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Vehicle traffic leaves ruts in the slushy snow on Red Cedar Pass the morning after the rare May storm.

Winter delivers a final punch in Hudson area

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It's hard to believe now, but just a week ago Hudson was hit by what was hopefully the final snowstorm of a seemingly unending winter.

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The rare May winter storm covered the area in snow varying in depth from about four inches in the city to nearly a foot farther to the east in the town of Hudson.

The heavy, wet snow snapped tree branches, bringing down power lines and cutting off electricity to some homes and businesses.

The Hudson School District cancelled classes for Thursday, May 2, because of hazardous road conditions in parts of the district.

Electric utility crews were kept busy into Friday restoring power to customers, and the city of Hudson Public Works Department was still clearing fallen tree limbs from street boulevards earlier this week.

The snow that fell on Hudson was part of a winter storm that stretched from southeastern Minnesota to northern Wisconsin.

Xcel Energy spokesman Brian Elwood of Hudson said that up to 64,000 Xcel customers experienced power outages in an area running from Owatonna, Faribault and Red Wing in Minnesota, through Hudson, Menomonie and Eau Claire in western Wisconsin, and up to Ashland in northern Wisconsin.

"The areas that were the hardest hit (by power outages) were the areas that had the most snow," Elwood said.

That didn't include the city of Hudson or village of North Hudson -- each with about four inches of snow. In general, the farther east you went, the deeper the snow was. Baldwin had about 15 inches on the ground.

Spring Valley, Menomonie, Amery and Hayward also received a lot of snow, according to Elwood.

He said the reports of customers without power began coming in at around 2 a.m. Thursday.

Xcel Energy mobilized 330 crews of linemen and troublemen in the two-state area to restore the power. Crews based in areas not hit by the storm were called in to help with the effort, as well as crews from Minnesota Power, a neighboring utility.

Hudson and Baldwin hosted some of those crews, Elwood said.

The crews worked shifts of 16 or more hours, took eight hours off for sleep, and headed back out, according to Elwood.

By mid-morning Friday, Xcel was down to a few isolated outages in the Hudson and Roberts areas.

Todd Harmon, the operations supervisor at Xcel's Hudson office, was in charge of the restoration effort in this area.

He said that by midday Friday the Xcel crews were focusing on private power lines and facilities that were damaged in the snowstorm.

"We've got a great group of folks here from our organization and all the others that helped," Harmon said. "I take my hat off to them for working however many hours we worked during the day and at night to get everybody back in service. You have events like this and everybody just kind of pulls together."

Elwood noted that many of the crews were called out in the middle of night, while it was still snowing. They had to locate the problem, bring in equipment, remove trees and complete the repairs in the dark.

"With the number of broken tree limbs and downed power lines that we had, safety was a huge, huge issue," Elwood said.

"Yeah, it can be tough, but it comes along with the job," Harmon said. "Everybody just tries to look in the same direction of getting everybody back into service."

St. Croix Electric

At the height of the outages, St. Croix Electric Cooperative had 2,500 members out of service, according to Mark Pendergast, the co-op's president and CEO.

Some of those included co-op members on the north side of North Hudson and into the towns of Hudson and St. Joseph. The power went out sometime early Thursday there. It came back on at 7 a.m. for the North Hudson neighborhood.

By midday Friday, fewer than 100 St. Croix Electric members were without power, and Pendergast expected everyone to be back in service by 5 p.m.

He said the co-op's strategy is to complete the repairs that will restore power to the most members first, and then deal with the outages affecting fewer members.

Persons calling the St. Croix Electric office in Hammond got a recorded message saying there were outages in the Hudson, Boardman, Glenwood City and Spring Valley areas.

Pendergast said most of St. Croix Electric's 800 miles of overhead power lines are east of Hwy. 63 and Baldwin. That's also the area that got the heaviest snowfall, and consequently, the most trees and tree limbs falling on power lines.

He estimated that there were 30 to 35 instances of trees falling on a line and breaking it. There were numerous other cases of trees or limbs lying on a power line, causing circuit breakers to open and interrupt the flow of current.

Pendergast said many of the problems were caused by dead trees just outside of the right of way for the power line. "There were just a lot of dead trees falling into the lines," he said.

St. Croix Electric had five two-man crews working rotating shifts of at least 16 hours until the power was completely restored.

"Absolutely not," Pendergast said when asked if he could recall another power outage in May caused by a snowstorm.

"This time of year, we are usually dealing with uprooted trees from soft ground -- kind of a whole different ballgame," he said.

Pendergast said some St. Croix Electric members would be out of power for more than 28 hours, the longest outage for the co-op since a 2007 windstorm.

"This will put quite a dent in our power reliability statistics for the year," he observed.

County response

"Oh, man. It was nuts. Totally nuts," St. Croix County Highway Commissioner Tim Ramberg said of the conditions faced by county snowplow drivers.

The weight of the snow brought tree limbs down not only on power lines, but on county roads, Ramberg said.

A driver sent Ramberg a cell phone photo of a roadway totally blocked by fallen trees. "You couldn't even see the road, let along plow it," Ramberg said.

He said the county had two brushing crews out clearing roads totally blocked by fallen trees. Plows drove around trees partially blocking a road.

Ramberg said the heavy snow and downed power lines made for dangerous conditions for plow drivers. Some trucks were pulled into the ditch after the wing plow hit something, he said.

He was thankful for dispatcher who warned drivers about a low-hanging power line that could have hooked the raised box of a plow truck.

The highway department has responded to 42 winter storms this season, and 29 incidences in which plows were sent out to deal with ice, drifting snow or other problems, Ramberg said. He said he budgets for 30 storms and 10 incidents a winter, which is fairly typical.

The city

"It was a very busy winter," Tom Zeuli, director of the Hudson's Public Works and Parks Department, agreed.

Zeuli said this winter's storms also were unusually difficult to clean up after. The high moisture content in the snow and the temperature often made the streets slippery and hard to plow.

Then there was the frequency of the snowfalls and other precipitation.

"It seemed like we were going out (to plow) a lot," Zeuli said.

He said that in the first four months of the year, the city has spent $92,500 of $124,500 budgeted for wages for snowplowing in 2013.

The Public Works Department's fuel consumption in the first four months of 2013 is up nearly 4,000 gallons from the same period in 2012, but down 1,600 gallons from 2011.

Zeuli said 2011 was another busy winter. The city has added wings to plows and purchased better equipment to improve fuel efficiency since then, he said.

The Public Works Department has 70 miles of streets to plow plus alleys, park walkways, and some sidewalks and walking paths along streets, Zeuli reported.

The snowplowing is done by the eight-member Public Works crew, two or three drivers from the Water Utility and sometimes the Public Works mechanic. The City Hall and library/police department building maintenance workers assist with clearing alleys and sidewalks.

"We have a dedicated Public Works staff," Zeuli said. "I hope they get recognized a little. They get called out at dangerous times during ice storms, and at all times of the night, and on weekends and holidays."

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Randy Hanson
Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.
(715) 426-1066
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