By Tim Leeds and Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A severe thunderstorm Friday in north-central Montana flattened crops - just starting to recover from five years of drought - in some areas and caused extensive property damage in Havre, officials said today.
Local insurance agents said they've received many reports of crop damage in rural areas and property damage in Havre, which received wind gusts of at least 56 mph and hail up to 1 inches in diameter.
"There was a tremendous amount of problems in property in Havre. The way we're counting them is who doesn't have a claim," Andrew Brekke of Erickson Baldwin Insurance Associates said today.
Rick Dittmann, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, said the storm covered an extensive area.
"We issued, I think, 23 warnings that day," he said.
Crop damage was extensive in some areas around Havre and Chester and in northern Liberty and Hill counties.
Doug Erhard, who farms about 8 miles southwest of Havre, said his wheat and alfalfa crops are about 90 percent destroyed. He has insurance for the wheat, but not the alfalfa. They were the best crops he had seen in about 15 years, he added.
"All you can do is look for another year," he said. "It gets a little discouraging at times. All you can do is keep your chin up and carry on."
The county's emergency siren was activated. Hill County planner Clay Vincent said several agencies have the authority to activate the siren, and he is uncertain which one did.
The number and type of calls received by police warranted the decision, he said. Several callers reported seeing what they thought was a tornado, he said.
"You hate to hold off for bureacracy," he said. "I'm glad it was on."
The siren operated for longer than intended, Vincent said. A lightning strike possibly damaged the siren, keeping emergency crews from turning it off, he added.
In most emergency situations, the siren will be accompanied by instructions broadcast on local radio stations, Vincent said. No radio message was prepared during Friday's storm, he added.
"In an immediate situation like that and people hear it, they need to take cover," he said.
One of the biggest problems created by the storm was the sudden flow of traffic, Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson said today.
"People quickly recognized the need to go home, which resulted in a traffic jam," he said.
Traffic lights at the intersection of First Street and Fifth Avenue were out, which further complicated the problem, he added.
Assistant Fire Chief Tim Ranes said the Fire Department received five calls during the storm.
"Basically the only real problem was some arcing wires from power lines," he said. The department received only one call for medical assistance, which was from a woman who lost power at her home and was worried that her oxygen machine would fail, he said.
About 70 kids at the city swimming pool were moved to the basement of City Hall, he added.
The Hill County Sheriff's Office responded to a number of calls, Sheriff Greg Szudera said today.
"Our involvement was minimal," he said. "Most of the damage was within city limits and our only involvement was to assist the city."
NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch said today that about a half dozen power poles were knocked down during the storm.
Several poles along a transmission line between Fort Benton and Havre were blown over, leaving Big Sandy, Box Elder and Loma without power for about 90 minutes, Rapkoch said.
Havre residents suffered the worst power outage, she said.
"The largest outage affected the Highland Park substation," she said. "It went out at about 4:30 and was repaired in about an hour or an hour and a half. About 2,000 customers were affected."
Olson said his department took 167 calls during the storm.
City workers responded to a number of the calls. Most of the work involved removing fallen trees and branches, as well as clearing flooded storm drains and picking up garbage cans, public works director Dave Peterson said.
Friday's storm was the worst he has seen in three or four years, he added.
"There was some pretty good damage," he said. "We saw a lot of broken windows and damaged siding."
City crews are continuing to clean up this week, Peterson said. People with downed branches should place them in alleys near garbage cans or along streets so crews can remove them, he said.
The storm extended across much of central and north-central Montana, resulting in storm warnings being issued for nearly six hours. Dittmann said the Weather Service started issuing warnings before noon, which is earlier than usual for severe thunderstorm warnings but not unheard of in Montana.
The first warning was in the Wolf Creek area at 11:23 a.m. High winds blew over a service station's sign in that town.
The storms in the Havre area were two separate thunderstorms produced by the same storm system. One started south of Chester, moving to the northeast. The other started southwest of Great Falls and ran almost straight north along U.S. Highway 87 from Fort Benton through Big Sandy, Box Elder, Havre, then northeast past Chinook and into Canada, Dittmann said.
The crop damage varied by area. Brekke said most reports of crop damage his office has received so far are centered north of Joplin, Rudyard, Kremlin and Havre. The damage north of Joplin seems the most severe, he said.
"We're still evaluating the situation," he added.
Clark Streeper, owner of Northern Insurance Agency, said the most extensive damage he has heard of so far is around the Sweet Grass Hills.
Sam Bitz, who farms near Big Sandy, said the storm mostly caused wind and some rain around his farm.
"I noticed the hail damage was quite prolific south of Havre. I saw hail damage as far as the lower lake," he said.