Extreme weather impacts tourism, city budgets

High winds cause waves on Lake Superior that have created expensive damage to Duluth's Lakewalk on several recent occasions.

From tornados to blizzards and excessive rain to droughts and heat, extreme weather is nothing new to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

A devastating flood event incapacitated Duluth and northeastern Minnesota in 2012. And a variety of storms over the last few years have delivered the brutal combination of sustained winds with high waves, tearing up shorelines from Duluth to the South Shore, and many places in between. 

Both areas have seen devastating impacts to their slices of Lake Superior shoreline and have gotten hit with storm after vicious storm. Effects are being felt by local residents as well as the tourism industry. 

Duluth 

In an odd series of events, Duluth’s most recent extreme storms all occurred in either October or April. This unfortunate trend began in October 2017, followed by another extreme storm in April 2018. October 2018 brought the most devastating event of all, and was followed up with another wallop in April 2019. 

These storms caused an inordinate amount of damage, for a few key reasons. Exceptionally high lake levels, combined with sustained northeast winds, created a storm surge phenomenon. Winds were clocked at more than 70 mph (winds are considered “hurricane force” at 74 mph). Sustained over days, these extreme conditions caused damage almost everywhere Lake Superior meets the land. 

In addition to ripping up

Duluth’s shoreline, the Lakewalk and boardwalk were severely damaged. Boulders and other lake debris were lifted from the lake and deposited on land. Light fixtures were ripped up and overturned, exposing dangerous live wires. Additional damage was done to storm sewer outfalls and the road running parallel to Brighton Beach. 

Mother nature’s tab

The storms have had an enormous financial impact. Construction and energy project supervisor for the city of Duluth Mike LeBeau said, “Our current cost estimates for the various storms look like this: October 2017 storm, $9,019,000; April 2018 storm, $675,000; October 2018 storm $15 to $20 million. The April 2019 storm didn’t do measurable damage – partly because of the ice, but also because the boardwalk was mostly removed, as were other amenities.” LeBeau explained the vast majority of the damage was to Duluth’s Lake Superior shoreline and waterfront, from the ship canal to Brighton Beach.

If you’re doing the math, that’s more than $30 million in damages. Repairs are expected to be completed in two to three years. Unless another storm interrupts progress in the meantime, that is. It seems that just when work gets underway to start making repairs, another storm hits. “We can’t catch our breath,” LeBeau said. 

City employees are working with Great Lakes coastal engineers to assess extreme weather and make plans to reinforce the shoreline. These engineers rely on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data, including predictions for storm surges, lake levels and frequency of weather events. 

As   such, repairs to Duluth’s shores, once completed, are expected to be able to withstand even stronger storms. A massive concrete wall and footings, as well as additional revetment, will be installed along the shoreline. And, while not structurally necessary, as long as they have to be reconstructed anyway, both the Lakewalk and boardwalk will be widened, and additional capacity for emergency vehicles will be added to the Canal Park waterfront. Plans to move the road parallel to Brighton Beach farther away from Lake Superior also are being considered. 

While the city of Duluth is being assisted by both state and federal entities, such as the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division and FEMA, it’s slow going. “We are reimbursed after making the repairs,” LeBeau said. “The City comes up with the money on its own and then gets reimbursed. We’re still waiting on reimbursement for the 2012 flood.” 

Adding to the delays, the city is working closely with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Army Corps of Engineers, entities that often require lengthy permitting processes. A section of waterway from Chester Creek to the ship canal is a designated fish sanctuary, which can only be worked on during certain times of the year. Add to that the repeated storms, and progress has been slow. “I’m having to work pretty hard to make people understand why the repairs are taking so long,” LeBeau said.

Port Wing

With a population under 200, the small Wisconsin community of Port Wing is well-known as a great place to check out Lake Superior’s South Shore. But it is this exact attraction that wreaks havoc on this tiny community when extreme weather hits. And with fewer resources than larger cities such as Duluth, repairs and reinforcements are much harder to come by. 

Janet Johnson, president of the Port Wing Area Business Association, said, “Since December 1900, there has been a harbor in Port Wing. After the logging business and ships declined and the passenger ships stopped coming, the harbor did not grow or improve. There are magnificent views and a long sandy beach, but it was not accessible to many people.”

