Power restoration efforts continue as Northland digs out following winter storm
Utilities warn of multi-day effort to restore electricity to thousands of customers.
DULUTH — As Northland residents continue to dig their way out from under a monumental winter storm, workers at Duluth-area utilities are working around the clock to restore power to thousands of people in Northeastern Minnesota.
Minnesota Power, which serves Duluth itself, among other portions of the state, is working to restore power to about 4,200 of the company’s customers as of Friday afternoon. Lake Country Power, which serves large tracts of Northeastern Minnesota, reported that about 7,800 members were without power .
Representatives from both utilities said restoration efforts will last into the weekend and suggested that affected customers consider finding another place to stay until their electric service resumes.
“We will be pushing into Sunday evening, trailing into Monday morning,” Josh Goutermont, Minnesota Power’s director of grid operations, told reporters at a press conference Friday afternoon. “That is our best estimate at this time.”
Tami Zaun, a spokesperson for Lake Country, said the utility expects repairs will last into the weekend, but wasn’t sure how far.
“More than likely Sunday,” she said.
Both utilities have asked for and received help from their counterparts in the region, approximately doubling the number of workers repairing power lines and removing downed trees and branches.
“This is the worst winter storm we have faced in terms of the number of outages and trouble reports,” Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Power’s vice president of transmission and distribution, said Friday.
Wet accumulated snow can strain or damage power lines by itself. If it slips off those lines, it can cause them to “gallop” and damage one another. But the biggest problem, according to utility staff, is snow-laden trees that lose branches or fall over entirely and damage cables or other infrastructure.
“That’s posed a big challenge for us,” Goutermont said. “We have a very robust vegetation management process and we do a lot of clearing, but we can only clear back so far…These trees affecting us are outside of the scope of what we would normally clear.”
Unlike large, singular outages that may require only a single fix, these outages were small and scattered, requiring hundreds of fixes. Minnesota Power had more than 100 lines down at one point on Thursday, according to Amy Rutledge, a Minnesota Power spokesperson. And as more trees were weighed down by heavy, wet snow, more lines were snapping.
Lake County Power officials noted that after line crews work 16 hours straight, they would be sent home overnight for safety reasons. The began working Friday morning after a mandatory eight-hour rest. Standby and emergency crews remained working through the night.
It’s been less hectic across the bay in Superior, where Superior Water, Light & Power, owned by the same parent company as Minnesota Power, reported that only five of the company’s approximately 15,000 customers were without power as of Friday afternoon. That’s down from a peak of about 4,000 in the wee hours of Thursday, according to Harper Brickson, the company’s manager of customer experience, who said the company wasn’t impacted as harshly because Superior is less rural and SWL&P crews could respond more quickly to outages.
Moose Lake school offers short-term refuge
Helping in a different way are volunteers at Moose Lake Community School about 45 minutes south of Duluth. Despite being closed alongside dozens of other Northland schools, staff there have opened the school to residents without electrical service.
Superintendent Billie Jo Steen, who herself lost power at her home, said the idea struck her while she was shoveling snow on Thursday morning and considered heading to the school to warm up and make herself a cup of coffee.
“And I thought, well, we have a warm building that’s empty right now. Let’s just open it up to the community.”
The school isn’t open overnight, but has been available during the day. Residents can head there to use the school’s showers, fill up jugs of water, charge their phones, use the school’s wifi, and so on.
Steen estimated that at least 100 people have done so on Friday and about 50 the day before.
The school is set to be open Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and may be open Sunday, Dec. 18, as well, depending on the pace at which power is restored.
Waiting for the power to return
Blythe Thomas, who lives on Lawrence Road in Cloquet’s Hilltop neighborhood, said her home had been without power for most of Thursday and part of Friday. Thomas said she and her family woke up to a cold house around 3:45 a.m. Thursday. She spent most of Thursday snuggled under blankets with her 4- and 8-year-old daughters, playing games and trying to keep warm.
“Every time we would check the power company outage app, it kept pushing the times back and back for when we would have power back, then it just started saying, ‘Due to technical difficulties we can’t update this and we don’t know when you’ll have power,’ basically,” Thomas said. “When I was at my wit’s end, essentially, with being cold, I saw a Minnesota Power truck go by, and I was just like, oh thank you! Now I at least know that there’s something happening.”
She purchased a propane space heater from L&M Fleet Supply in Cloquet, which had a stock of heaters and generators available. Thomas said her neighborhood has several other families with young children in it, and she saw many of them were also at home Thursday with no power.
The Thomas’s power was restored around 6:30 p.m. Thursday, but went out again around 1 a.m. Friday. While at work Friday morning, Thomas heard from her parents who live nearby that their power came back on around 10 a.m. Friday, so she hoped that meant her home also had its power restored.
“It wasn’t terrible, it was just frustrating because a big reason I don’t live out in the country is because I hate to not have power,” Thomas said. “It’s been one of the longest times that we have been without power living up in that area.”
Sheila Scheuer, a Minnesota Power customer who lives on the north edge of Cloquet, was without power at her home for almost exactly 24 hours. She said her lights began flickering on and off Wednesday evening before power was completely lost Thursday around 10 a.m. Her power was restored at about 10:30 a.m. Friday.
