OWATONNA — With temperatures hovering around freezing Friday afternoon, workers from Steele-Waseca Cooperative Electric, as well as some of their co-workers from other nearby cooperatives, worked diligently to try to replace utility poles that were damaged or destroyed by the storm system that hit the area earlier this week and took power away from roughly 1,700 meters in its coverage area.
And, of course, each of those meters represented customers who were left without power while the winter storm blew into the region, dropping temperatures and covering Steele County with about five inches of snow in early April. The loss of power to so many households in the county led Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to include Steele County among the counties in his declaration of state of emergency Thursday night.
Syd Briggs, the general manager of the Steele-Waseca Co-op, said that the majority of the damage done to the co-op’s utility poles occurred in the southern part of its system along a line south of Highway 14 in Steele and Waseca counties.
The utility poles were damaged as a result of a combination of ice and strong winds, which, at times on Thursday, reached 50 mph, perhaps stronger.
“I’ve seen thicker ice, but with winds that strong,” Briggs said.
The result was that the ice weighed down the electrical wires while the winds rushed in, snapping some of the poles, uprooting others.
The first crews went out at about 11 p.m. Wednesday when the first reports of damage started coming in. There wasn’t much damage at that point, Briggs said, so just two crews were sent out.
That soon changed.
“By Thursday morning, everybody was out and we were still losing ground,” he said.
In part, he said, that was because what the crews had just repaired would be damaged again. And it didn’t help that as they were working on trying to replace the poles, the visibility at times was near zero.
“We lost 150 poles. That’s big for us,” Briggs said.
And, at one point, 15% of the meters on the Steele-Waseca grid were without power. That, he said, is about 1,700 meters.
By Friday morning, the crews, whose members were working 15-18 hour days, had reduced that number to 12% of the meters without power, with about 1,300 of the meters out shortly after 1 p.m. Friday.
That would mean, Briggs said, a long weekend for crew members.
“We’ll be working all weekend,” he said. “We hope to get the majority [of meters restored] done today and tomorrow, a couple of hundred on Sunday, and a few stragglers after that.”
In his emergency declaration, Walz noted that the “electrical distribution system (power grid) has been damaged” in a number of counties, including Steele and Waseca.
The governor also authorized the use of the armories in several counties, including Steele County, could be used as an emergency shelter.
Bonnie Johnson, the shelter manager for the Steele County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) said that, in anticipation of the governor’s declaration, CERT members were prepared to receive people who needed emergency shelter by 1:30 Thursday afternoon.
“We were waiting for the state [to declare the emergency],” she said.
It was the second time this year that the armory has been open as an emergency shelter this year, the last coming in February when a winter storm closed the Interstate from Owatonna to the Iowa border. During that storm, all 188 available beds were filled and a second shelter had to be opened at Trinity Lutheran Church.
“They kept coming and coming,” Johnson said of the people seeking shelter in February. “It was amazing.”
This week’s shelter opening wasn’t nearly so dramatic in terms of numbers, Johnson said, with just a total of 14 people who came in — most to use the facilities to shower or bathe — by Friday morning. Only two stayed the night on Thursday.
Still, as long as the power is out in some nearby homes, the shelter will remain available for those who need it.
“We could be open until Monday,” Johnson said.
By 5 p.m. Friday the number of outages was down to 909, according to the Steele-Waseca Cooperative Electric website.
Briggs said that several other electric cooperatives that had not be impacted by the weather had contacted him about assisting in the repair that needed to be done.
“We’re big on cooperation between cooperatives,” he said.
The cost for the cleanup is difficult to tell at this point, Briggs said, though he estimated it would be at least $1 million.