Off the grid: While utility crews work, Northland residents without power improvise, adapt

Utility crews made steady progress Friday in restoring electricity to tens of thousands of Northland homes and businesses left without power after severe storms swept across the region on Thursday.

Garret Cogswell (left) and Joe Buckley, linemen for Minnesota Power, prepare a downed power line at 52nd Avenue East and Superior Street for splicing and repair Friday morning in Duluth. Bob King /

Utility crews made steady progress Friday in restoring electricity to tens of thousands of Northland homes and businesses left without power after severe storms swept across the region on Thursday.

But thousands of other people still were immersed in an unplanned move off the grid, without electricity - and, in some cases, water as well - for a second straight sweltering day.

"I'm going crazy," said Duluth's Janet Young - her husband, Al, retired from dentistry for 19 years, within earshot at their Hunters Park home. "I literally am going crazy. I have one speed: ahead. Everything I do - vacuuming, cooking, everything - requires power."

In the Lakeside neighborhood, Dana Sterner's three daughters - ages 9, 11 and 14 - were tired of their lack of electricity, and the lack of a powered battery in their electronic devices. It's been "a little nerve-wracking" trying to ensure the girls are kept both busy - and comfortable, with temperatures near 90 - without power, Sterner said.

"It's hard to keep the three kids cool in the house and they're kind of over it at this point," she said Friday afternoon, about 36 hours after the power went out.


The storms early Thursday brought hurricane-force winds to the Twin Ports and elsewhere in the Northland, downing trees and power lines on a scale not seen in years.

Combined, the three largest power companies in the Northland - Minnesota Power, Lake Country Power and Xcel Energy - reported about 36,600 customers without electricity as of 7:30 p.m. Friday.

That was down from about 47,700 as of 8 a.m. Friday, and down from more than 75,000 at the peak of the storm aftermath on Thursday.

Minnesota Power reported Friday that it expected most customers in areas outside Duluth - including the Cloquet, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Walker and Tower areas - would have power restored by the end of the day.

But in Duluth, the damage was severe, with a number of broken poles and fallen trees still obstructing access.

"As crews are restoring service to residential customers they are discovering that the damage is more extensive than first thought," the utility reported in a news release. "Restoring power to some pockets in rural Duluth and other severely damaged neighborhoods may be extended through the weekend."

Reinforcements from Missouri - 50 lineworkers and 25 heavy trucks from the utility company Ameren - arrived Friday to help Minnesota Power crews in repairing the worst damage the utility has seen since an April 2001 ice storm.

"Power restoration in this situation is a phased approach," Minnesota Power reported. "Public safety and critical infrastructure is the first priority. Crews begin with the larger transmission lines, move to the primary distribution lines, then move into neighborhoods to repair individual services. This approach allows us to restore power to a larger number of customers as quickly as possible."


Lake Country Power also called in help from other utility companies - more than 100 lineworkers and other personnel - but said it will take into next week before all customers have power restored.

Nearly two-thirds of the cooperative's 42,000 members were affected by the storm, from Sturgeon Lake to the Canadian border, and from the Duluth area west to Leech Lake.

Life without electricity

Back in Duluth, along Hartley Road in the Hunters Park neighborhood, the first day after Thursday's severe storms had been like a picnic - everyone united in the street and helping one another make firewood out of the trees that went down.

By Friday morning, many residents had retreated to their homes or headed to work. A generator hummed and gave way to one man drawing his chainsaw across the base of a mangled tree. Up the street a woman in a summer dress raked twigs.

Janet Young sat on the boxed edge overlooking her garden. Most of the houses on the street still had hot water, but without electricity nothing was normal. Janet took to her garden, where she initially thought all her plants and vegetables had been lost from being flattened by the heavy rain.

"I thought they were broken," she said, "but they were only on their sides."

Farther east up the street, Randy Hill had put on his "Dad" cap, driving his white Chevy truck 12 hours up from Missouri to help out at his daughter and son-in-law's place. After arriving at 5 a.m., he'd already put a tarp on the corner of the roof where a tree had fallen and damaged some of the trusses.


There was sawdust everywhere as evidence of the cleanup effort, including lining the fishing boat.

"I'd use the Shop-Vac to clean it up, but we've got no electricity," he said.

Hill had also already helped a man load a generator at a local Menards, where he'd observed a pallet of freshly stocked generators.

"This is unusual," he said, "the power being out for more than 10-12 hours."

The family packed their refrigerated foods into coolers in preparation for a weekend camping trip. A getaway to the lake was a welcome stress reliever.

"As luck would have it, we're taking all the food," Hill said. "We'll just start grilling and we'll eat a lot."

In Lakeside, a friend of Dana Sterner's had power restored Friday afternoon and offered to host Sterner's three daughters at her house for the afternoon, followed by hosting the entire family for dinner.

Being without power gave Sterner perspective on daily activities that she takes for granted, she said, such as doing laundry or cooking dinner.


Thursday was spent driving around with the air conditioning going and stopping at stores such as Target just to walk around in the cool air, before playing board and card games at home. The family took advantage of the Duluth Area Family YMCA's offer of free showers on Thursday night.

"It was so helpful that they opened that up to the public," she said.

In between trying to keep the girls occupied and cool, Sterner needed to stop at home to prepare for house showings Thursday because she and her husband, Patrick, are in the process of selling the home.

"We don't want to cancel them so I'm going back and forth, going home, lighting candles and blowing the candles out so they can see each room," she said.

While waiting for the power to be restored, Sterner said Friday, they were trying to just going with the flow.

"We literally take every hour as it comes. We don't know what's going to be happening, whether it's having a house showing or we're going to have electricity. For the planner in me, it makes it pretty difficult," she said.

No power or water

Outside of the city, Kathy Anderson, who lives in the Pike Lake area, decided to give most of the food in her refrigerator away after realizing that the power probably would be out at her home for an extended period of time. She also seized the opportunity to give her fridge and freezer a good cleaning, she said Friday.


She bestowed berries and perishable meals on friends who would have them. Anderson delivered freezer pops and other cold treats to the Duluth Regional Care Center to help its clients beat the heat.

Without power to draw from her well, Anderson had taken to hauling water from other sources back home - up to eight one-gallon jugs at a time - for drinking, cleaning and flushing the toilets.

To escape the heat, Anderson and her husband were retreating to the cool of their finished basement, and they made strategic decisions about when to draw a shade or open the windows.

"I feel like we just need to deal with it and roll with the punches," Anderson said.

Dave Stolan, who lives in the Upper Woodland area of Duluth, on Vermilion Road, said he spent most of Thursday cutting up large pine trees - one on the roof and several in his yard.

He and his wife wanted to retreat to a hotel for the night with their two dogs after the storm left the house without power - and therefore also without water and use of the septic system.

"We tried to find hotel rooms in Duluth but they were all booked up," he said.

The nearest hotel he could find was in Hinckley. The location turned out to be convenient, Stolan said, because he is working on a plumbing project in Hinckley this week - making his commute 30 minutes instead of 50.


Stolan said he planned to travel as far south as Pine City today to find a generator.

"You could not find a generator anywhere (closer) ... I don't know how far people are traveling to find them," he said. "People are pretty desperate to get the power going."

Brady Slater, Peter Passi, Kim Schneider, Lisa Kaczke and Andrew Krueger of the News Tribune contributed to this report.

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