“We ended up going into town yesterday evening because a lot of Cloquet had power and we had dinner there,” Scheuer said. “We actually ran into some of our neighbors at dinner. It was like, nobody could eat at home so everybody was out.”
Scheuer said she felt fortunate her family’s home stayed relatively warm. She and her husband entertained their children, ages 3 and 5, by playing board games and cards and playing outside in the snow until it got dark.
“This is probably the first time that my kids have been old enough to realize that the power was out and understand that we can’t do all of the normal things that we do. It was kind of interesting to see how they were affected by it — definitely not in a positive way,” she laughed.
Thick snow slows plowing
The heavy, wet snow proved to be a unique challenge for plow drivers, who were putting in 14-16-hour shifts Wednesday and Thursday, said Gordy Halverson, highway superintendent in southern St. Louis County.
“The temperatures that were right around 31-32 degrees made everything very slippery, so you had the weight of the snow with very little traction underneath,” he said. “I've been doing this quite a while and this particular combination I haven't really seen before. We’ve had a lot of snow, we’ve had warm, but to have two separate events — we got through one right into the next one 8-10 hours later — it was a bit unique.”
Halverson said crews weren’t quite able to complete all their routes before the second round hit. But drivers were able to make at least one pass through nearly all county roads by Thursday night.
As lighter snow continued Friday, Halverson indicated crews would be working to push back snowbanks and proceed to road associations and private driveway contracts.
“We’re actually doing better than I expected from (Thursday) morning,” he said.
At least a handful of plowing complaints were directed to the Duluth City Council by Friday afternoon, and officials provided a statement on their efforts to clear streets.
“The two-day snow total is the fourth largest in Duluth history, made even more difficult by the moisture content of this thick, heavy, slushy snow, and crews have done incredible work despite that challenge,” said the statement from spokeswoman Kelli Latuska. “Crews have been out in full force around the clock this week keeping routes to hospitals and main thoroughfares passable for fire trucks, ambulances, the public, etc.”
The city attempts to clear main arterial routes within 36 hours, residential streets in 48 hours and alleys within 56 hours of snow ending.
“Once the second storm arrived on Thursday, with snowfall rates over 1 inch per hour, they had to reset and return to the main roads to ensure access for public safety teams and those needing to reach hospitals,” she wrote. “Once that storm ended (Thursday) late in the morning, crews were then able to return to plowing through the priority routes found in the policy. As that work progresses, they'll continue plowing roads following the (city’s) snow and ice policy.”
The National Weather Service in Duluth issued a winter weather advisory until 8 a.m. Saturday for an area including Carlton County, southern St. Louis County, the North Shore and Cook and Lake counties for additional snow accumulations.
Most of the Northland was expected to see only light accumulation of an inch or so, though several areas in the Northland saw localized snow squalls and areas of brief intensity and low visibilities.
Friday's snow comes on top of the widespread 15 to 29 inches of snow that fell Wednesday and Thursday, with plow drivers still working to clear roads. So many roads remained unplowed that many school districts, including Duluth, opted to cancel for a third straight day Friday, while others are starting classes later. Finland topped the list with 29 inches while the 22.7 inches at the Weather Service office was the eighth largest two-day snowstorm on record.
It might be a good idea to move any plow-wash or snowbanks sooner rather than later: A major blast of Arctic air is headed our way with below-zero high temperatures forecast by Wednesday.
Unofficial storm snowfall totals
- 28.2 inches — 7 miles northwest of Two Harbors
- 28 inches — Beaver Bay
- 24.2 inches — National Weather Service office in Duluth
- 23.5 inches — University of Minnesota Duluth
- 23.5 inches — Brimson
- 23 inches — 5 miles northeast of Rice Lake
- 22.6 inches — Silver Bay
- 21 inches — Lutsen
- 20.9 inches — Wrenshall
- 20.9 inches — Solon Springs
- 20 inches — Chisholm
- 19.8 inches — Proctor
- 19.6 inches — Red Cliff
- 19.5 inches — South Range
- 19.5 inches — Twig
- 19.4 inches — Hibbing
- 18.8 inches — Lester Park
- 17.9 inches — Cohasset
- 17.5 inches — Island Lake
- 16.5 inches — 12 miles north of Grand Rapids
- 16.3 inches — Sawbill Lake
- 16.1 inches — Grant Marais
- 15.8 inches — Cook
- 15.5 inches — Floodwood
- 14.8 inches — Biwabik
- 14.3 inches — Ely
- 13.6 inches — Cloquet
- 12.7 inches — Ball Club
- 10.5 inches — Herbster
- 10.4 inches — International Falls
- 11.5 inches — Bovey
- 10.5 inches — Ashland
- 8.5 inches — Superior
- 4.5 inches — Park Point
News Tribune reporters Tom Olsen, Jimmy Lovrien and Laura Butterbrodt contributed to this story.
This story was updated several times with updated snowfall totals and updates on plowing and power restoration efforts, most recently at 6:10 p.m. Dec. 16. It was originally posted at 7:49 a.m. Dec. 16.