Community Resilience: How Glen Arbor picked itself up after the megastorm

, , , ,

Travis from Northern Reflections Construction of Traverse City prepares to tackle one of hundreds of trees that fell upon homes in the Glen Lake region. Photo by Stephen Brotschul

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

Children splashing in the surf, live music crooning from the deck at Boonedocks, the “yum” of a mouth enjoying cherry pie. These are the typical sounds of high summer in Glen Arbor.

But during one extraordinary week in August 2015, the sounds that dominated our town were the whirr of winds and the ugly crack of trees, followed by the buzz of chainsaws, the hum of generators, and the cheering and car honking as Consumers Power trucks and linemen rolled into town like a liberating army.

StormArrivesThe megastorm that pummeled Glen Arbor and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Aug. 2 severed hundreds and hundreds of old-growth trees; it made all roads to Glen Arbor impassable; it caused millions of dollars worth of damage; it brought the local tourism industry to a grinding halt for days. But, no one died, despite several near fatalities. And the storm of August 2015 left us with stories that we will share around campfires and kitchen tables for the rest of our days — long after the pages of this newspaper yellow.

The destruction in the wake of the storm also sounded a clarion call to action for Glen Arbor townspeople, business owners, visitors and emergency personnel to step up and help one another. Within hours, the injured were safe; within days the roads were clear and businesses were open again; within a week, Glen Arbor seemed back to normal, cruising along at its frenetic August pace before the tourism season ends abruptly on Labor Day weekend.

Once we clear the trees and the brush, repair the roofs and the cement and replace the destroyed cars, the casualty that remains will be the gaping hole in our forest. The canopy that once guarded Alligator Hill but which we’ll never see again. If we re-plant the trees, our grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, may some day hike there, picnic there, propose marriage there.

Here’s a recap of that scary, exciting and memorable week in Glen Arbor.

Sunday afternoon, Aug. 2

When the straight line wind shear hit the Lake Michigan shoreline shortly after 4 p.m. on Sunday, tourists like Kathy Ockaskis had the misfortune of being on the large dune at Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The torrential rain and hail and blowing sand against her bare skin “felt like a million needles”. As she and 25 others climbed back toward the overlook, people around her yelled ‘we’re going to die!’

“It was horrifying … the most painful thing I’ve ever endured,” she told MLive.

But Ockaskis was lucky. There were no trees around her.

CarolWorsleyTreeIn Glen Arbor, Carol Worsley was in her office above the detached garage at her Thyme Inn bed & breakfast when the air changed. “I noticed that the wind stopped, and it got almost pitch black, so I decided to finish my paperwork in the kitchen,” she told Sun editor Mike Buhler. As she was gathering up her items “I thought I heard someone yell ‘GO!’ like my mother when she was mad. I dashed to the stairs, got part-way down, and then the tree crashed and the wind blew and I was thrown down the stairs.”

She struck her head but did not break anything, and she got out of the garage only to see that it was cut in half by a century-old oak tree that landed right where her desk is. Battered and bruised, Carol was grateful that she was not — what she joked — “Glen Arbor’s only fatality. I feel very lucky!” Days later, she still had a headache and went to Traverse City for an MRI to make sure she sustained no hidden damage.

A mile away at DH Day Campground, a young mother was sitting in her tent, holding her baby, when the storm arrived. She suddenly realized that the tent wasn’t a safe place to be. So she and the baby moved into their vehicle. Within minutes a tree fell onto their tent. Had they still been there, it might have killed them. This story was told to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore chief interpreter Merrith Baughmann when National Park officials evacuated, and closed, the campground.

DunnsFarmRd4And on Dunn’s Farm Road, just east of the Glen Lakes, a 47-year-old Colorado man was driving to pick up his son who had reportedly gone for a jog when his car was hit by a tree limb. The man, who was wounded, was cut out of the car by fast-thinking neighbors, transported by pontoon boat across Big Glen Lake to the Narrows Bridge, and then taken by ambulance to Munson Medical Center. He reportedly sustained several fractured vertebrae but will recover.

