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The cleanup begins: Homeowners trapped - Resorts facing extended closures

The remnants of a crushed SUV in the parking lot of Madden's on Gull Lake resort. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Several vehicles were damaged or hidden under all the trees and brush during Sunday night’s storm that hit the area between Brainerd International Raceway and south of Crow Wing County Road 13 in Nisswa. This vehicle was found hidden on Mission Road. (Jennifer Stockinger)2 / 2

The sounds of chainsaws and the smell of fresh-cut wood permeated the stifling air throughout the Brainerd lakes area Monday as residents and businesses cleaned up after Sunday night's ferocious storm.

After morning sunlight revealed the extent of the damage, a narrative emerged from longtime residents and business owners: this storm was unlike any they've ever seen in their lives, and the path back to normalcy might be a long one for those in the most affected areas.

Although the impact of the strong winds was widespread throughout the area, the most striking and awe-inspiring damage occurred around Gull, Round, and North Long lakes and as far south as Brainerd International Raceway. Residents and businesses on both sides of Highway 371 were hit hard, including neighborhoods on Ojibwa Road, Nashway Road, Mission Road, St. Columbo Road, and County Highway 77 all the way around Gull Lake.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation reduced Highway 371 to two lanes shortly after the storm Sunday night, closing the southbound lanes from Hole in the Day Drive to Mission Road to allow crews space to remove trees and downed power lines. The agency said that portion of the highway will remain closed until further notice.

Emerging from a sea of green

Homes on North Long and Round lakes were barely visible through the thick foliage of downed trees Monday morning. Nearly every driveway on Noka Trail south of Crow Wing County Road 115 was impassable and trees were broken off and uprooted everywhere. Many trees had bark pulled so cleanly from them it looked as if done by a machine.

Roofs were destroyed and generators were the only source of power available. At least five pontoon boats overturned in the water along the north shore of North Long Lake.

Judy and Ral DuBois have lived on Noka Trail for more than 40 years. The couple said they decided to retreat to their basement once windows blew in on their screen room, sending shattered glass flying.

"We went downstairs and we heard trees breaking and falling," Judy DuBois said.

After the storm mostly passed, they went upstairs to find a tree fallen above the guest room of their home and another caused severe damage to their detached garage. Judy DuBois said both driveways to their home were impassable Sunday night. In all her time on the lake, she said she's never seen so much damage from a storm.

Jennifer Carnahan, who lives on Round Lake off Ojibwa Road, also said she could not leave her property because of storm damage. She was forced to walk a mile for her grandfather to pick her up Monday so she could open her shop, Primrose Park in Nisswa. Downtown Nisswa was not damaged and had power.

Carnahan said she watched her family's 10 dock sections scatter and twist during the storm and a large tree fell on her back deck.

"We had two big trees down and a lot of branches," she said. "My mom and niece were in the basement, my dad was looking out a window and I was watching it from my window on the top floor. When the storm died down a little I went out to get my paddle board.

"All the neighbors got it a lot worse. We all lost some major trees."

Carnahan said a tree service company was out in the neighborhood and she was happy to have them help get rid of the trees.

Neighbors Jonathan Welu and Chad Kuebelbeck, who live off Nashway Road, were busy cutting trees. They said more than 50 trees were down between their two properties and one other property next to their homes. They said there were also countless trees down in their woods located past their backyard.

"We were sitting in the garage during the storm," Welu said. "We watched the trees do 360s. It came quick."

"It was black, I've never seen anything like this before," said Kuebelbeck.

Jamie Stoerzinger, owner of Ultimate Homes and Construction of Pequot Lakes, was busy cleaning a home on Round Lake. He said he helps the owners take care of their property and they were not home. A tree crashed into the home and trees were down all over the property.

"There are about a half dozen trees down, many of them larger trees," Stoerzinger said. "We'll have this place cleaned up before the end of the week. They have renters coming in this weekend. There was a skylight damaged in the home."

Vacation: Plan B

Vacationers with plans to stay at Gull Lake resorts and in the Gull Dam Recreation Area were out of luck Monday as most reservations were canceled.

Cragun's Resort was in the process of evacuating all of its cabins and owner Dutch Cragun estimated thousands of trees fell on the property's golf courses.

"We have a lot more open space now, and plenty of firewood," Cragun said. "But to have to send people home because we don't have power, that really hurts."

Cragun said since his father started the resort in 1941, they've been fortunate to avoid tornadoes and dangerous storms.

"We've never had this damage to our trees," he said.

"The emphasis right now is just clearing a path so they can get their vehicles out of here," said Nancy Krasean, marketing manager. "We're doing pretty good getting people out of here, and once we get everybody out of here we can start the cleanup."

Krasean said a few cabins sustained minor roof and deck damage, although on the whole the resort had mostly tree damage. She estimated the resort would be closed for at least a week.

