After the storms, Twin Cities clear a path, brainstorm for future

Minneapolis mayor and Xcel officials ponder ways, including burying power lines, to lessen the impact of severe storms.


While neighbors gathered Monday to mourn the loss of hundreds of trees being cleared by crews, Mayor R.T. Rybak said he wants to consider a number of preventive measures that could soften the blow of the city’s next major weather event.

Those measures could include burying power lines, building sidewalks differently or planting different species of trees, he said as he surveyed the damage.

“If you have half a million people without power in a metropolitan area for several days, what does that mean for productivity?” Rybak said outside of Everett’s meat shop on 38th Street, where the freezers were back up and running.

Minneapolis crews have removed some 800 trees just to reopen city streets since the storms that started Thursday night, and now are turning their attention to hundreds more boulevard trees that are leaning on structures. The city doesn’t yet know how many boulevards and park trees went down. Then workers will address worrisome trees remaining on boulevards that have a lean, a crack or other issues.

St. Paul officials said they lost about 500 trees, including a landmark catalpa that stood just off Hamline Avenue in the Macalester-Groveland area, where it helped to frighten kids at Halloween.

Burying lines is costly

Looking at some nearby power lines, Rybak asked, “Is that the most effective way for us to guarantee power to a city deeply dependent on it?” After several incidents in recent years, including two inner-city tornadoes, he observed that they are a “pretty tentative way” to transport energy.

Rybak was careful to say that he wasn’t calling for any particular change, but rather merely asking the question. Burying power lines is expensive. Xcel says they cost between 10 and 20 times more than overhead lines. A state agency recently ordered Xcel to bury lines that would have gone over the Midtown Greenway, at an extra cost of about $17.5 million.

“The main issue is how do we make sure we do the best job possible to get a reliable energy source,” Rybak said. “That could mean just securing these and protecting them in a different way. It could mean burying them. It should mean also looking more at local generation, so in these crises, people who are smart enough to get non-grid sources” don’t lose power.

Responding to some of Rybak’s thoughts, Dave Sparby, president and CEO of Northern States Power-Minnesota, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, said: “If the city wanted to us to assist them in examining alternatives here, we’d gladly do that.”

Kent Larson, Xcel’s senior vice president of operations, said burying the entire city distribution network could double residents’ energy bills. Burying lines is complicated, he said, because of obstacles including fences, sprinkler systems, sidewalks, driveways and garages.

Larson said they are looking at other ways to “harden” the system against future weather. That may involve new methods of keeping the poles upright, including breakaway conductors and better quality poles. “We’re still in the developmental stage of those ideas,” Larson said.

The mayor also said that the city may want to replace the fallen trees with certain species that are less prone to falling. He also mused that different sidewalk designs could alleviate storm damage.

“We didn’t see too many streets that are completely wiped out,” Rybak said. “That’s good, because we still have a pretty amazing tree canopy around here.”

Just who pays for the extensive sidewalk damage remains to be seen. Rybak said that while sidewalk repairs are typically paid for through assessments on property owners, the city did not do that after the 2011 north Minneapolis tornado. He said the City Council will have to examine the issue.

Mourning the trees

Beyond the numbers, the impact of the loss was devastating to neighborhoods.

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