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A portion of Worthington’s Centennial Park, looking toward Lake Okabena, is shown in this April 10, 2013, photo, following an ice storm that caused millions of dollars in damage around the region. Brian Korthals/Daily Globe

Then and now: one year after the ice storm

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WORTHINGTON — One year ago, residents in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa woke up to a disaster.

The sound of tree branches falling like rain broke the nighttime silence as ice covered the region. Power was lost in cities and farms across southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa. One year later — on April 9, the day the storm began — high temperatures reached 70 degrees, with only broken and missing trees to remind residents of the federally declared disaster.

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“That’s Minnesota for you,” said Luverne City Administrator John Call. “One year you have an ice storm that paralyzes the city, and the next year it’s 70 degrees.”

In the days, weeks and months following the disaster, crews worked to restore power lines and poles damaged in the storm. The process of clearing roadways of fallen branches and trees began almost immediately.

“The silver lining was we saw our departments pull together in a powerful way to get the job done and respond to a natural disaster like this,” Worthington City Administrator Craig Clark said. “We saw many examples of neighbor helping neighbor, and it (the storm) really in some ways showed the strength of our community.

“In rural Minnesota and rural America, you can’t keep us down and we’re going to pull together in times of challenge,” Clark continued. “I think we saw that in a lot of ways. That’s the sort of positive that comes through trial.”

Clark said the credit goes to those who helped.

“With trees coming down like rain, we had a public works department that went out and opened the roads and had our fire department come out and help open the roads,” Clark said. “To have that public service take such a tangible role in dealing with the response is something we can be proud of from the city. We did rise to the challenge and deal with a disaster that no one wanted to deal with, but there it was.”

A few days later, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were dispatched to the area.

“I think for the most part, the FEMA folks were very helpful,” Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh said. “They did not hesitate to give contact information. They would answer your questions and concerns. I think, all in all, it was a very good process.”

The ice storm caused more than $2.7 million worth of damage in Worthington.

“From the numbers — what we had with out-of-pocket costs now — had we not had the FEMA assistance, trying to come up with $2.753 million would be a backbreaker,” Clark said. “That just goes to show the reason why we worked so hard to understand that. That would have been very difficult for us financially to deal with. Understanding the rules and procedures was trial by fire.”

In total, between FEMA and the state of Minnesota, Worthington was reimbursed more than $2.6 million. That left the city to cover $135,000, an amount taken from a disaster reserve fund.

“We lost somewhere between 950 and 1,000 trees,” Clark said. “We removed 103,000 cubic yards of debris — that’s roughly 16 football fields, three feet deep. That’s a lot of debris.”

In Luverne, there was approximately $260,000 worth of damage, with all but a few thousand covered. Call estimated between 300 to 400 trees were lost.

“Our reimbursements came out fine for us,” Call said. “It’s always difficult sometimes to deal with FEMA. They tell you one thing, and you come in and maybe it’s not that way. Field reps will come in and tell you one thing and somebody else will come in, but all in all, I would say FEMA did a pretty decent job for us if you lump it all together.”

Within Worthington, Ceres — the company which did most of the removal and trimming of trees — was the biggest expense. The company was paid $1,167,424. Nobles County Landfill was paid $546,582 for disposal of the debris, while True North was paid $323,987 for monitoring the work.

Clark estimated there is more than $360,000 worth of work to be done with extra tree trimming and replacement.

Power cut to city As crews were working within the city to clean fallen trees, others were working to restore power. From 3:45 a.m. Wednesday until 1 a.m. Friday, the city of Worthington was without power from the outside as transmission was cut off.

“For 45 hours, we were totally isolated,” Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain said.

Luckily, years before, the city had invested in generators.

“We knew, once we found out what caused the outage, that it was probably going to last a while,” Hain said. “We started doing the one-hour rolls. In a lot of cases, it was like two hours on and then an hour off. Nobody was ever off longer than an hour, and when they were on, sometimes it was just for an hour and sometimes it was for a couple of hours.”

Businesses and schools were forced to close during the storm, but it could have been worse, Hain said.

“Our recovery effort was insignificant compared to Nobles County Electric,” Hain said. “Their primary focus was getting power restored as quickly as possible to their customers. But when they were throwing it back, they weren’t doing the complete job. They spent the vast majority of all of last summer going back and actually putting it together in a more permanent state.”

The rolling blackouts on the hour was an idea created quickly, Hain said. That would allow people to know they would have power for at least an hour to do necessary tasks.

“We didn’t have any significant complaints about how things went,” he said. “Actually, we got a lot of positive comments. I’ve talked to many people who had friends or relatives that lived out in the country and came out and stayed with them. You weren’t going to freeze any pipes, you weren’t going to flood your basement, you weren’t going to lose all the food in your refrigerator or freezer.”

WPU only sustained $10,000 worth of damage from the storm, which was mostly a result of trees falling on street lights.

“When I think back on it, it’s more of a sense of pride than a painful memory. Really it was,” Hain said. “The crews responded remarkably. It was a sense of pride in how the guys responded to it and how the gals responded to it.”

Moving forward A year later, the aftermath of the storm is still noticeable on the trees.

“There are a lot of trees that it’s still readily apparent that we had an ice storm not too long ago,” Clark said. “It’s always good to see the leaves come on because it covers up some of that stuff.”

There is still cleanup work that needs to be done, Oberloh said.

“There are places that I hope people will start to have enough pride in their property to clean up some of the trees that you can see are damaged,” he said. “I think if the branches that are hanging start to be a safety hazard, the city might have to come in and say to people on private property, ‘That’s a safety hazard, and we need to get that trimmed.”’

In Luverne, Call said the city is looking for the positives that can be learned.

“In our generators, we want to make sure they are always full of fuel,” he said. “Our emergency plan is where do we have a shelter where everybody goes to, like in a case of a tornado. What we’d really like to work on in the future is getting some emergency generation in our public school system. If you get knocked out of power at your shelter, then you have problems there.”

With a ban on non-essential water use in Worthington, planting new trees to replace those that were lost can be difficult.

“Our public works department will continue to work on the trees going forward,” Clark said. “We did submit a grant to the state, which is a $25,000 grant for tree replacement. They are hesitant to do it because we are in a watering ban, which is another hard deal.”

“Better take care of the ones you got because it doesn’t look like the watering ban is going to get lifted anytime soon,” Oberloh added.

Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.

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