Sunday storms add to danger, misery; 99,000 lack power

More days in dark ahead as storm-battered neighborhoods clean up.

Sunday morning storms added to what already was a record number of power outages in Minnesota history and brought new flooding and road closures to some communities.

The thunderstorms that rolled through the Twin Cities area starting around 4 a.m. knocked out power to thousands more customers. While Xcel Energy had restored power to all but about 112,000 by Saturday night, that number had climed to 122,000 by 7:30 Sunday morning, said Xcel spokesman Tom Hoen.

By mid-morning Sunday, Xcel had brought that number down to 99,000.

Most of the new outages and the continuing ones were in the west metro area.

All totaled, the weekend storms knocked out power to 554,000 homes and businesses.

The morning storms caused significant street flooding in Albertville and St. Michael in Wright County, the National Weather Service reported. Storms hit the area between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., dropping up to 2.5 inches. That area is under a flash flood warning until 10 a.m.

Flooding also was reported in Glencoe and Winsted in McLeod County after a soaking rain of between 2.5 and 4 inches since 4 a.m. One narrow swath from Gibbon to Glencoe to St. Michael received 3 to 6 inches. Water is encroaching on homes and businesses, the weather service said.

In Minneapolis, streets blocked by downed trees were so common in some neighborhoods that emergency vehicles and Metro Transit bus drivers were forced to hunt for routes through the wreckage left by the storms that began Friday morning and continued through the weekend.

Damage from the storm was widespread, with more than half a million Xcel Energy customers in the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and across Minnesota without power at some point during the weekend, more than twice as many as the previous largest power outage, in 2007.

Xcel said it might be Wednesday before all customers had power again.

Xcel said it had some 1,100 workers in the field after calling in reserves from Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and even Colorado to help restore power. The crews drove bucket trucks to Minnesota, arriving throughout the day Saturday.

The next few days also are looming as wet ones in much of central and southern Minnesota, according to the National Weather Service, with thunderstorms further saturating the ground almost daily into Thursday and increasing the risk of large trees going horizontal onto homes, other structures and vehicles.

Motorists were urged to use caution since many traffic signals throughout the Twin Cities were out. “Those by law become a four-way stop,” said Kent Barnard, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “We want to start stressing that because people will get ticketed,” he added.

No serious injuries were reported due to the storm, but several small fires broke out throughout the weekend as downed power lines sparked, said Minneapolis Deputy Fire Chief Harold Breffle.

Neighbors helping neighbors

In the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis and the Macalester-Groveland area of St. Paul, nearly every block was littered with fallen limbs and toppled trees. Cars and houses alike were crushed beneath falling branches.

Also bearing the brunt of the storms in south Minneapolis were the Powderhorn Park, Standish-Ericsson and Corcoran neighborhoods.

On West River Parkway as throughout the metro area on Saturday, tree removers were cutting down the remains of partly felled trees, and residents were picking up branches and leaves in a cleanup that brought out all arms.

On block after block, the scrape-scrape of rakes competed with the steady hum of generators and the occasional buzz of a chain saw as neighbors wearing gloves and smiles helped each other clear driveways, streets and yards.

With the power out, residents like Phyllis Pittelkow, 75, of the Hiawatha neighborhood were turning to battery-operated lights and candles to see.

“My son brought a generator over for us to use so at least we can keep the refrigerator going and the food cold,” Pittelkow said.

Along Mount Curve Boulevard in St. Paul, near the Mississippi River, Mark Helgeson and his neighbors shared accounts of the storm and its wake. People talked about the high winds that kept blowing.

“The trees were just swaying back and forth, like nothing you’ve ever seen,” Helgeson, 52, said during a break in his motor scooter tour of the battered Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. “I’d say it’s one step down from a tornado.”

To the west, in Minneapolis, 18-year-old Cole Zitek and his neighbor, Brandon Lawrence, saw lightning hit a giant oak, which then fell on Zitek’s house, trapping him.

“The wind hit and all of the sudden it was a big blast; it was a huge white flash as lightning went through it, and the tree split wide open,” said Lawrence, 28, who was watching the storm from his house two doors west of the Zitek home.

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