The storm wouldn’t stop Glen Arbor native Sam Duwe, and his fiancé Kate Newton, from tying the knot, which they had planned to do on this day at the Glen Lake Yacht Club. The bride was en route to the ceremony site together with her future mother- and father-in-law when the storm hit.

“The next thing a giant limb fell and hit the top of the car and it was only a matter of one or two minutes from that initial limb falling and we were totally blocked in and trapped,” Newton told 9&10 News. So Newton got out and walked. When her shoes became a burden, she climbed barefoot over several downed trees, as people along the way cheered her on.

Newton’s arrival at the wedding was “pretty epic” said the groom. The ceremony continued in candlelight.

DHDayBut most of Northern Michigan suddenly found itself in the dark. Electricity was knocked out throughout Leelanau County and the Traverse City area. The free, outdoor movie at the last night of the Traverse City Film Festival was abruptly canceled. Trees littered the landscape. All three roads leading to downtown Glen Arbor were blocked.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore shut down operations at the Philip A. Hart Visitors Center in Empire, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, the Dune Climb, the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, Glen Haven and DH Day campground.

Sunday evening

A search and rescue team headed up Alligator Hill at 6 p.m. to find five hikers who had gone missing. The hikers took cover as trees fell like matchsticks all around them, then called 911 from their cell phones. Sheriff deputies teamed up with National Park rangers, who reportedly blew their horns and sirens, shined spotlights into the air, and fired some shots into the air, in hopes of guiding the hikers out of the labyrinth of fallen trees that the storm had created. The hikers weren’t located until 4 a.m., Monday morning.

ArtsTavernMeanwhile, without electricity, restaurants in Glen Arbor closed their doors. All except Art’s, which turned on its generator and continued to serve burgers and pints of beer. The Township Hall became an impromptu shelter for those stuck in town who couldn’t get home or to their hotels. Randy Chamberlain, chef and owner of the upscale restaurant Blu, donated nearly 100 duck confit dinners to the Town Hall and served them on a folding table under a basketball hoop. Accompanying the duck was salad, risotto, spaghetti and profiteroles. Wine was not included.

Dave Gersenson, owner of the Sylvan Inn and the Glen Arbor Lakeshore Inn, as of last month, had 20 beds to fill because his Sunday evening guests weren’t going to be able to reach Glen Arbor. So he walked to the Town Hall and offered those rooms to stranded people for steeply discounted rates.

BearClouds-ClareLaneskyAs the sun set over Sleeping Bear Bay, Bloomfield Hills native Clare Lanesky happened to point her camera toward the horizon and snap a photo of unique looking clouds hovering over the water. Her photo shows the bear clouds. Or perhaps it was the sleeping bear and her cubs, from the Ojibwe legend, watching over Leelanau in its time of need.

Monday, Aug. 3

In the storm’s wake, Glen Arbor residents immediately recognized that the destruction they witnessed was unprecedented for our town. This was worse than the summer 1987 storm, Funistrada owner Holly Reay said. In fact, it was far worse. The storm was more powerful and more destructive than any other Glen Arbor storm ever recorded. Soon, statistics emerged to prove it.

Jeff Lutz, meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Gaylord, clarified that while Sunday’s storm was not a tornado (the Sun helped spread that initial hyperbole) he did confirm that the straight-line winds which accompanied the sudden thunderstorm reached speeds of 100 miles per hour. That’s strong enough to be called a tornado, or a type-2 hurricane. More significantly, it blew away the previous wind velocity record for Leelanau County. According to the NWS, on Sept. 13, 2005, a barrage of wind traveling at 63 miles per hour hit Leland and Empire. But 63 is not even close to 100. The Aug. 2 storm was clearly the strongest to ever hit Leelanau County, since records were kept starting in 1950.

The message that Glen Arbor, and its ability to host tourists, had been decimated spread faster than 100 mph wind. Hundreds of thousands of social media users, around the nation and the world, gaped as they logged onto Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and saw imagery from the storm. “Glen Arbor” was the top trending topic on Facebook. Our website, attracted more than 47,000 views on Sunday, and 116,000 on Monday — more than 10 times our previous record. Meanwhile, receptionists at The Homestead had the unenviable task of calling guests and encouraging them to find other accommodations in northern Michigan. Most visitors left the resort on Monday.

