Violent thunderstorms roared through parts of the Northland with hurricane-force winds early Thursday, downing trees and power lines and damaging homes and cars on a scale that left many residents stunned.
“That was the scariest storm,” said Mary Fisher of Duluth, who heard the pines snapping outside her Congdon Park home as the storms rolled through at about 3:30 a.m., but could not see what was happening in the darkness. “It was like ‘War of the Worlds.’ ”
At first light, the scope of the damage became clear in the hardest-hit areas, where the sound of chainsaws soon echoed on the humid morning as the cleanup got underway.
The storms, which caused two fatalities in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, left more than 75,000 customers without power in the Northland. Utility crews faced a daunting task of working their way through a mess of broken poles, downed lines and fallen trees to restore power. Minnesota Power reported that it may be three to four days before electricity is restored to all Duluth residents.
City and county crews were kept busy, too, along with tree service businesses and homeowners.
“It’s like a snowstorm. We clear the main drags first and then work our way down. All we can do is clear the road right of way and clean up and move on. We don’t have time to help people open up their driveways," said Doug Rosas, who was working a chainsaw for the city of Duluth. “We’ve been at it since 5 a.m. We’ll eventually get to the side streets and the alleys, but it’s going to take a long time.”
Most main streets in Duluth and vicinity appeared passable by mid-morning but many side streets, avenues, alleys and driveways remained blocked until later in the day - if they were able to be cleared at all by nightfall.
The straight-line winds reportedly reached 100 mph in some parts of the region, leaving a wide swath of damage from Leech Lake east to the Twin Ports, and continuing into Northwestern Wisconsin. Areas on the north and east side of Duluth, along with the city of Rice Lake and Lakewood Township, were particularly hard-hit.
Mimi Larson, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, found three trees had fallen in her yard along Greysolon Road in Duluth - one onto her son's car.
"I've lived here 30 years and don't remember a storm like that one," she said. "The lightning was right on top of us and the winds were amazing."
The trees were bending so hard, Larson left her upstairs bedroom for cover in a lower floor.
"We got a little sense of what they experience in Tornado Alley," she said.
A weather station on top of the St. Louis County Government Services Center in downtown Duluth clocked wind gusts in excess of 100 mph, the county reported. Dan Miller, science and operations leader at the National Weather Service in Duluth, said damage he observed indicated winds as strong as 90 mph.
The highest official gust was 69 mph at Duluth International Airport and 72 mph was reported by a ship on Lake Superior. The Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge reported winds over 70 knots, or more than 80 mph.
The downed trees and power lines prompted city and county officials to advise no unnecessary travel for much of the day Thursday. Later in the day, cooling centers were set up in a number of communities, including at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, to help residents without power who were sweltering without fans or air-conditioning as temperatures climbed into the upper 80s and low 90s.
As of 1 p.m., Minnesota Power, Lake Country Power and Xcel Energy reported a combined total of more than 75,000 customers without power across the region; that number was down to about 54,000 by 8 p.m.
Minnesota Power estimated that a third of the Duluth’s 65,000 customers were without power at one point Thursday morning - the worst storm to affect the city’s electrical grid in 15 years, since the April 2001 ice storm. The utility was using helicopters in addition to ground crews to assess the damage.
About 100 power poles were damaged by the storm and will need to be replaced, Minnesota Power reported, in addition to many more downed lines.
With the extent of the damage, the utility was predicting multi-day outages for some customers.
“Outside of Duluth, we’re hoping to get power back in the next 24 hours,” Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge said Thursday afternoon. “In the city, for some it’s looking like three to four days.”
Minnesota Power had 40 lineworkers out working on repairs Thursday in the city of Duluth. They’ll be joined by 90 more Friday- some from as far away as Missouri.
Rutledge said people should stay away from power lines because as crews work to restore the system, lines that aren’t energized could go live.
Outside of Duluth, “this could be long haul, a couple days, maybe longer,” said Tami Zaun, a spokeswoman for Lake Country Power. “We’re working quickly and safely as we can.”
“It is a tangled mess out there,” Zaun said. “We’ve had a lot of storms this summer but last night was by far the worst and most widespread.”
The outages affected the Duluth antenna farm, knocking most Duluth TV and radio station off the air for varying lengths of time.
Power also was out at the city’s main Lakewood water pumping station for much of the day, which meant no new water was being pumped into the city’s massive reservoir and water tower system. Duluth city officials on Thursday had asked all residents to conserve water as much as possible; power was restored to the pumping station by Thursday night.
Assessing the damage
It was an eerie scene in downtown Duluth at dawn, with trees down in the Civic Center and several traffic signals blown over - but still alternating green, yellow, red from their prone position.
Over the hill, the canopy of the Holiday gas station at the corner of Rice Lake and Arrowhead roads was partly torn apart by the winds.
