staff the hotel’s front desk.
Weber said the inn was dealing with some water issues, but was fortunate that business was slow when the storm hit.
“It’s quiet; it feels like a snow day,” he said. “It’s kind of awesome.”
Meanwhile at Madeline Island, strong winds pushed water into La Pointe, causing flooding in the town. The wind kicked up on Thursday night, continuing into Friday, said La Pointe town administrator Lisa Potswald.
“It’s been blowing really, really good. Lots of trees down, and our guys have been running to collect them as they can and get them out of the way,” Potswald said on Friday afternoon, as the precipitation there had remained as rain to that point.
Ferries to Madeline Island weren’t running on Friday because of the wind. Main Street near Joni’s Beach had about 7 to 8 inches of water pushed onto the street by waves, Potswald said, and the “significant waves” had also compromised a few roads near the shoreline, including Big Bay Road. Although no roads were closed in La Pointe, warning signs were posted, and town staff was keeping an eye on the situation, she said. With the large waves still coming into shore on Friday, it was still unknown how many private docks along the island’s shoreline had been damaged in the storm, she said.
“What happens when we get a really big Northeaster like this, it blows down into the bay area, by Ashland and Washburn and Bayfield, and then it just bounces off the shore so it’s bouncing back this way. It’ll keep bouncing now for a couple of days back between the mainland shore and our shore,” Potswald said.
Brooks Johnson, Lisa Kaczke, Tom Olsen and Andrew Krueger of the News Tribune staff, and Jimmy Lovrien of the Eastern Observer, contributed to this report.