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Stewartville residents scramble for generators, firewood and warm housing amid unrelenting power outage

About 1,900 customers were without power on Thursday, amounting to 85% of the city, said Capt. Jon Jacobson, Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office emergency management director. Nine power lines were down in the city, causing “major infrastructure damage” at the main substation.

December Storm Aftermath
Robin Splittstoesser, who owns Cabin Coffee Company in Stewartville with her husband Kevin, unpacks a box at the shop Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, after a severe storm Wednesday night. The storm caused widespread power outages throughout southeast Minnesota. Stewartville residents were advised by People's Energy Co-op that power would not be restored there until Friday afternoon.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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STEWARTVILLE — Residents here may have avoided a tornado, but most haven’t escaped a power outage that will likely take through Friday to resolve.

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As Wednesday’s balmy temperatures were replaced with bitter winds and 14-degree lows, residents searched for power generators, firewood, or a nearby friend or family member to bunk with for the evening.

The disruption came at an inopportune time for some.

Alec Fretty-Hamilton’s elderly family member returned home Wednesday night, in the thick of the storm, after undergoing surgery.

“She got out of surgery last night and got home to no power,” Fretty-Hamilton said Thursday, as he carried a crate of wood into her home, planning to stoke a fire in the fireplace in order to keep her warm.

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December Storm Aftermath
A sign on the Stewartville Public Library says they are closed due to a power outage in Stewartville Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, after a severe storm Wednesday night. The storm caused widespread power outages throughout southeast Minnesota.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

About 1,900 customers were without power, amounting to 85% of the city, said Capt. Jon Jacobson, Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office emergency management director.

And across People's Energy Cooperative's service area, which includes all or parts of Olmsted, Dodge, Fillmore, Mower, Wabasha, and Winona counties, some 4,000 customers were without power at the outset of Thursday. By day's end, electricity had been restored to 1,600 of them. Overnight, 264 more customers had their power restored.

On Friday morning, the cooperative reported, 12 work crews — including two contractor crews and four crews from other cooperatives — were being dispatched through the service area. The online map displaying outages was presenting unreliable data because a communication tower that collects the data was itself damaged by wind. Olmsted County Sheriff's Lt. Lee Rossman said Friday that power that had been out in Byron had mostly been restored while those in Stewartville were expected to continue through the afternoon.

Another local energy cooperative, MiEnergy, which serves most of Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties, as well as parts of Iowa, reported on Friday morning that it had restored more than 7,000 customer outages, and had fewer than 400 left to restore. The storm broke at least 35 utility poles across MiEnergy's service area.

Stewartville featured one of the largest concentrations of power outage. Nine power lines were down in the city, causing “major infrastructure damage” at the main substation.

“It’s a pretty significant outage,” said Jacobson.

Driving through the streets of Stewartville, many homes had power generators running outside, and several residents powered up their cars in order to charge appliances.

Diane Hammell pulled her cell phone out of its charging port in her car to show a picture of how the storm disrupted her popular front yard Christmas display. Snowmen lay face-down in the grass, candy canes were strewn across the lawn and lights were tangled around the large figurines.

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By Thursday afternoon, Hammell restored the display to its original state, eyes streaming as the biting wind whipped around her while she hammered the trinkets into her grass.

“People know my yard,” said Hammell, grinning as she explained why it was important for her to patch it up after the storm. “I do it for my neighbors.”

December Storm Aftermath
Diane Hammel puts Christmas decorations back up outside her home in Stewartville Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, after they were knocked down during a severe storm Wednesday night. Hammel her home had been without power since 7:30 the night before. The storm caused widespread power outages throughout southeast Minnesota.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

With her decorations intact, Hammell planned to travel to Chatfield to stay with her brother. Her house was 57 degrees Thursday afternoon, and she resorted to wearing mittens and earmuffs inside to keep warm.

Residents were advised to stay with family members or friends who do have power, or if they can afford it, go to a hotel to keep warm.

Bear Cave Intermediate School opened its doors to those who need a heated facility overnight. Food and water was provided on site and those spending the night at the school were asked to bring their own bedding, if possible.

Those who remained in their homes were cautioned against using gas stoves as a source of heat and Jacobson reminded that any generators should be run outside to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

The outage mainly affected the south side of town, according to Gwen Stevens, director of cooperative relations at People’s Energy Cooperative, which serves Stewartville.

“The City of Stewartville is served by two substations. One is north of town and one is on the south side of town. This destruction is only affecting the one on the southside of town. The one on (the) north side of town is fed by a different transmission system. The two systems are not interconnected because they operate on different voltages. Therefore, we can’t use that northern substation as a back-up for the southern one,” wrote Stevens in an email.

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December Storm Aftermath
Kevin Splittstoesser, who owns the Cabin Coffee Company location in Stewartville with his wife Robin, gets a generator ready to keep their refridgerators running Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, after a severe storm Wednesday night. The storm caused widespread power outages throughout southeast Minnesota.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

While Minnesota’s first December tornado was confirmed in Winona on Wednesday night, Stewartville did not see any twisters, and the city had minimal property damage, said Jacobson.

Some business owners opted to stay in their shops to keep an eye on perishable items. Robin and Kevin Splittstoesser, owners of Cabin Coffee, decided to forego the comfort of their bed and used their only generator to keep coolers running at the coffee shop.

At 4:30 a.m. Thursday, the couple unloaded a food delivery in the pitch dark, without the aid of working street lamps. Thursday, they had procured a heftier generator to keep the coolers running, preserving the food delivery.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and (the power has) never been out this long,” said Kevin.

“It’s been quite a different day at The Cabin,” said Robin with a smile.

Nora Eckert has previously worked with NPR, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and undergraduate degree from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. She’s reported on national investigations into jail suicides, how climate change disproportionately affects the urban poor, the spread of coronavirus in nursing homes and the race for artificial blood. She joined the Post Bulletin team in January 2021 as their investigative reporter.
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