A year ago tonight, a swath of the Brainerd lakes area landscape was instantly changed.
Hurricane-force straightline winds destroyed millions of trees, snapping them off mid-stem, twisting and yanking them from the earth by their roots. The canopy that once provided shade and natural beauty was dramatically altered, its giant oaks and massive pines destroying power lines and structures and blanketing driveways as they plummeted from the skies.
The National Weather Service in Duluth reported while the bulk of the winds were in the 70-80 mph range, there were likely pockets of 100 mph winds.
Thousands of residents in the path of the storm—which blasted through southern portions of Cass and Crow Wing counties—were without power for as long as a week. Some of the heaviest damage occurred in the Gull, North Long and Round lakes areas. Notably, not a single injury was reported as a result of the severe supercell thunderstorm that produced the damaging winds, but residents and businesses were left with what some described as a war zone.
One year later, the memories of that night and the days that followed remain fresh, although a silver lining from the storm clouds emerged for many. Resorts damaged by the supercell reported business is booming this summer and cleanup and repair efforts are complete. Storm response areas in need of improvement were recognized and offered businesses the opportunity for better preparation should another massive severe storm roll through.
Residents have patched roofs, rebuilt garages and are learning to live without trees that once were a grand presence in their yards. Sunlight streams into areas where it was once unable to penetrate, allowing new life to grow.
'Nature will rebound'
Judy DuBois woke up Monday morning to a reminder of last year's storm.
In her yard on Noka Trail, situated between Round and North Long lakes, the top of a basswood tree broke off in the strong winds accompanying a severe thunderstorm early Monday morning. The basswood was part of a stand of four trees, three of which survived last year's storm. The fourth was the tree that punctured holes in the roof above their guest room last July.
"It was just to kind of remind us that hey, remember, it was a year ago," DuBois said.
DuBois first spoke with the Dispatch the morning after the supercell storm, as she and her husband were barely able to see the driveway at their home of more than 40 years. She said in the days that followed, they received help from neighbors and volunteers to clear the 15 or so trees uprooted or snapped in their yard.
"It could have been more," she said. "It was hard sometimes to know where one tree ended."
Without power for a week, the Duboises received relief from the American Red Cross relief center at Timberwood Church south of Nisswa. Judy DuBois said they went to the center daily to retrieve water and meals.
"We were very appreciative of the relief center," she said. "I guess I never pictured myself in that situation."
The couple has since reconstructed their garage and the roof on their home, also making most of the necessary repairs to a pontoon boat. The downed trees are the last reminders of the storm.
"Some of that wood is still laying in our back lot," DuBois said. "For us, it was difficult. We couldn't afford to have everything done, so my husband did a lot of it himself. ... We're still asking people if they need any firewood for anything."
The loss of trees on their property changed how it looked, but DuBois noticed this spring it allowed wildflowers—the Virginia waterleaf—to cover the landscape with splashes of purple.
"It was just wonderful to see it at the beginning of June, almost all over our backlot and at the backlots of most of our neighbors," she said. "It just encourages you, because nature will rebound."
In the days after the storm Cinosam area resident Wadeen Baribeau thought the residential area with its storied tall trees would never be the same. A year later she was looking for hinges to rehang doors on a shed, one of the last things to do in repairs.
Baribeau said it took a year to to get everything settled with the insurance company. Her roof was replaced and downed trees cleaned up along with other repair work. Baribeau said the recovery process continued this summer and some are still working on it.
"There are still yards and yards that are just not cleaned up," Baribeau said. "There is still wood in people's yards. The aftermath is still there for some people."
It can still be difficult and disconcerting, especially at dusk and later, to find the right street for a turn because of the changed landscape. But, Baribeau said, it is getting better.
Recently, the neighborhood came together for the Fourth of July. Baribeau said people talked about the positives in the storm's aftermath. They had more light, which meant they could plant flowers and vegetable gardens. They appreciated the wildflowers that came on their own. They also had more space to add porches or gazebos. Baribeau said people noted they liked being able to sit out in their yards and see their neighbors.
