Imagine a giant bucket of water that's already full, with the water at its second-highest fall level since accurate records have been kept. Now blow a 60 mph wind across the bucket from the northeast and watch the water overflow on the southwest side.
That's what happened to Lake Superior on Friday as it pummeled the Duluth waterfront and spilled into the harbor, reversing the flow of the St. Louis River.
Situated on a narrow sand spit, essentially a skinny island, Park Point residents are used to being surrounded by water. But this year their little island is getting smaller than ever. Last week's storm just made the problem worse, pushing the lake up onto the land, rearranging huge rocks and giant timbers and trees, cutting into sand dunes and washing them out in some places, then depositing the sand in new places.
"We lost another 10 or 20 feet of sand beach," said Val Ouellette. She and her husband, Bob, live in the first house south of the Duluth ship canal, on the lake side. Waves inundated the ever-smaller beach, piled over a retaining wall and rocked their garden shed off its footings.
"There was another 100 feet of sand out there back in the '70s and maybe '80s," Bob said, pointing to a spot where only about 10 feet of sand remained between a retaining wall and Lake Superior. "It's almost all gone now."
The Ouellettes wondered aloud if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or city could add underwater rock buffers to save more beach. But they said their calls for help have gone mostly unreturned.
On Friday, storm surge pushed water from the ship canal itself, rolling across a small grass park and into the Ouellettes' basement.
"There was six inches of water in the basement despite having two sump pumps. They couldn't keep up," Bob said. He managed to turn the furnace and hot water heater off before any damage occurred inside. "But just about everybody on Park Point has had water in their basement this year."
"We've been here 40 years and this is the worst we've seen," Bob Ouellette said of the storm.
With water levels so high, now every storm takes part of the beach, floods more of Park Point.
"It used to be fun to sit looking out at the lake by the fireplace a watch a storm,'' he said. "But not anymore."
At the height of the storm several yards were inundated, especially on the harbor side where for months there has been little space between the top of the water and the edge of land.
Brian and Mary Grover, who own Solglimt Bed & Breakfast just down the beach from the ship canal, lost a stairway down to the beach due to wave action. But an even more insidious problem is the erosion of sand. The beach is disappearing as the lake rises and eats more sand away. Sharply cut banks now mark the beach where rolling dunes once sat.
"We've had worse storms. I think the Socrates storm (November 1985) was worse," Brian Grover said, noting they have been at this location since 1978. "But this one moved a lot of sand."
The northeast wind had a 300-mile fetch to roil the lake, with nothing to slow it from Marathon, Ontario, until it hit Duluth.
Walt Pietrowski, who has lived on Park Point for 42 years, said the wind was unrelenting. It left piles of driftwood and other debris up and down the beach that's now strewn with parts of trees, old lumber, garbage and weeds.
"I thought the house was going to blow away," he said. "It was like a hurricane. It wasn't gusts, just a howling, constant wind."
Apostle Islands battered by storms
Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore near Bayfield, said park staff have had no way to assess damage on many of the islands. He suspects some northeast shoreline campsites and docks may have been wiped out.
"Almost all of our boats are out of the water for the season and it just hasn't been safe to go out. We're hoping to get an airplane out and maybe see what happened," he said Monday.
On the mainland part of the park, Krumenaker said there's damage to the Little Sand Bay Marina dock where repairs were underway from a storm in 2015.
"There are 12-by-12 timbers and boulders missing, just gone," Krumenaker said. "This was the worst storm I've seen in the 15 years I've been here."
The storm also damaged the Park Service boat dock rented at Roys Point Marina.
"And the stairs at Myers Beach that used to go down to the beach: They now just drop off into the lake. There's no beach any more, so obviously we'll have to close those," Krumenaker said of what had been at least 15 feet of sand beach before the storm.
McQuade harbor damage
Thursday night's storm also did some extensive damage to the breakwall at the McQuade Small Craft Harbor where McQuade Road meets Lake Superior northeast of Duluth. The breakwall itself withstood the storm's pounding, but waves that overtopped it washed out three 8-foot sections of the sidewalk atop the breakwall, said Kevin Johnson, parks and trails area manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Two Harbors.
"I'm glad it was just three sections and not worse," Johnson said.
The area is closed off to pedestrian traffic now, but the harbor itself was undamaged and remains open to boaters, Johnson said.
The breakwall rises about 15 feet above lake level, Johnson said. Engineers with the DNR will assess the sidewalk damage soon, but Johnson isn't sure whether repairs to the sidewalk would be made this fall or next spring.
"We're losing our window for construction," Johnson said.
Officials at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western Upper Peninsula reported that some campsites at the park's Union Bay Campground were covered with rocks and other debris tossed ashore by Lake Superior waves during two storms last week, including the Friday event.
The lower loop of the campground, along the lakeshore, has been closed until further notice.
- Sam Cook of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.