Winter Storm Was 'Pretty Catastrophic,' Minnesota Governor Says

Gov., Tim Walz was in Austin Saturday morning to meet with Minnesota National Guard members and sheriffs from Mower and Freeborn counties, as well as those tasked with returning power to the businesses and homes throughout the area.

by Randy Petersen, Post-Bulletin / April 14, 2019

(TNS) — As approximately 1,700 households and businesses remained without electricity in Mower and Freeborn counties Saturday morning, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said many in the state are likely unaware of the devastation caused by this week’s storm.

“If you have power at your house, the snow is going to be melted probably by tomorrow or whatever, so it appears like nothing really happened, but this was pretty catastrophic,” he said, noting power outages had wide-ranging impacts from personal medical needs to large-scale farming operations.

Walz was in Austin Saturday morning to meet with Minnesota National Guard members and sheriffs from Mower and Freeborn counties, as well as those tasked with returning power to the businesses and homes throughout the area.

Freeborn-Mower Cooperative Services CEO Jim Krueger said 500 broken or damaged utility poles left 8,200 customers without power at one point. The co-op covers most of the two counties, with the exception of Austin and a handful of other areas.

As of Saturday morning, only two towns remained completely cutoff from power — Elkton, with 145 residents, and Lyle, with 550 residents. Krueger said crews were working to make repairs with the hope that both towns would have power by the end of the day.

“Then, what remains is the tougher rural areas,” he said, noting the co-op’s 25 linemen are being augmented by 125 others on loan from utility providers in four states.

In addition to linemen, Mower and Freeborn counties are still relying on help from the National Guard’s 224th Transportation Company, with teams providing coverage at 22 traffic-control points aimed at keeping residents away from downed power lines and other hazards.

“We’re still committed to the mission,” said Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen, the state Guard’s senior leader.

Capt. Robert Moccia, commander of the Austin-based 224th, said the work started less than five hours after the request was made Thursday, with 134 guardsmen responding by that evening.

Mower County Sheriff Steve Sandvik said the added manpower is likely responsible for helping ensure no lives were lost amid the downed poles. While barricades were erected, he said many blew into nearby fields, and the county lacked the numbers needed to warn drivers of potential hazards.

“We do not have a plethora of bodies to draw from,” he said.

Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag echoed the appreciation. “We had just about all our fire departments out,” he said, noting it still wasn’t enough to provide around-the-clock coverage and keep people safe.

Walz said the decision to deploy the National Guard wasn’t difficult, which is why the response was so swift.

“If it’s coming from you, and you are telling us you need it, we’re right there,” he told the sheriffs and other county officials gathered at the Austin Armory.

With the deployment came a state emergency declaration, which will trigger support for covering costs related to the storm.

“This will be very expensive,” Krueger said. “We haven’t even begun to estimate it.”

Walz said a past storm points to a cost of roughly $10,000 per downed utility pole. With 500 poles affected, that would put the price at $5 million.

However, what that would cover is unclear.

Krueger said it could be “in the ballpark” of the entire cost related to the storm, but Joe Kelly, the state’s emergency management director, said the cost could be higher once responders' overtime is factored in, along with costs related to the Guard deployment.

He said the impact is compounded by earlier flooding and other weather events, which he said he’ll include in a report to the Federal Emergency Management Agency when seeking additional support for covering costs.

Walz said he also hopes to pitch the need for a national declaration to President Trump when he visits Minnesota on Monday.

Kelly said funds will be found to support the local effort.

“There will be help, whether FEMA gets involved or not,” he said, noting his agency will work to determine the final cost once all the work is completed and power is restored throughout the two counties.

Walz said the help that has already arrived and the financial assistance that is expected is typical for the state, where neighbors help neighbors.

“It’s not misplaced pride,” he said. “Minnesota does this very well.”

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