DHDay2By mid-morning, one lane of M-109 to the west of Glen Arbor was open, but at first, sheriffs deputies would only let traffic leave town. The road is passable, wrote Sun contributor Sarah Bearup-Neal, but “there is amazing damage along the way. It’s do-able but you need to keep your eyes peeled. The power lines all have trees hanging on them. It’s not pretty.”

Leelanau County officially called for a State of Emergency declaration, and used a press conference in Traverse City to appeal to the state and federal government to help recoup costs after the storm cleanup.

I drove to as far as I could on Dunn’s Farm Rd — the Foothills Motel and Café — and then set out by bicycle to reach Glen Arbor. But rather than pedal forward, I found myself walking 10 steps and throwing the bike over one downed tree over another, for at least half a mile. A machete, or an Abrams tank, would have been more effective than a bicycle.

In downtown Glen Arbor, residents were already pulling themselves out of the morass. Web designer Molly Connolly started a Google document with up-to-date information about the unfolding situation. Anderson’s Market got a generator, re-opened, and struggled to keep up with the demand for ice and water. Cherry Republic hauled out a gas grill and began cooking hot dogs for pedestrians on Lake Street. Tourists who needed to eat should have another option besides Art’s, which was slammed, thought Cherry Republic vice president Jason Homa. Plus, tourists needed to see a sense of normalcy returning to Glen Arbor. Nearby, at the Glen Lake Narrows, marina owner Carol McCahill sounded the call via social media that her staff would pick up anyone stuck in their lakeside homes, particularly along decimated Dunn’s Farm Rd.

I sat outside Cherry Republic’s café and enjoyed a cherry chicken salad sandwich and a Boomchunka cookie, like I had a thousand times before, and I saw CEO Bob Sutherland roll down Lake Street in his tractor, looking for brush to clear.

Tuesday, Aug. 4

GlenArborTuesday brought both good and bad news. M-22 east of Glen Arbor opened to traffic, which meant that people could get between town and the Homestead. Northwoods Hardware acquired a generator and opened, offering flashlights, candles, water and generators to anyone in need. Leelanau County set up a call-in number for homeowners to report damage and attempt to re-coup costs later on.

But Sleeping Bear Dunes spokesperson Merrith Baughman announced that the Park would cancel this weekend’s Port Oneida Fair, the popular annual celebration of pioneers and farmsteads in the Port Oneida Rural Historic District several miles north of Glen Arbor. The loss of the fair felt like a blow to the stomach for some, who looked forward to this event all year.

Acknowledging that aid workers and food supplies weren’t able to reach the hardest hit areas, Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich appealed to residents of Dunn’s Farm Rd to help each other. “We’re asking people to be neighborly, to help each other,” he told the Sun. If you stockpiled food or water for an occasion like this, and your neighbor needs fresh water for baby formula, offer to share it.

On Tuesday night, I found Bob and Stephanie Sutherland and their boys, ducking tree limbs while walking down M-22 south of Glen Arbor to survey the damage. I interviewed them on video (watch it on and they spoke of Glen Arbor being the ideal place to be when a natural disaster hits, because you can count on each other. Sutherland thought aloud about starting a crowd-funding campaign to begin re-planting trees on Alligator Hill, whose wanton, naked destruction appeared behind him in the video.

Wednesday. Aug. 5

M22SouthReopensAlmost no one could believe it, but by Wednesday, one lane of M-22 south of Glen Arbor and Dunn’s Farm Rd were more or less open. The tree cutters, sawyers and chainsaw-wielding magicians had done a remarkable job, clearing in three days what might have taken weeks.

At the makeshift shelter at the Glen Arbor Town Hall, the food was good, but no longer gourmet. Chamberlain and Blu were no longer serving duck confit; the Salvation Army was here instead. Early in the afternoon a sheriff’s deputy announced at the Town Hall that 70 extra bucket trucks had arrived, and linesmen were using Glen Lake School as their headquarters and trying to restore power to Glen Arbor that day.