And in neighborhoods around the city, residents assessed the damage. Mary Fisher, the Congdon Park neighborhood who had said the storm was like “The War of the Worlds,” lost four large trees during the storm, from her front yard and the boulevard in front of her house on the 3000 block of East First Street. But none of them hit a 1982 Toyota Celica collector car parked out front, belonging to her 16-year-old son. The car was sandwiched in between downed branches.
“Look at that,” she marveled Thursday morning. “Nothing fell on it.”
That block of First Street had trees blocking passage in two different locations. Andrea Black, who lives on the block, said all three of her kids slept through the storm, and Thursday was “a gratitude day.”
On their block, “no cars were damaged, and no one got hurt,” she said.
Bill Harlander, who lives on 55th Avenue East, spent Thursday morning working to remove an uprooted 60- to 70-foot tall Colorado blue spruce from his deck. The same tree also yanked out the electrical service to his home.
“I heard kind of a groan when it pulled the power out of our house. ”It made me sit up in bed,” he said.
Harlander, who has lived in Lester Park for more than 40 years, said the storm was the most violent one he could recall striking his neighborhood.
"Holy moly," gasped Woodland neighborhood resident Rachel Barbot, surveying tree damage at her home Thursday morning. "A lot less privacy from the neighbors now."
She had just returned from an overnight shift at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center, where she works on the obstetrics floor.
"It was busy," Barbot said. "When the pressure changed with the storm, a lot of women went into labor."
In the Kenwood neighborhood, Chuck Richards said the storm woke his family up and they were closing windows downstairs when they heard a big crash. A giant black walnut tree had uprooted and toppled onto, or more like into, their home.
“It went through the roof about two feet from where I sleep,’’ Richards said. He was the first victim of the storm to call Rick’s Tree Service “at about 5 a.m.” and was among the first to have a crew working to remove the tree by 8 a.m.
Elias Trigas and his family along Arrowhead Road were awakened by the noise of storm's powerful winds. They were in the basement when a large ash tree fell across their driveway, blocking access to the street. Trigas was busy with a chainsaw at 7 a.m. to clear the way so he and his wife could get to work.
“The storm was just on top of us like that. We got downstairs as fast as we could. It was pretty intense there for a few minutes. ... What a mess,” he said. “I wish I would have got the new chain on here when I could have.”
Kathy Gagnon, manager of Acme Tools in West Duluth, said three customers were waiting in the parking lot at 6:45 a.m. for the store to open. Chainsaws and generators were in high demand throughout the day.
“We’ve been extremely busy,” she said.
With generators running in short supply, Gagnon said a truckload from a sister store in Plymouth was en route to restock the inventory in Duluth by mid-morning Thursday.
“We have to take care of our customers,” she said.
Why no sirens?
Duluth’s storm sirens didn’t go off as the storms hit, prompting some questions from residents.
The sirens generally don’t go off for severe thunderstorm warnings, said David Montgomery, Duluth’s chief administrative officer. The sirens are sounded for tornado warnings.
In any case, Duluth Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said the wind damaged the city’s operational tower that would have transmitted the warning to the siren.
“The sirens were actually impacted by the storm as well,” Krizaj said.
Duluth put out an alert through its CodeRED alert system, an opt-in system for residents.
At this point, the city isn’t planning to apply for financial disaster relief and is still in the process of assessing the damage. City facilities are relatively intact, Montgomery said. Mayor Emily Larson was out of town Thursday on a previously scheduled trip
The city is in the process of assessing what is needed for cleanup. Typically, tree debris is brought to Western Lake Superior Sanitary District facilities, but the magnitude of the debris in the city means a different option is needed - and the city plans to provide information to residents on that in the coming days, Montgomery said.
“We ask that everybody be careful over the next couple of days as the cleanup continues. … Stay away from any downed power lines. Assume that they’re live. Be careful (while) clearing trees,” he said. “Be patient. We’re working hard. City crews, county crews, Minnesota Power are throwing all our resources at cleaning this up and getting the city safe once again for everybody.”
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said no serious injuries or fatalities were reported in the county from the storms - the second time in two weeks the county has endured severe thunderstorms without any serious injuries.
“That truly is a miracle,” he said.
Litman urged residents to stay off roads Thursday night unless “absolutely necessary” because of potential safety hazards associated with downed trees and power lines.
Authorities also reminded drivers that when traffic signals are out, intersections should be treated as four-way stops.
The forecast for the Northland calls for highs near 90 degrees again Friday. Slightly cooler conditions are forecast for Saturday - but there will be a chance of thunderstorms and some could become severe, the Weather Service reported, with damaging winds, large hail and torrential rainfall possible.
John Myers, Peter Passi, Jana Hollingsworth, Brady Slater, Kier Zimmerman, Lisa Kaczke, Sam Cook and Andrew Krueger of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.