"I would say it's taken almost this whole year to become more settled and acclimated," Baribeau said. "Everybody was so anxious for a long time when you go through that much devastation."
The camaraderie established in the storm cleanup continued, Baribeau said. She noted people greet each other more, know each other better and are even more willing to help each other out.
"That has lingered," Baribeau said.
On the Pine Beach Peninsula, Ginger Markham said people are still recovering and replanting trees. A retired nurse, Markham inherited the home with a Gull Lake view from her parents. In the months following the storm, she worried she wouldn't be able to keep her home.
"I just did get my new screens on the porch not too long ago, there is still painting to be done and staining inside where the tree went through," Markham said. "Things are better."
Markham was forced to dip into her retirement to help pay for repairs and said she could add a renter in the future if she needed revenue. She and the other residents on the peninsula also divided costs to clean up downed trees on the undeveloped park land. There was a lot of concern for wildfires, but those fears were not realized this spring.
"There were lots of bonfires," Markham said of cleanup efforts. "We lost so many trees in there so it's kind of bald. ... It will never look the same. The whole peninsula will never be the same." But, she said, everybody hung together.
"Everybody seems to be coping," Markham said.
Resorts recover, thrive
Gull Lake resorts were forced to close for several days to several weeks following the July 12 storm, with impacts ranging from downed trees to destroyed buildings.
One of the hardest hit was Madden's on Gull Lake, operators of which were forced to rebuild living quarters on the property after the roofs were torn off. The new rooms were opened in May and Kathy Reichenbach, marketing director, said the response from vacationers has been great.
"There is a lot of interest in the new rooms," she said. "They turned out just beautifully."
On Sunday, Madden's hosted a recognition party for those guests who were at the resort a year ago during the storm, since many return for the same weekend each year.
"We showed pictures of the storm damage and they told some stories," Reichenbach said. "They were so excited to see what has happened in the last year and just amazed at how different it looked."
Nancy Krasean, marketing manager for Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake, said the summer has so far been a busy one.
"It started early and continues, and we're extremely busy," she said. "People that had to leave last year or didn't get to come in because we were closed for two weeks were thrilled."
Krasean said the resort replaced 30 roofs and did a lot of landscaping, spending the winter getting rid of piles of tree debris that were moved from the roads and golf courses to allow the resort to function.
"The golf courses are in great shape," she said. "Most people, if anything, probably think they're a little easier to play because there aren't as many trees in the way."
Krasean said they have a couple of new generators they hope could do the job in a future storm, and they learned they needed to take customer service off the property in the event of a loss of phone and internet service.
"We were trying to take phone calls with one little cellphone at the front desk," Krasean said, but with the sheer number of calls it was difficult to keep up.
Mark Ronnei, general manager of Grand View Lodge, said he had a minor flashback Monday morning when the severe thunderstorm warning alert on his phone woke him up.
"I put my chainsaw in my truck and drove to work at 2:30 in the morning," Ronnei said. "It's kind of a mild form of post-traumatic stress. I don't look at storms the way I did before."
Ronnei said employees put in 4,500 hours of work in the week following the storm and the resort was back up and running a week later. Work on the last roof in need of replacement was completed the beginning of June, only to be damaged again by the large hail generated by a severe storm later in the month.
Ronnei said most of the tree and debris cleanup was completed by late October, and the golf courses—and the view of the lake from the lodge—were actually improved by tree loss.
"It's not the kind of pruning I would like to do, but you've got to kind of go with it," Ronnei said.
This year, the resort's 100th anniversary, is expected to be its best year ever in terms of revenue, he said, and it's a welcome sequel to "the storm of the century" last summer.
"I was reflecting on the storm earlier today," Ronnei said. "It was really amazing. Our employees putting in almost 5,000 hours in one week of cleanup was an amazing thing to see and to go through, and it made me thankful all over again for the tremendous area we live in."
