Stormy past: Wild week comes to a close
BEMIDJI - A wild ride of weather left its mark on the north woods the past week, bringing oppressive heat and two unforgettable storms which left a trail of debris and destruction.
Hurricane force winds covering 1,050 square miles whacked northern Minnesota during a July 2 storm, leaving a swath of fallen trees, snapped power poles, and battered and mangled homes and businesses.
"Based on the time of day, we have a very active community," Bemidji Fire Chief David Hoefer said later. "I anticipated a significant rescue challenge for us... We were ramping up for that and preparing for that."
With the Jaycees Water Carnival in full swing in downtown Bemidji and many others enjoying an evening outdoors, the storm forced those outside to scramble for any shelter they could find.
"It was pretty ominous to the west," Hoefer said. "I'm still amazed that there were no significant injuries or deaths."
Two days of oppressive heat, with the heat index topping 100 degrees, followed before an Independence Day storm whipped through northern Beltrami County.
The two storms knocked out power to about 20,000 households and businesses stretching from Itasca State Park to Grand Rapids. Among the worst hit was the Cass Lake area, where the U.S. Forest Service closed the Norway Beach Recreational Area and South Pike Bay Campgrounds for the season due to the extent of damage.
Some homeowners went days without power, forced to begin the recovery process in the heat by cleaning storm damage from their homes and yards while waiting for insurance adjusters to arrive.
In the days since the July 2 storm, the recovery process began to take shape: debris collection sites were established, work days planned to sweep through neighborhood parks and crews from Otter Tail Power and Beltrami Electric Cooperative worked exhausting hours to restore power and repair infrastructure.
Within a half hour of the storm blowing through Bemidji, hundreds - maybe thousands - emptied into the streets. Some began cleaning up debris, others proved to be good Samaritans willing to help out neighbors and strangers.
A good number used their vehicles to survey damage left behind by 80 mph winds, putting extra pressure of first responders charged with providing public safety services, securing the city and responding to emergencies.
Streets clogged by motorists proved challenging. Forty-one firefighters, including those responding from nearby communities, focused on traffic control while putting out small fires. A dozen vehicles were strategically positioned to respond to emergencies.
Police Chief Mike Mastin issued a curfew overnight to limit unnecessary traffic, a move aimed at keeping the public safe and allowing first responders to meet emergency demands.
For Hoefer, the storm kicked in a natural response.
"It was a throwback to days in the (Red River) Valley," said Hoefer, who was with the Grand Forks Fire Department during the city's 1997 flood. He came to Bemidji in January 2010, but weathered numerous smaller floods and severe storms common in the prairie along the Minnesota-North Dakota border.
The July 2 storm identified a few weaknesses, he said, particularly the department's need for built-in backup power capabilities. Overwhelmingly, though, Hoefer said firefighters carried out standard response guidelines in a storm in which the "magnitude was a little bit higher than what we normally plan for."
It also reinforced the relationship forged between agencies throughout the region.
"No one worries about geographic boundaries," he said. "We just go where we need to go."
While cleanup and recovery likely will take weeks and months, the northern forest landscape has been permanently altered.
Still, Hoefer sees a silver lining - especially after witnessing people helping each other.
"At the end of the day, it will make us stronger as a community."