The hot, wet violence of Minnesota’s summer

Storm damage on a Duluth street. Most of Duluth was without power on July 21, 2016 as 70 mph winds raked the city overnight. (PHOTO: Ben Mahlke)

Storm damage on a Duluth street. Most of Duluth was without power on July 21, 2016 as 70 mph winds raked the city overnight. (PHOTO: Ben Mahlke)

They call it a high pressure dome, hot electric atmosphere more vapor than air, parked over Minnesota like a Ouija board. We get these once or twice a summer, about as often as we get deep freezes in the dead of winter.

Days like this remind us that 150 degrees Fahrenheit separate our typical annual high temperature from our typical low. That’s most of the continuum on which human life can exist.

We knew this week would be hot, but the hot, heavy air also brings storms. This morning we woke to relative calm at MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters in Balsam Township. We would see, however, that by dawn most of Duluth was without power, and much of Northern Minnesota was cutting its way out from significant storm damage.

WDIO's "Good Morning Northland" anchors Dana Zimmer and Marjaa Anderson broadcast the show via Facebook Live on July 21, 2016. (screenshot)

WDIO’s “Good Morning Northland” anchors Dana Zimmer and Marjaa Anderson broadcast the show via Facebook Live on July 21, 2016. (screenshot)

Power outages darkened the studios of local TV affiliates, prompting some to post grainy live videos on their social media pages.

No travel is advised across much of Duluth until trees are cleared and power is restored.

The storms hit Bemidji and the Brainerd Lakes, too, where more widespread power outages will have people sweating one of the hottest days of the year.

So much depends upon the thin layer of atmosphere between earth and space. Today’s storm was big, but hardly close to the capabilities of nature.

UPDATE: Sadly, we now have reports of two deaths overnight in the Boundary Waters, along with other injuries.
The power of the atmosphere is a good reminder of exactly where we humans sit on the organizational chart of the universe. We’re not angle worms, but we’re closer to angle worms than we are to the top.

Stay safe, and watch out. The storms won’t stop until the weather turns.

(PHOTO: Ben Mahlke)

(PHOTO: Ben Mahlke)


  1. David Gray says

    Well done for Minnesota Power. We were a pretty obscure outage and they had us back up in around 7.5 hours.

  2. I’m still out and I live on a pretty large road. I hope I get power soon.

  3. Gerald S says

    MN Power is dropping the ball badly in Duluth. Friend of mine runs a restaurant there, and his neighborhood — a busy street with a large supermarket, 2 clinics, 9 restaurants, several shops, several good sized apartment complexes, two gas stations, and a post office have been told to expect to be down until Sunday night. And to top it all, their power lines are all underground. MN Power appears to have cut back considerably on linemen in the last few years, but are bringing some in from out of state, according to the DNT.

    Maybe they had a large piece or pieces of switching equipment fry out from lightening, and don’t have the equipment in inventory and need to get it from afar, but otherwise a bad performance.

    I suspect their newest request for a large rate increase is going to face a lot of resistance after this.

  4. John Ramos says

    I assume you’re talking about the Mt. Royal neighborhood. I’m not faulting MN Power for 3-4 day fix. That was the epicenter of the hurricane in Duluth. There are so many downed power poles and trees hanging on power lines that it will amaze me if they get everything working within 4 days.

  5. According to the restaurant owner I know there, the power lines involved are all underground in the immediate area and otherwise are large trunk lines. I can see your argument for people out in neighborhoods with above ground lines and multiple interruptions of feeders working their way through neighborhoods, but it doesn’t make sense for large trunk lines and underground lines serving areas along main streets.

    My guess, and the precision of the MN Power estimate also suggests this, is that the problem in the area is not downed lines but rather blown transformers and substations, not due to the wind but to the lightening. I suspect that they did not have the replacement equipment in inventory, or at least enough of it, and that it is coming to Duluth from somewhere else, with the time estimate mostly taken up by travel time for shipping. They probably expect the arrival sometime Sunday and then expect to do the installation in a few hours.

    This also makes sense because the order in which work is being done is backward from the usual priority in restoration of service, which would prioritize the business districts and areas of higher population first. That probably means that there is a factor beyond mere downed lines.

    Priorities like that exist because this is a very expensive delay, with at least $150,000 in lost wages, at least another $200,000 in lost business, and unknown hundreds of thousands from spoiled perishables and gasoline and diesel fuel for generators. MN Power’s attempts to cut back on their ongoing operating costs, both personnel and inventory, in order to improve bottom line and stock prices undoubtedly contribute to the delays, but given the severity of the storm damage delays would probably have occurred even had they been operating with the type of preparedness that would have occurred in the 80’s instead of lean and mean 21st century management.

  6. David Gray says

    From what I’ve read most power companies do not keep a lot of backup stock in terms of things like transformers. I think it would be better if they would but probably some sort of incentive would need to be put in place.

    • I think you are right. This does represent a change from times past, when preparedness for a crisis was a hallmark of good operation. The last 30 years have seen a big change in this, and power companies are not unique in this, as the pressure to produce consistent rises in profits has caused aggressive cost cutting in most large businesses. It would be possible to introduce incentives to keep a larger inventory of emergency replacement equipment and a larger staff of linemen as well, but it would probably have to be accompanied by either higher rates or by cash incentives from the government, neither of which are likely to be popular.

      It is also true that there are always going to be occasional disasters that swamp even the most aggressive preparedness. This storm may well have been one of those, and even if MN Power was significantly more prepared they may well have still been overwhelmed.

      It does seem that part of the way that the power companies deal with this is by cooperation with other power companies. MN Power has over five times as many linemen in the area now than they usually have on staff, with people coming from MO and other areas, and I would guess they are also getting supplies from those other companies as well.

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