'Remarkable job' at relief efforts
Terry Sluss was the operations manager for the American Red Cross efforts to aid residents affected by the storm. He and the team spent nine days in the hot asphalt parking lot of Timberwood Church. The Red Cross also drove out into the storm area, handing out ice and water to people without power, working in the July heat to clear trees. He remembered that one resident said they wanted to help others the same way someday.
The storm taught the Red Cross workers—some of whom were rookies—just how important their work was, he said.
"I think it taught a lot of people that had never responded on a larger scale operation that people really, really depend on disaster operations when something strikes," he said. "Their first time out, they did a remarkable job."
The Red Cross and others, including The Salvation Army, an influx of volunteers from across the state and nearby states, along with Bridges of Hope and emergency management, all were part of the assistance, as well as Lutheran Social Services, TCC and others that were part of the Long Term Recovery group.
Sluss also remembers the support demonstrated for the area, which included not just aid workers from across the country but visits from Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and other leaders.
Since the storm, the Minnesota regional response team for the Red Cross has changed its tactics on providing financial relief in that disaster-affected clients now have more control over where the money goes, such as how much they want to spend on a hotel or food.
Sluss led government operations for the Red Cross response to Hurricane Sandy and also assisted with wildfires in Colorado. With the July 12 storm, though, the people his team were handing water bottles to were faces he recognized.
"People I knew were coming in daily," he said. "It was a whole lot different than going to some place where I didn't know anybody, but at the same time, the level of service was exactly the same. Our mission is to care for anybody in crisis, and provide the services that they need."
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Have a plan for severe weather
A family may not be together if a disaster strikes, so it is important to think about the following situations and plan just in case.
Consider the following questions when making a plan:
How will the household get emergency alerts and warnings?
How will the household get to safe locations for relevant emergencies?
How will the household get in touch if cellphone, internet or landline doesn't work?
How will the household let loved ones know they are safe?
How will the household get to a meeting place after the emergency?
Here are a few easy steps to start an emergency communication plan:
Understand how to receive emergency alerts and warnings. Make sure all household members are able to get alerts about an emergency from local officials. Learn more about alerts by visiting www.ready.gov/alerts or check with the local emergency management agency to see what is available in the area.
Discuss household plans for disasters that may affect the area and plan where to go. Plan together in advance so that everyone in the household understands where to go during a different type of disaster like a flood, tornado or wildfire.
Collect contact information. Create a paper copy of the contact information for the household that includes: phone numbers (work, cell, office), email addresses, social media accounts, medical facilities, doctors, service providers and school contact information.
Share the information. Make sure everyone carries a copy in his or her backpack, purse or wallet. Also post a copy in a central location in the home, such as a refrigerator or family bulletin board.
Identify information and pick an emergency meeting place.
Things to consider:
-- Decide on safe, familiar places where the household can go for protection or to reunite.
-- Make sure these locations are accessible for household members with disabilities or access and functional needs.
-- If pets or service animals are part of the household, think about animal-friendly locations.
• Examples of meeting places:
-- In the neighborhood: A mailbox at the end of the driveway or a neighbor's house.
-- Outside of the neighborhood: library, community center, place of worship or family friend's home.
-- Outside of the town or city: home of a relative or family friend. Make sure everyone knows the address of the meeting place and discuss ways to get there.
• Practice the plan. Have regular household meetings to review the emergency plans, communication plans and meeting place after a disaster, and then practice just like a fire drill.
Information from www.ready.gov, an emergency preparedness website operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
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Impact of tree loss felt
The storm blew down some 1,400 acres of trees in the Pillsbury State Forest west of East Gull Lake, with the highest levels of damages in the southern end of the state-owned land. To clean up after the storm, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sold 30 timber permits to harvest 22,000 cords worth of trees that were either down completely or blown at an angle.
