Thousands lose power as storm rolls across Northland

Minnesota Power started to see storm-related power outages even before its customers' calls began rolling in late Monday. "We get an email when a feeder locks out," said John Muehlbauer, a Minnesota Power line operations superintendent. "We can't...

Lightning appears to strike the Aerial Lift Bridge early Tuesday morning but more likely struck Lake Superior beyond the bridge where a flash is visible on the water. Lift bridge personnel reported no lightning strike to the structure and no issue with power outages as has occurred in the past with lightning strokes. Photo by Cary Schmies

Minnesota Power started to see storm-related power outages even before its customers’ calls began rolling in late Monday.
“We get an email when a feeder locks out,” said John Muehlbauer, a Minnesota Power line operations superintendent. “We can’t tell why it’s out, but we had a good indication last night. Crews are out sometimes even before a customer calls us.”
Crews from Minnesota Power and the Grand Rapids-based Lake Country Power worked around the clock Tuesday restoring service to the area.
Power was back throughout any dark areas of Duluth by mid-afternoon Tuesday, allowing Muehlbauer to send additional crews to Eveleth, one of the hardest-hit areas.
A Minnesota Power spokesperson said power was scheduled to be restored throughout its 26,000-square-mile coverage area by midnight Tuesday.
Lake Country spokeswoman Tami Zaun said crews restored service to 9,500 members by 9 p.m. Tuesday, with an additional 6,000 remaining without power. The hope, she said, was that everyone in its 11,000-square-mile, mostly rural, customer area would have power restored by morning.
Heavy winds - some of which were straight-line winds up to 70 mph - knocked trees and limbs onto power lines and across roadways. Crews were replacing broken poles and repairing broken lines, Zaun said.
Trees across roadways were among the hazards that played havoc with rural crews especially. Lake Country was working in concert with tree removal services and other contractors.
“We’ve had to physically remove trees and debris from the roadways before we could make repairs,” Zaun said. “We’ve had office personnel running materials into the field. It’s a coordinated effort.”
High winds from 50-70 mph were reported by the National Weather Service from the North Dakota border across northern Minnesota and into northern Wisconsin.
More than 4 inches of rain fell in Baudette overnight and over an inch in International Falls, likely spurring additional challenges along the already flooded border waters.
 “The storm was unique in that it stretched through and touched our entire service territory,” Minnesota Power’s Amy Rutledge said, noting that all directional quadrants of the company’s 26,000 square miles, from International Falls to Sandstone, and Brainerd to Duluth, were affected  by thunderstorms and winds.
At the peak of the outages, Minnesota Power reported more than 10,000 customers without power in the region, including about 2,500 customers in the Duluth Heights area, more than 800 customers in Lakewood Township and nearby areas northeast of Duluth, about 3,000 customers in and near Eveleth, and another 1,800 in Nisswa.
At 10:30 a.m. Monday, there were about 120 outages affecting more than 4,000 customers across the Minnesota Power service area. By midday, 670 were still out of power in the Eveleth-Gilbert area, and 1,800 customers were without power in the vicinity of Nisswa.
Rutledge said the saturated ground, still soft from a summer ripe with rain, caused several large trees to topple from outside of cleared right of ways, causing the utility damage and disruptions.
“Some really large jack pines, spruces and poplar trees,” Muehlbauer said. “They were away from the right of ways, but they caught the wind above the other trees and, with the saturated soils, they came down.”
Muehlbauer said Minnesota Power worked in concert with local authorities, who were flagging drivers. Downed power lines were first priority for the safety hazard they present, followed by large feeder lines, with crews then working their ways into residential streets and alleys.
In Duluth, a special department that operates until midnight started the work, while in the greater area on-call workers were the first responders.
“It’s amazing the work they did,” said Muehlbauer, who reported no injuries during the effort. “We rarely get an injury in a situation like this because everybody is so heightened and watching out for themselves and their co-workers.”
The Weather Service reported widespread damage across the region early Tuesday, with many trees fallen on vehicles and buildings, boats overturned at their docks, and of winds destroying several hangars and an aircraft at the Eveleth-Virginia airport when the storm blew through about 1 a.m.
The storm caused trees to tip over, uprooted, and to snap off halfway up, indicating powerful wind bursts.
An estimated 200 trees were damaged at a golf course outside International Falls, the Weather Service reported, and took a roof off a house near Pelland Junction, an area hard hit by flooding rivers last month.
Floodwood saw several trees fall on homes and garages, one city official reported. The Grocery Store also saw its roof damaged by falling tree debris.
Dozens of trees were reported down across Highway 1 between Ely and Isabella as well as across the Gunflint Trail.
The Weather Service reported that winds damaged several hangars and an aircraft at the Eveleth-Virginia airport when the storm blew through about 1 a.m.
“This storm raked across our service territory rather quickly and then subsided about 3 a.m.,” Muehlbauer said.

John Myers of the News Tribune contributed to this report.

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