The St. Louis County Board recognized a number of County employees, as well as entire divisions and departments for their hard work following the July 21 windstorm. Below are the comments made by Human Resources Director Jim Gottschald to the Board.
Perhaps it is simply a coincidence, but today’s recognition for the great work of a select group of our employees and volunteers happens right on the heels of several rounds of strong thunder storms last night affecting the Iron Range Communities of Biwabik, McKinley, Virginia and Fayal Township.
Storm related power outages were also experienced in Duluth’s Woodland neighborhood, the city of Rice Lake and Gnesen Township.
On July 21st, St. Louis County experienced a devastating storm with wind speeds reaching over 100 miles per hour. (A fact we know thanks to Property Management Director Tony Mancuso checking the wind station on top of the GSC.) Power was out for residents and some businesses ranging from a few hours up to a week as a result. Thousands of trees were knocked down covering roads, damaging structures and vehicles. I’ve heard it being referred to as “the perfect storm”: Heavy damage to property and infrastructure, combined with massive power outages, and all in the midst of an intense heat wave, creating extremely dangerous conditions for our citizens, as well as our employees.
Two lives were lost in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, just north of us in Canada. Here in St. Louis County, despite the widespread damage, we were blessed to have not only no fatalities, but also no serious injuries. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider the number of chain saws that were fired up in the days following the storm.
Many of our employees’ homes were hit hard by the storm themselves, but they left their storm damaged properties to serve the citizens of St. Louis County. We’d like to recognize some examples of St. Louis County employees going Above and Beyond their work duties during this time.
Public Works Superintendents and Highway Supervisors had crews on the road before 5:00 am on July 21st to assess damage and begin clean-up of the thousands of downed trees obstructing roadway travel. In many instances, staff had to wait to clear the trees because of the power lines tangled within the branches.
The Public Works Engineering Division deployed staff to help document and take pictures of damaged areas. The County Emergency Operation Center was called into action early that morning by the Sheriff’s office and Public Works helped coordinate efforts with the sheriff’s Office, Minnesota Power, the City of Duluth, City of Rice Lake and other surrounding areas.
Public works employees from other districts where the storm damage was less severe were brought in to help with clean-up efforts and equipment was moved around the county - excavators were in high demand in the days following the storm.
Public Works coordinated with the County Land and Minerals Department to set up gravel pits for storm debris storage. We would like to recognize the Public Works Department for their efforts to help open our roads for travel and to emergency services, which including power restoration in the hours and days following the July 21st storms.
The St. Louis County Communications Center 911 dispatch staff handled close to 700 calls for service between the hours of 2am – 6am, as well as numerous calls long after sunrise. Dispatch staff worked together as a team inside the 911 communications center, professionally handling calls ranging from “what should I do with the food in my refrigerator” to the more serious calls about campers unaccounted for in the Boundary Waters; and then they made the necessary follow-up arrangements with law enforcement, the fire departments and other first responders, as well as with MN Power, Public Works, and other agencies, as needed, in order to respond to incidents. Dispatch staff kept track of and documented each and every call for service. They were instrumental in making sure there was appropriate agency follow up to all calls. Thank you to the 9-1-1 center staff for their extensive work hours, dedication and skill in handling the overwhelming influx of calls.
Volunteer Sheriff’s Department Rescue Squad members were called in across the county. In the southern part, their duties included assisting with traffic control at busy intersections until temporary semaphores could be put in place – keep in mind that due to power outages, no traffic lights were working in Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor for more than several hours. Rescue squad members were relied upon to assist in debris removal to ensure emergency service access was available to county residents.
In the northern part of the county, the rescue squad was instrumental in checking on campers in the BWCA to make sure no one was injured or trapped by the storm. They worked closely with the Forest Service and other partners who had planes, searching by air to make sure the estimated 3,500 campers were all accounted for and safe. They even assisted with the recovery of a blown away aircraft which had drifted into Canadian waters. Thank you to the men and women volunteers of our St. Louis County Rescue squad.
After driving around for about 30 minutes and quickly noticing the extent of trees and power lines down, the decision was made at about 5 a.m. to activate the St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center. The purpose of activating the EOC is to coordinate the response(s) to the incident. Dewey Johnson, Emergency Management Coordinator, opened up the EOC and began notifying County Departments, Public Safety and Non-governmental agencies to respond or send a representative.