In total, about 1,800 acres of the park were affected by the storm, forming the majority of the entire forest, said Steve Bartz, Backus area assistant forestry supervisor for the DNR.
Bartz did not know the total revenue the DNR got for the wood, but he said the permits were sold in a "salvage timber sale," or lower-than-average prices that encouraged loggers to complete the unusually difficult work of picking up fallen trees. But for the storm, the DNR would much rather have sold the trees to be logged conventionally, over a more gradual timeline, Bartz said.
"It wasn't a good moneymaker for us," he said.
While some of the lost trees stood for a hundred years, the average age of the trees blown down was somewhere in the 80-year range, and they were replaced with saplings about three years old, he said. Roughly 240,000 trees were planted this past spring.
"Basically, it's a younger forest now," he said.
Pillsbury State Forest in Cass County was the state's first forest reserve. It was established in 1900 when Gov. John Pillsbury donated the land to the state. Trails in the forest were cleared of downed trees over the course of the summer.
Of the people Bartz talked to, most agreed it was "probably the biggest storm that has hit the Pillsbury since it became a state forest."
Nearly $2 million in disaster-related expenses was submitted to the state for reimbursement between Cass and Crow Wing counties, said John Bowen, emergency management director. The majority of these expenses came from work by county employees to remove trees from the roads and right-of-way, he said. Although some was hauled away, others downed near public lands were moved into the woods and still more fell within those forests, remaining there a year later.
"There's still a lot of downed timber," Bowen said. "There is a greater threat for wildfires in our area for the next few years."
Bowen said it offered a chance to educate the community on wildfire safety through the DNR's Firewise program. The program seeks to offer information to homeowners, landscapers and others on steps to improve property resilience to wildfires. This includes the concept of creating a "defensible space" around a home.
Bowen said he believes residents in the area are more prepared for the possibility of extreme weather after experiencing that storm, and he said the best things to do remain establishing a family response plan and owning a weather radio.
Switch the lights on
The supercell thunderstorm left thousands in the Brainerd lakes area without power and many of those were in the dark for the better part of a week.
Char Kinzer, public relations manager with Crow Wing Power, said last year's storm was definitely the largest storm she had seen in her 25 years with the cooperative. There was "devastating destruction," she said, but it showed her how well-prepared crews were to restore power.
At 6 p.m. Monday the day following the storm, about 4,700 customers were without power. Line workers and office staff worked well together to track outages and get customers back on, Kinzer said. She summed up the week following the storm in one word.
"I think it was exhausting," Kinzer said and laughed.
During the week, Crow Wing Power regularly updated its Facebook page and interacted with customers to inform them about outages and the progress crews were making. Kinzer said that experience was "nothing short of incredible." It was rewarding to see people interacting with each other, she said, and the experience informed how the cooperative uses its Facebook page today.
"Our procedure on what to do on Facebook evolved because of that," Kinzer said.
After seeing how Crow Wing Power responded following the storm, Kinzer said she is "totally proud" to work for the cooperative and for its members.
"They don't work for the CEO, they work for the members," Kinzer said. "Our people care about the people that we serve."
Brainerd Public Utilities Superintendent Scott Magnuson said the storm was the second biggest he had seen. A storm in fall of 2014 was worse for the city, he said, with a lot of damage in south Brainerd. With thunderstorms pounding the area Sunday night through Monday, his fingers were crossed "that we can avoid this one coming."
A damaging storm brings with it lots of overtime for utility workers, Magnuson said. The utility builds overtime into its budget, he said, with the idea a heavy storm might create more overtime. The week after the storm went smoothly for BPU, he said. The team in the office did a good job of fielding calls and recording outages, so crews could get out and get them fixed. The Monday morning following the storm, around 100 BPU customers were without power.
Crews worked hard and worked well together after the storm, Magnuson said. Workers were able to restore power to BPU customers and some then went and helped other utilities restore power farther north of Brainerd.
"You get to see everybody work together," Magnuson said. "Everybody's working together to try to get the lights back on."