County commissioners extend state of emergency; cleanup starts
Hubbard County is operating under a state of emergency. - and a collective state of relief.
"A couple hours later and this could have been a different scenario," said Hubbard County board chair Cal Johannsen, noting the Friday afternoon influx of tourists and seasonal residents.
No injuries were reported in Hubbard County and only one minor injury occurred in Wadena County after a series of tornados struck the area Friday morning and took National Weather Service (NWS) personnel - and emergency responders - by surprise.
"There was no tornado cell in the area, no severe thunderstorm cell," said Hubbard County Sheriff Gary Mills, shaking his head. "The temperature was not conducive to a tornado, the time of day was not conducive. Everything must have fit together." Mills said the NWS will use the June 6 tornados as a case study.
He said Happy Drive on Pickerel Lake took the brunt of the storm, aside from damage to the Jennie-O turkey farm in Menahga. Two homes were destroyed on Pickerel and several others were heavily damaged.
"It's sad that people lost their homes but we were so lucky it's unbelievable," Mills said.
Commissioners met Monday afternoon to debrief and to extend a temporary state of emergency order Johannsen signed unilaterally on June 6 shortly after tornados pummeled the area. By law, Johannsen was legally allowed to issue such a state of emergency for a 72-hour period, but board approval was required beyond that.
The commissioners - all five assembled on two hours notice - approved lengthening that state of emergency until June 18, the date of the next regular board meeting. It allows the county to possibly recoup overtime costs, to waive certain state laws involving the awarding of contracts and to circumvent open meeting requirements when necessary.
During the briefing, commissioners heard from emergency personnel for the first time since twisters destroyed 10-13 homes and caused extensive damage to Hubbard County. Wadena County commissioners will deal separately with damage to the turkey farm.
Hubbard County authorities plan a trip to the Hinds Lake area this week to assess the damage there.
Commissioners - and Hubbard County Emergency Management director Dave Konshok, who was in Washington, D.C., Friday, heard chilling accounts of the day.
The 911 dispatch center was swamped and had to call in extra help, as did all the emergency responders.
Mills fielded queries about when sirens were sounded and staunchly defended his agency's delay in sounding tornado sirens, some 20 minutes after the first reporting in Menahga. NWS sounded an alarm at 9:31 a.m., 16 minutes after the first 911 call came in from the Menahga area, which was heard on weather radios.
"If they knew what was going on," Mills said, referring to complaints about delays in sounding the sirens. "I keep hearing about why the courthouse wasn't called on this and no one had warning. For the sheriff's office to call this is not in the emergency plan. We can't have that responsibility. But even if we did, it wouldn't have helped in this case."
"To my knowledge no one in this courthouse heard that siren that rings downtown," said county coordinator Jack Paul. "We didn't have any warning. I really heard from some people about that," he said.
Mills said the sirens can only be sounded if a radio station or law enforcement personnel actually spots a tornado, not when Joe Sixpack out in the county calls one in.
"We need to know a tornado is on the ground, not just spotted," Mills said. "Until we got confirmation it was headed our way" there was no reason to frighten people sounding the tornado sirens. Officers set out immediately when the Menahga call came in from Wadena County. When storm-chasing deputies did spot funnel clouds, they immediately notified the dispatch center, which in turn sounded the alarms.
Konshok said the approaching tornado "split the difference between Park Rapids and Long Lake," skirting between the two populated areas.
"The (AM) radio station was called twice with information," said Sherri Klassen, county jail administrator and emergency dispatch supervisor. "We had to ask the officers because they're out on the scene," she said, reiterating the procedure for sounding the sirens. Klassen's records show that sirens went off at 9:43 a.m.
"Generally we have to have an officer or civil defense manager make the request" to sound the sirens, she said. "Without something confirmed we don't sound it.
"If the area that's to be affected can't hear the siren there's no point either," Klassen said. "It was skirting the east edge of town and we sounded them then. The officers were out there and we did finally make the determination that we should sound them."
Klassen doesn't know how many calls came in to the dispatch center. She spent the morning standing behind her staff relaying information from the deputies on the ground to the NWS. "It's here now, it's there now," was what she told weather personnel. Then she activated the alert system and constantly updated the media as to what was happening and where.
Mills said "a lot went out to the media that shouldn't have," not from Hubbard County but from unofficial sources.
Emergency responders were dealing with dozens of calls, misinformation from radio stations, power outages and phone lines that went down, preventing NWS from broadcasting alerts to weather radios after 9:43 a.m.
Although the NWS weather tower had power, it had no phone capability to send out signals.
Mills, a deputy and Park Rapids Police Chief Terry Eilers were meanwhile speeding up County Road 4 chasing funnel clouds. Mills, bringing up the rear, had to pull over when torrential rains made visibility impossible.
"It was like someone pulled a cotton sheet over the windshield," he said. "I didn't know if I was on the road or not. The car's suspension was extended and it started rocking and I realized I'm right in the middle of this."
The tornado lifted Mills' car up onto two wheels and he lost radio contact with Eliers, who had been in front of him. "He got a little panicked," Mills said of the police chief.
When Mills' car returned to the shoulder of the road and the rain passed, he resumed the chase to Pickerel Lake, where Eilers lives. Three days later Mills was still shaking his head at his close encounter.
Mills had high praise for the agencies that immediately responded, including the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, forestry personnel and scores of volunteers. "We had an awesome response," he said. "I'm really proud of the way everyone pulled together."
Mills and commissioners said a monumental task looms ahead - the cleanup. Trucks with tree debris are already showing up at the landfill and environmental crews will assess area lakes to get hazardous materials out of the water. A priority will be to remove toxic items such as vehicles, boats, snowmobiles and gas tanks from area lakes.
"This is not stuff you can go down and retrieve by hand," Konshok said. "We'll need help."
Since much of the damage occurred on private lands or forest acreage, Hubbard County will not meet the $7 million threshold to qualify for state or even federal aid under a disaster declaration. But Hubbard County did declare a disaster in the eventual hope of recovering some overtime costs, commissioners said.
"It's going to be a local responsibility to clean those areas up," Johannsen said, noting that he's heard that Styrofoam debris from the turkey farm was found as far north as Lake George, a distance of nearly 50 miles.
"A lot of it is going to be private insurance matters," Konshok said. He seemed lost at times in the recap. "You train 20 years for just these things and then you're gone when they happen," he said. "They say it's not a disaster until it overwhelms local capability."