Neighborhoods silenced and darkened by Monday’s storm came to life early Tuesday, as Missoula residents dealt with toppled trees, blocked roads, crushed vehicles and downed power lines.
Winds reaching hurricane force barreled across the valley Monday night, leaving a tangle of damage in their wake. Nearly 8,000 residents remained without power 24 hours later, prompting NorthWestern Energy to describe the damage as “a complicated problem.”
“Everybody outside Linda Vista, we’re expecting to be out until late Wednesday,” said Butch Larcombe, spokesman for NorthWestern Energy. “It’s been slow going, but we’re working on it. We’re throwing our manpower at it.”
In Linda Vista, however, the wait could be even longer.
Lightning and downed power lines sparked numerous fires in the area, including one in the lower Rattlesnake Valley at the base of Mount Jumbo. Residents scrambled to douse the fire, saying they were unable to get through to 9-1-1, despite trying for 20 minutes.
Ericka Schenck, who responded to the smoke from her nearby home, helped neighbors attack the fire with garden hoses and buckets. They succeeded in keeping the flames from creeping up the mountain’s flank.
“We were all trying to call 9-1-1, but it was just a busy signal, so someone finally drove to the fire station,” Schenck said Tuesday. “It was a bad storm and there was a lot going on, but I thought we would’ve gotten more than a busy signal at 9-1-1.”
Adriane Beck, director of the Missoula County Office of Emergency Management, said the 9-1-1 system worked as designed, though it became overwhelmed by the flood of calls.
Between 6 and 11 p.m. Monday, the center received 700 emergency calls initiating 500 calls for service, a volume that strapped responders and forced them to triage priorities. More than 300 calls rang in between 7 and 8 p.m. alone.
“We received reports from a couple of areas that said when they tried calling, they couldn’t get through,” said Beck. “It’s a rare instance for us not to be able to funnel the number of calls coming in at once.”
As many as 18,000 residents initially lost power when a line of thunderstorms converged over the valley just after 6 p.m. Monday. Areas of the Rattlesnake remained without power Tuesday night, and it won't likely be restored until late Wednesday.
On the southern end of Missoula, an estimated 2,400 residents in Linda Vista also remained without power. Gale-force winds toppled a series of heavy-duty transmission lines serving the neighborhood.
Carlie Aldridge was in her bedroom when the wind hit and the power snapped off. The power poles behind the family’s home collapsed, and electric lines draped over the roadway and rooftops.
“My husband was getting out of his truck when the power lines fell over onto that house and sparks began to fly,” said Carlie's mother, Gina Aldridge, pointing across the street. “The people were in that house when the power poles fell and they said they could taste the electricity.”
Neighbor Jim Tregarthen sat at his amateur radio when the poles collapsed behind his house. Void of power, he fired up his gasoline generator to keep his freezer running.
“A (damage) assessment truck came by and the driver said it was going to be a while before they get the power restored,” said Tregarthen. “I don’t know how they’ll get equipment in there. These power poles were put in before the houses were built.”
NorthWestern said the Linda Vista area would likely be without power until Thursday afternoon. Damage to the power grid was extensive, and repairing it has presented a challenge.
“We’re just getting our arms around the magnitude of the problem,” Larcombe said. “We lost the transmission line up there, and through that, we lost the ability to feed the substation up there.
"We brought in a generator and we’re working on building a portable substation, but it could take until late Thursday to get that power on."
NorthWestern called in additional line crews from Butte, Helena and Great Falls to help repair the damage. Larcombe said a new transmission line will be needed, and crews are now working around the clock to deal with the problem.
“Losing transmission structures is a big deal,” Larcombe said. “We’ve had some major damage. It takes a lot of logistics to get it repaired.”
In the aftermath of the storm, the city of Missoula issued a “parks emergency,” cautioning citizens of dangerous conditions. Broken tree limbs remained lodged in the canopy, threatening to crash down with the next windstorm.
As residents braced for another potential storm Tuesday evening, neighbors turned to neighbors to discuss the damage and help with cleanup. Employees with the U.S. Forest Service fired up their chainsaws, lending their time to clear fallen trees at Fort Missoula Regional Park.
In a southside home on Virginia Street, neighbors gathered in Liz Wahlstrom’s dining room to talk about the storm. A large spruce tree had crushed a Dodge Ram pickup truck parked next door.
The truck’s owner was safe by virtue of good timing.
“He’d been on the phone with his wife just before the power went out,” Wahlstrom said of her neighbor. “His wife had told him to go out and get something to eat. If he’d been out there getting in his truck when the tree went over, it could have been so much worse.”
Towering spruce trees decades old toppled across the city. One tree on Brooks Street shattered part of a chimney and pierced a neighboring garage.
A tree in University of Montana President Royce Engstrom’s yard snapped at its base like a toothpick. Three houses down, another spruce narrowly missed a mansion when it pulled free of the earth.
Despite all the damage, no significant injuries were reported.
“The wind always blows from the east if it’s a Hellgate wind, or the west, but this time it went that away,” said Alice Ammen, assessing the damage from her porch. “We felt very lucky it didn’t fall into our house.”
Ammen held her phone and remembered how her children once climbed the tree, and how it shaded the dog’s pen. It was just before 9 a.m. and her insurance company had yet to answer her call.
“We can always plant more trees,” she said.
The Office of Emergency Management worked with NorthWestern and local responders Tuesday to stay on top of new calls and lingering dangers. Mountain Water Co. also worked to keep the water flowing.
John Kappes, president of the company, said water outages reported in some areas were isolated to particular homeowner associations, or other water providers, none of which are served by Mountain Water.
“We have generators out running so we can continue to provide water to our customers,” Kappes said. “We have generators at our facilities that pump water. They keep us in water, even when we’re out of power.”
Some are jokingly calling the storm “Windegeddon 2015,” and over at the National Weather Service, meteorologists planned to study the series of events that led to the destructive wind.
Meteorologist Luke Robinson said Monday’s gust of 74 miles per hour was the third highest wind event recorded in Missoula, falling just short of the 78 mph gale recorded in June 2012.
“It was really the outflow that caused most of the damage,” said Robinson. “We had a pretty moist storm, but at the surface it was pretty dry. When that happens, it can create stronger winds.”
Robinson said meteorologists are also studying the unique direction of the storm, which came from the south. They believe the Bitterroot Valley funneled the winds, allowing them to intensify. When the winds poured into the wider Missoula Valley, they spread out and sped up.
“We have a lot of things archived from the storm,” said Robinson. “We’ll have people looking at the data.”
Beck said it was too soon to assign a dollar amount to the damage.
“The power company will be extensively looking at that and capturing that,” she said. “Homeowners need to coordinate with homeowner’s insurance to assess the damage there. We don’t have a lot of damage to public infrastructure.”