“In 2015, the Port Wing Area Business Association decided to do something about this under-developed, inaccessible area. They raised money to build a large boardwalk with benches and picnic tables. There are posts with solar lights and engraved fish with names of people past and present who sponsored a section of the boardwalk. Two years ago this spring, the boardwalk was finished.” 

Not long after its celebrated completion, disaster struck Port Wing’s brand-new boardwalk. “That fall, in October 2017,” Johnson said, “The storm raised havoc, tearing off some of the sections, covering most with logs washed up from the waves. The wood that appears on the beach now is not small driftwood, but large logs.”

Community effort

Johnson shared that like many small towns, Port Wing is struggling to survive. Finances are slim. Rather than relying on government entities to assist with repairs, for which financial estimates were not immediately available, the community of Port Wing banded together. 

“Most grants that are out there, well-intended that they may be, do not work for us simply because they are matching grants,” Johnson said. “Where does the matching money come from?  Most towns, I would guess, do not have a big bank roll to fall back on.”

She explained how the community worked together to fix their broken boardwalk. “Last May, with the help of local townspeople, a town crew and a volunteer crew from the Northland Lawn Sport & Equipment business in Mason, run by the Michael Lafontaine family, the boardwalk was put back together and enjoyed again all summer.”

But, similar to the pattern seen in Duluth, the waves came yet again in October 2018 – bigger and even closer this time. “The waves pounded the boardwalk with water eroding under two of the sections. Three posts were in danger of being swept away,” Johnson said. 

“The waves sounded like a train going by, and we were sure that by morning’s light we would have part of the boardwalk missing. To our surprise, we only lost one post, and no sections were missing. But they were not spared from being twisted and bent.”

Tourism

While damage to the Lakewalk, Canal Park and Brighton Beach are inconvenient for tourists and residents alike, Maarja Anderson Hewitt, media communications manager for Visit Duluth, shared that effects to Duluth’s tourism industry haven’t been significant thus far. “We don’t have a way of measuring Lakewalk traffic, so we really don’t know if the damage has had an impact on tourism,” she said. “After each of the storms made regional news, we seemed to get an influx of calls regarding Lakewalk accessibility and whether or not Canal Park or hotels were open, but those inquiries have not been ongoing.”

This minimal impact to Duluth tourism is probably helped by the fact that LeBeau is working hard to accommodate many of the events that take place on the Lakewalk – despite ongoing construction. “I’m doing everything I can to accommodate events, as long as it’s safe to do so,” he said. “I’ve even asked contractors to stop working on the weekend.”

In contrast, Port Wing’s visitors, as well as its residents, are definitely feeling the stress of future impacts on tourism.  “If the recent predictions of record water levels come true, the road to the harbor could soon be under water, possibly eroded and impassible,” Johnson said. “If this happens, local residents living and working on the Lake Superior shore would be stranded. Commercial fishermen would not be able to get to their boats or drive to the boats to get their catches, sports fishermen would not be able to trailer to the landing, the charter fishermen would not be able to get their clients to their boats, the Port Wing Marina would not have any business, the Holiday Pines cabins would not be rented, and the summer residents would not be able to get to their homes. The alternative route to that area, Lakeview Road, would also be in danger of flooding due to higher water levels on Lake Superior.

She continued, “All of these would have a dramatic impact on local businesses in the town of Port Wing. The gas station, the bars, the restaurants, the various resorts and campgrounds will all see a decrease in income. As with many small towns and small businesses along the South Shore, it is the summer tourist season that will make or break you.”

New normal

Both Port Wing and Duluth, and other communities in between, are vulnerable to extreme weather events – in more ways than one. “Not only are the majority of structures along the shore, whether it’s a stairway to the lake, a break wall, a road, or simply a picnic table or firepit, in constant danger of being washed away,” Johnson said. “But the high water and the damage it is causing discourages people from buying land on the shore, therefore reducing tax dollars.”

LeBeau added the storms of late are expected by all accounts to be the new normal. “It’s sad, but disaster recovery is becoming a growth industry across the country,” he said. “All predictions indicate that the climate is going to get more intense. Warmer, wetter, and with more rainfall.”