85 mph winds rip through Benson
Benson’s City Council passed two resolutions during an emergency meeting Friday evening to give it authority to address the widespread damage caused by two violent storms that hit the city just 16 hours apart.
The first resolution gave Mayor Paul Kittelson the authority to declare a local emergency until 6 p.m., Monday, June 24. However, it also gives the council the right to extend that authority if necessary.
The second resolution gives the council authority to contract for services and purchase needed materials without having to go through the bidding process required in city ordinances.
An early morning thunderstorm Friday brought straight-line winds recorded at 85 mph at the Benson Airport at 1:33 a.m. But it wasn’t just one short gust the contributed to the damage. Winds of up 50 mph or more continued for more than half an hour as a heavy rain saturated the soil.
When the storm passed through, it left hundreds of trees either uprooted or snapped off with their trunks still standing. Large limbs were torn from hundreds of other trees.
Power was temporarily knocked out as falling trees and limbs ripped down power lines. Before city crews could turn the power on they had to go through the community checking for downed lines and separating them from the city’s power grid. In all, more than 50 homes were without power much of Friday. Power line crews from Ortonville and Olivia are in Benson helping repair restore power.
In some places uprooted trees brought up and broke natural gas lines, however, there were no reports of fires related to ruptures. Benson’s Fire Chief Mark Schreck is the incident commander on gas leaks and has the numbers to contact for repairs, City Manager Rob Wolfington said.
Tornado sirens went off in Benson late Friday afternoon as another vicious-looking storm approached from the west. It was barely 16 hours after the first storm had ripped through the community. The National Weather Service radar showed multiple bow echoes indicating the potential for strong damaging winds or a tornado.
The second storm brought winds of 50 mph adding to the damage in the city, and in some cases, completing the job on trees that the first storm had started. One person, whose power had been restored just as the second storm was approaching, lost it again.
At 3 p.m. Friday, Benson’s emergency management team met to go over the damage, assess what had been done and plan for the next steps there were needed. The team includes representatives of all city departments including law enforcement. Swift County Emergency Management Director Bill McGeary and County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver were also at the meeting.
At that meeting, Wolfington told city department heads that their staffs would be on duty throughout the weekend to take phone calls restore power, cleanup streets and remove the debris littering the city.
Wolfington estimated that it could cost as much as $150,000 to clean up the debris and repair damaged city infrastructure. It is unlikely the city will be declared a federal or state disaster, McGeary said. Such a declaration would mean additional help and future reimbursement for some of the city’s cleanup costs.
But, he added, the process of getting a disaster declaration starts at the local level, moves to the state and then the federal government. The city will be documenting its costs associated with the cleanup not only with hours worked and bills submitted, but with pictures taken of the damage.
One of the potential risks faced in the coming hours, Wolfington told the council, was the overexertion and exhaustion of city crews. They have been working since 2 a.m. Friday without hardly a break and were faced with days of work ahead of them. A plan needs to be implemented to get them the rest they need to stay safe while the cleanup effort continues, Wolfington said.
Any volunteers who come to the community to help with clean up will be directed to contact homeowners, Wolfington said rather than working with city. “We don’t have the means to organize them,” he said.
Swift County has offered what help it can give the city, Wolfington told the council – trucks, loaders and whatever is necessary for the cleanup.
Cleaning up residential properties
The council has made the decision to support the clean up of residential properties in the city within certain guidelines.
- City crews will not be going on to private property to take down trees or clean up debris. They will address damaged and uprooted trees on boulevards. Dangerous trees on boulevards will be a priority.
There are also a substantial number of “widow maker” tree limbs throughout the community – large limbs hanging high up in trees that could fall at any time on children playing beneath them or adults working under them.
- City crews will pick up vegetative debris that is hauled to the boulevard. That means tree limbs sawed into six-foot lengths and other tree debris.
- Debris can be hauled to the city’s transfer site just north of the city civic center or to the old dumpsite just east of Benson on the north side of Minnesota Highway 9.
- No construction debris will be taken.
Mayor Kittelson and Wolfington were complimentary of the extensive homeowner and volunteer cleanup effort underway in the community. Benson has ma
Benson’s residents are very self-reliant and hard working, Wolfington said. Many are not waiting for the city’s help, but getting their properties cleaned up on their own. But at the same time the city recognizes that there are homeowners who don’t have the physical strength, equipment or support to do all that needs to be done, he added. Where able, we are not going to bat an eye we at helping citizens, he said.
The city will be there it help them as much as it can, Kittelson added.
There are already tree removal businesses coming into the community offering their services to help people with the downed and damaged trees.
Friday night as the first storm roared into Benson, the dispatcher at the courthouse was told to sound the city’s tornado siren. However, though the switch was thrown, the sirens did not go off.
At this point, the power was off in the city. While the city’s sirens have a battery backup, the device the sends the signal to the sirens does not, Director of Public Works Elliott Nelson told the council. Wolfington added that the strong winds could have interfered with the signal to the sirens.
The sirens sent members of the council and city staff who were gathering for the 6 p.m. special meeting Friday to the basement of city hall.