The EOC became the hub for information and coordination between St. Louis County, City of Duluth, City of Rice Lake, United State Forest Service, MN Power, Red Cross and all County Departments assisting with response and recovery. The EOC operated throughout the weekend and into the following week working closely with partners to stay abreast of changes.
The coordination assisted with unified information to all public entities and also to the public through Public Information Officers working together. Dewey became the “go to” contact person to call for information and direction during the incident.
Since the storm, he’s assisted local governments with the paperwork necessary to receive reimbursements for the storm recovery work. Last week he hosted the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Managements as that agency’s representatives conducted a preliminary damage assessment. He also brought together representatives of County departments and other agencies for an After Action Report, to talk about what went well with our response, and what we can learn ensure we are always improving in our disaster response. Thank you to Dewey Johnson for your emergency management leadership following the storm.
Public Health and Human Services
Public Health Nurses
The morning of the storm, Duluth Fire Department had received phone calls from out of state individuals concerned about the welfare of their elderly relatives. The Fire Department contacted the Red Cross, who referred them to the Department of Health, who contacted our Public Health division, asking for nurses to conduct door to door welfare checks at senior apartments that did not have power.
Margaret Ratai coordinated the work of her fellow Public Health nurses to visit the priority facilities. This included having two PHHS staff conduct visits to each facility. She ensured staff would wear their PHHS name badges, have their cell phones available, and carry water to keep hydrated. But beyond making this a “well-being check” situation, she turned it into an educational outreach opportunity by creating extreme heat talking points and handouts on extreme heat and a roster that staff could use to document resident contacts and identify apartments that did not respond. Jen Lautigar and Margaret also reviewed PHHS Emergency Operations plan and other human service well-being check plans.
A brief training took place and Emily Lian gathered additional handouts on pet safety and food safety in extreme heat and loss of power. Lisa Konicek documented the cooling center options.
PHHS staff were in the field by 2:45 pm and had completed this project by 6:00 pm.
The staff team work, professionalism, enthusiasm, and willingness to adjust their work schedules for this request was remarkable. We are grateful and appreciative for all the work the staff did to conduct this one of a kind public health preparedness response in extreme heat without power. Not only did the staff conduct wellbeing checks using their public health nursing skills, they also sent public health messages to the community members they saw to protect their health and safety and prevent health issues in the aftermath of the storm.
We’d like to thank the staff the contributed to the success of this project.
Margaret Ratai, Ashley Anderson, Kelly Bruels, Rillis Eklund, Lisa Konicek, Maggie Lattery, Carrie Gertsema, Sara Miller, Heidi Loberg-Kreft, Rebecca Paulson, Emily Lian, Jen Lautigar and Mara Koivisto.
PHHS Triage Team
The storm caused power to be out for some people up to a week. Many people receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits had to throw out food due to spoilage. The PHHS Triage team worked hard to approve benefits replacements for almost 200 households, most of which are families with children. They either met or talked over the phone to almost 500 individuals about this service. They were typically able to replace funds on their card by 10:00 AM the following day.
The Triage team consists of 4 people. We’d like to thank them for doing such an outstanding job at helping clients and families through a stressful event.
Andrea Larson, Financial Worker; Natalie Listemaa, Financial Worker; Ida Watson-Souther, MSW; Rory Strange, United Way 2-1-1
Noah Mittlefehldt coordinated the response to both the July 5th and July 21st storms for the County Assessor’s Office. He personally visited many of the properties damaged following the July 5th storm around Island Lake, and then created and executed the plan for the Assessor’s office to identify and inspect properties in and around Duluth following the July 21st storm. They were able to get this done quickly and efficiently due to Noah’s preparation and skill. This was done in addition to the yearly assignment of appraisal inspections that he oversees as team leader of the South appraisal team. He definitely went above and beyond his job duties.
It should be noted that the assessor’s office brought in extra staff from the Hibbing and Virginia areas to assist with this. Staff also toured the Ely area to inspect properties hit hard there.
Thank you to Noah for his preparedness, response and creativity in response to personal property storm damage.
Any finally, thank you to Minnesota Power and all of the other local government and municipal employees who went above and beyond to serve our constituents in the wake of the storm. Many of whom, experienced their own storm damage, yet made it a priority to go to the aid of our citizens. Also, to all the selfless neighbors and acquaintances to helped their neighborhood members clear trees from their roofs, their driveways and backyards. It is the unselfish generosity of our citizens which truly brings the spirit to St. Louis County.