Wind gusts of 50 mph were common across the Northland on Wednesday as a strong fall storm caused power outages, swamped roads, and brought large waves and flooding along Lake Superior’s shore.
Water-swollen roads in Canal Park didn’t deter the wave-watchers from making their way to the shore, where waves crashed over the large boulder wall and the water flowed through the Lighthouse parking lot and onto Canal Park Drive.
The Canadian freighter Assiniboine, anchored in Lake Superior just off Duluth, reported winds up to 64 mph and 20-foot waves. But the highest gust reported came just after midnight Wednesday morning from the Canadian freighter Algowood, which measured a wind gust of 86 mph, well into hurricane-force range, off the Minnesota North Shore near Castle Danger, according to the National Weather Service in Duluth.
The easterly winds were blowing so hard, and pushing so much Lake Superior water into the harbor that the water level in the harbor increased 10 inches Wednesday morning, the Weather Service reported. The wind-powered water pushed up the St. Louis River and caused minor flooding as far upstream as Boy Scout Landing and the River Place Campground.
The city of Duluth advised the public to not venture to the lakeshore or into areas closed by flooding, including Brighton Beach and parts of Canal Park. Duluth officially received 1.45 inches of rain as of 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, on top of several recent days of rain. All that precipitation softened the ground enough in some areas that big trees were uprooted and fell over. Duluth has received nearly three inches of rain already in October.
The Duluth Fire Department responded to several reports of trees and limbs on power lines, some of which were sparking.
In Canal Park, Duluth resident Carl Amundson was showered by a wave as he stood on the Lakewalk, but he was dressed for it in head-to-foot camouflage rain gear. He happened to have the gear with him because he was driving to his hunting land, but he decided to stop and see the waves first. It’s not usually something he does, though.
“I’ve lived here long enough, I thought I’ve seen it all, but this is pretty nasty,” he said.
He added that it seemed like Wednesday’s storm was worse than the strong storm in October 2017 that caused major damage to the Lakewalk and Brighton Beach. He said his sister visited Brighton Beach on Wednesday morning and found that the road was already gone.
Andy Lipe was among the storm watchers in Canal Park and said he is often drawn to the lakeshore during storms. He was reliving the storms after moving back to his childhood home in the Northland last year. The best part of watching the storms is “to just see the force and the power, the wind and the waves … it’s just mind boggling,” he said. “It’s amazing, the force.”
While the amount of rain that fell on the Northland was predicted, an official at the Weather Service said what made Wednesday’s storm system strong was its wind.
“Know how people have been saying ‘the gales of November came early?’ It’s that same kind of approach,” said Greg Frosig, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth.
Frosig said winds are typically the strongest on the north and northwest side of fall storm systems, which is where Duluth found itself during this cycle. Those winds coming off of Lake Superior contributed to flooding and erosion along the shore. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday night, those wind speeds persisted, with buoys near the Apostle Islands and Duluth reporting wind speeds exceeding 35 mph.
A flood advisory is in effect in Ashland County until 11:30 p.m. Thursday. In Bayfield County, water covered Highway E, which was closed from County Highway C to U.S. Highway 63.
Additionally, the rain was expected to change to snow on Wednesday evening. Koochiching County, northern St. Louis County and northern Itasca County were under a winter weather advisory and 3-8 inches of snow were predicted to fall in those areas until 7 a.m. Thursday, according to the Weather Service. Less than an inch of snow was expected to fall south of the Iron Range.
Minnesota Power crews were working Wednesday afternoon to restore power to as many as 4,300 customers, mainly in the Duluth, Esko and Carlton areas. Lake Country Power reported that about 660 customers were without power. As of 6:30 p.m. power had been restored to about 2,000 of the Minnesota Power customers and all of Lake Country Power’s customers.
Nathan Braemer found himself with free time to watch the waves in Canal Park on Wednesday after the power went out at his workplace in Esko. He doesn’t make storm watching a habit, but he’ll stop to watch a storm if he has the opportunity, he said. But he was playing it safe by staying away from the flooded area in the lighthouse parking lot, he said, pointing out a group of people trying to make their way closer to the lake to take photos with their cellphones.
“I’m glad to live here at this time because it’s something special to see,” he said.
Despite the rising water levels, some Canal Park businesses did muscle through the inclement weather. Many of the businesses in the Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace remained open on Wednesday.
“Our basement is flooded, but the shop is still open,” said Harrison Croff, an assistant manager with Northern Waters Smokehaus. “We’ve actually had more customers than we were expecting.”
Some operations did stall for Northern Waters. The preparation room used by its delivery drivers was flooded and the area where employees smoke meats and fish was also waterlogged.
Canal Park Brewing Company had similar struggles throughout the day, pushing back some water that came into the dining area. However, the brewery also saw more customers than expected.
“It’s kind of nuts down here,” said Alec Haas, a host at the restaurant. “It’s surprisingly busy.”
Other businesses didn’t brave the weather. Grandma’s Saloon & Grill, Bellisio’s and the Sports Garden were all closed. With a flooded parking lot and adjacent businesses closed, employees at the Rocky Chocolate Factory went home early.
“There’s no damage, but we’ve just been watching it all day,” said Jackiy Klund, an assistant manager at the chocolate shop. “We saw other people starting to close business, then we decided to.”
After experiencing heavy water damage during last October’s storm, the Great Lakes Aquarium prepared for Wednesday’s rain by laying out sandbags near the loading dock. With floor drains open and vacuums at the ready, the director of operations Jay Walker said the aquarium’s crew was determined to keep rising waters away.
“This was the biggest storm I’ve seen,” said Walker. “We did have to get more sand, so we made a couple of insurance trips to Menards. One wave did get through, but we now know what the criteria is when it floods.”
News Tribune reporters Lisa Kaczke, John Myers and Jack Nissen contributed to this report.