Worthington declares state of emergency, ice breaks trees and power lines, industries halted, city running on generators
By Julie Buntjer
Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Worthington’s major industries, including JBS, Bedford Industries, Highland Manufacturing and Merck, called off all production shifts Wednesday as city and county crews, law enforcement and emergency responders dealt with the aftermath of a major spring ice storm.
Worthington Public Utilities (WPU) Manager Scott Hain said the closure of major businesses helped alleviate some of the power supply issues for the city, which began operating on rolling blackouts and emergency diesel generation early Wednesday morning.
“We’ve been totally reliant on stand-by generation since 4 a.m.,” Hain said in an emergency meeting of city and county officials Wednesday at Worthington City Hall. He said the first power outage occurred at 1:45 a.m., and everything was down by about 3:45 a.m.
With limited local generation capacity, Hain said the business closures, while a “serious inconvenience” for them, help free up electrical capacity for local residents and limit the length of rolling blackouts. As of early Wednesday afternoon, Hain said blackouts were lasting approximately 45 minutes in the city limits, providing enough time for the city’s sanitary sewer system to keep up.
“We have no good indication as to when transmission to the city of Worthington will be restored,” Hain said. “Industries are fully aware that this may not be resolved overnight.”
Hain said Wednesday night that WPU was expanding its rolling blackouts to 60 minutes in length, with the blackouts starting at the top of each hour.
Hain also said Wednesday night that he didn’t know how long the rolling blackouts would remain in place. He noted that WPU was encouraging its customers to practice energy conservation.
The city of Worthington had declared a state of emergency earlier Wednesday due to impassable roads from downed trees and branches and a total dependency on backup diesel power generation. The declaration sets the stage for a response plan that will allow the city to work with private contractors as necessary to assist in the clean-up efforts.
“We’ve had quite a last 24 hours here in Worthington,” Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh said. Later Wednesday, the city council met in special session to approve the use of local contractors for clean-up efforts.
Amy Card of Minnesota’s Department of Homeland Security Emergency Management, who joined Wednesday’s meeting via phone, said Nobles and Rock counties had, by far, the most severe damage in Minnesota, with portions of Murray, Cottonwood and Jackson counties also hit hard.
Card said all five counties will be combined for disaster declaration efforts, and the number of counties could grow depending on the severity of the snowstorm predicted for the southern part of the state Wednesday night. The state threshold is $7.2 million in uninsured loss per event.
“What I ask is that you track your documentation,” Card told city and county officials. “Relay it to your street people, law enforcement, city and county employees. Track all overtime, track use of machinery, squad cars — all of that is eligible.
“Just between the power co-ops and the debris removal, you’re probably already eligible,” she added. “Just continue to track everything, even if you don’t know if it’s eligible.”
The next steps include having all of the cities in the county, as well as the county, approve a disaster declaration. That way, those costs can also be incorporated.
Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson cautioned those at the meeting that the money spent on clean-up efforts is not a guaranteed reimbursement.
“It’s on our dollar, up front,” Johnson said.
“Even though we hit that ($7.2 million threshold), there’s no guarantee that we’ll be getting that money back,” added Nobles County Emergency Management Director Joyce Jacobs. “Remember: Document, document, document.”
Law enforcement, medical response
Worthington Director of Public Safety Mike Cumiskey reported that portable stop signs were placed at intersections where stop lights were out, and that operations were running “pretty smoothly” at the dispatch center.
As for county law enforcement, Sheriff Kent Wilkening said deputies were responding to emergency-only calls, and that just one road was blocked as of Wednesday afternoon — between Nobles County 9 and Nobles County State Aid Highway 35.
Wilkening said the city of Adrian was operating on backup generators, and the Prairie Justice Center had enough diesel to fuel its generators for four or five days. Sanford Worthington Medical Center has enough fuel on hand to operate generators for up to 10 days.
“We’re advising everyone to stay home,” Wilkening said. “There’s no reason to be out on the roads right now, unless it’s an emergency.”
There was some discussion at Wednesday’s meeting whether or not to open an emergency storm shelter for people to go to if it got too cold in their homes.
Jacobs said that for now, people will be asked to take shelter in their own homes and dress in layers to keep warm. If needed, the county could open an emergency shelter in the former Avera Clinic on 10th Street in downtown Worthington, and the Red Cross is on alert if that decision is made.
“If this was December or January, I’d be a little more worried about people wanting shelter,” Wilkening said. “In April, with 30 degrees outside … if need be, we have places we can put them.”
Wilkening expects people with health issues and those on portable oxygen may be most in need in the coming days, and Jennifer Weg of Sanford Worthington Medical Center said they are prepared for those individuals. Sanford Home Medical is also on alert. The local hospital is staffed with medical doctors and the walk-in clinic extended its hours because both local clinics were closed on Wednesday. Anyone with emergency needs is asked to contact law enforcement dispatch at 9-1-1, while non-emergencies can call 295-5400.
Meanwhile, local media will continue to gather updates regarding power outages and clean-up efforts to get out to the public. The Daily Globe website was continually updated Wednesday, and information was sent out via Facebook and Twitter.
RadioWorks general manager Chad Cummings reported that just one of its stations, 93.5 FM, was operating as of Wednesday noon, and crews were working to restore power for its other stations. Cummings said 104.3 FM may be offline for up to 48 hours, and one of the RadioWorks towers was downed because of the ice.
Generators are powering the county’s ARMER system, as well as cell towers, and there is enough fuel supply to keep them operating for three to four days, Wilkening said.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.