Some of those forced to evacuate said they hoped not to cut their vacation short and intended to seek someplace else to stay. Van and Nina Bruggen of Chicago were staying in the Brainerd lakes area for the first time when the storm blew through.

"We're going to try to salvage our vacation," Nina Bruggen said, noting they intended to look for another place to stay.

Sheriff's deputies from the Cass County Sheriff's Office guarded the road entering Madden's on Gull Lake in an attempt to deter people from approaching the area, noting power company workers were still working on clearing lines from the roadway. Inside the resort, devastation was immediately evident. Large swaths of roof were strewn across the grounds and tufts of pink insulation clung to tree branches of those sturdy enough to somehow remain standing.

Madden's Vice President Abbey Pieper said the soonest portions of the resort will reopen is two weeks, although living quarters along Wilson Bay saw significantly more damage.

"That was the side that the storm hit more directly," Pieper said. "There have been a number of roofs affected. Those are some of the primary things we're looking at with the contractors."

Pieper said amenities will be available sooner, including the spa and tennis and croquet center.

"It's obviously not ideal but, you know, you can't control Mother Nature," Pieper said. "We have a great team and a great group of guests that come, so I think everyone can appreciate that things like this are out of everyone's control. We're going to roll with it. We're going to open back up as soon as possible and we're going to move on with life."

Grand View Lodge of Nisswa was humming with activity as 125 people from all areas of resort operations worked to clean up the grounds. One of those people was Magda Kaliszuk, a young woman who arrived from Poland a month ago to work at the resort for the summer. Kaliszuk said she'd never seen a storm like Sunday's before. She said she was a little scared but grateful she was safe.

"It's good that we have a place where we could hide from the storm," Kaliszuk said.

General Manager Mark Ronnei said all guests planning to begin their stay Monday were turned away out of necessity due to a lack of power. Guests already staying at the resort were not evacuated, although Ronnei said many understandably chose to return home.

A dozen vehicles and a dozen cabins on lodge grounds sustained damage from some of the more than 200 trees felled. Some larger facilities, such as a convention center and pool building, also will need repairs. Another estimated 200 trees fell on the Pines golf course across the street, home to the only operable Grand View restaurant Monday. Kitchen staff manned a makeshift outdoor grill area outside the main lodge and cooked basic food for those remaining at the lodge.

Ronnei said the beach area was a total disaster Monday morning but was cleaned up and orderly by 10:30 a.m. The calm waters were a stark contrast to Sunday night. People swam, used paddle boards and lounged in the sun while nearby workers worked to repair docks damaged in the storm.

"We think we'll have the place totally cleaned up within 48 hours," Ronnei said.

Recreational vehicles lined the road outside Gull Dam Recreation Area, unable to enter as the campgrounds have been evacuated and will likely remain closed for at least a week, according to U.S. Corps of Engineers park rangers. Damage was so extensive in the park at least one camper was still blocked into a campsite shortly after noon Monday.

Emergency response

Nisswa Fire Chief Richard Geike said about a dozen Nisswa firefighters and a dozen more firefighters from Mission Township worked on storm cleanup. Many of the emergency calls were about downed trees and power lines. Nisswa had one call of a propane tank that fell over and was leaking on Nashway Road. Firefighters had to walk to the propane tank to get to it. They solved the problem and there were no injuries throughout the night.

"Our biggest concern was clearing a path in case there is an emergency and we need to get through," Geike said of getting the trees off the road.

"It's like a war zone," Nisswa Police Chief Craig Taylor said of the area roads that were impassable earlier Monday. "I have never seen anything like this before in my life. I hope I never have to see a storm like this again.

"The Nisswa road crews, the firefighters and area agencies were all a great help in helping with the storm aftermath."

Taylor said his home also was hit near Mount Ski Gull. He had trees damage his boat, car and garage, like many other Nisswa residents.

Crow Wing County Emergency Management Director John Bowen was finally able to catch his breath early Monday evening after a long day of coordinating response among numerous agencies and organizations.

Bowen corresponded all day with other county officials, received updates from power companies and stayed abreast of community needs by speaking with officials from the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and Bridges of Hope.

"The good thing about it is, it sounds like no one really got hurt," Bowen said. "We've had minimal requests (for assistance) at this time. ... We are not aware of anybody at this time that is displaced."

Still, the Red Cross was visiting homes in the Cinosam Road area late Monday afternoon distributing water since they remained without power.

Bowen said he's begun the process of assessing the estimated financial impact of damage, a key figure for determining the area's eligibility for state and federal disaster relief funds.

Bowen reminded residents to remain aware of downed power lines and standing trees, some of which could still fall.

"Be vigilant in your yards," Bowen said. "Be very careful and contact your utility and make sure."

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