Meanwhile, Win Williams, relief director of the Southern Baptist Convention of Michigan, appeared at the Town Hall, met with Township supervisor John Soderholm, and offered to provide, at no cost, relief to private homeowners who had trees or debris in their yards, on their vehicles or on their homes. His team of altruistic volunteers would be housed in Empire while they helped us clean up after the storm. Interested parties were encouraged to sign up at the Town Hall.

At Art’s Tavern, the generator died, but somehow Tim Barr and Bonnie Nescot breathed new life into it. Glen Arbor’s most popular meeting place remained open. Power returned to The Homestead Wednesday afternoon, and receptionists called guests and encouraged them to return, or to keep their weekend plans. By Friday, the resort would be packed again. (The blackout had brought strange bedfellows together: even Buckeyes and Wolverines. On Tuesday, I met a couple from Columbus and a couple from Ann Arbor sharing a gas grill together near the mouth of the Crystal River.)

But the excitement over a fast recovery was too hasty. On Wednesday afternoon, Consumers Energy announced that it was re-closing M-22 south and Dunn’s Farm, in order to re-string power lines. And its timeline for restoring electricity to Glen Arbor pushed back to Friday afternoon. The damage was vast.

Thursday, Aug. 6

CottonseedFour days after the storm, many of Glen Arbor’s shops and galleries grew restless. They opened, despite not having electricity. The message was clear: the town was open for business. Up M-22, the Leelanau School opened its gymnasium for the public to use bathrooms and showers. And The Homestead turned its previously scheduled concert on Bay Mountain into a benefit for storm victims. Power returned to nearby Empire, the National Park visitors’ center re-opened, and announced that Glen Haven would open on Friday. The Friends of Sleeping Bear opened sections of the Heritage Trail between Empire and Glen Haven, and Glen Arbor and Port Oneida. Trees were still being cleared on the Glen Haven-Glen Arbor stretch.

Cherry Republic’s “Orchard Report” e-newsletter revealed Bob Sutherland’s “Bring back the arbor” campaign. The company would match each dollar spent to re-plant trees on Alligator Hill. At the M-22 Store, Matt and Katy Wiesen decided that $10 from each sale of a Glen Arbor Love shirt would go toward helping their employees (8 of them) repair or replace their vehicles damaged by the storm.

NoteFromNeighbor-GeorgiaGietzenAnd humor tempered the impatience. Sarah Bearup-Neal took a photo near M-22 and Day Forest Road of a sign that read “Road Closed for Event”. The event appeared to be work crews bringing back electricity to Glen Arbor after nearly a week in the dark. Quite an event, indeed! Meanwhile, Georgia Gietzen found a note on her property from neighbor Bill Peterson that read, “My tree fell on our mailbox. I will buy you a new box.”

Friday, Aug. 7

At long last, on Friday, at around 2:30 p.m., electricity returned to Glen Arbor, prompting cheers among the staff at Cherry Republic. It meant that the Dune Climb and Pierce Stocking — the crowned jewels of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — would be able to open on Saturday. Glen Arbor suddenly, somehow appeared normal again.

The economic damage, we don’t yet know. Losing three full days of business is “a very, very large number for us,” The Homestead CEO Bob Kuras told Crain’s Detroit Business on Friday. Cherry Republic lost a quarter of its typical Glen Arbor sales last week. And while Art’s stayed open, it cost $400 a day to run the generator, Tim Barr told Crain’s.

Early in September, we’ll know how many fewer visitors the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore received in August, particularly during the week following the storm. But just as the social media machine named Sleeping Bear “the most beautiful place in America” four years ago and pronounced it drowned after the storm, the same social media machine declared that Glen Arbor was back on its feet.

It’s mid-August. Art’s is packed, hotels are full, cash registers are humming. For Glen Arbor, the show goes on.

Hour-by-hour coverage of the storm and its aftermath on wouldn’t have been possible without a team of dedicated reporters and citizen journalists who helped us out. Thanks to Sarah Bearup-Neal, Stephen Brotschul, Mike Buhler, Molly Connolly, Linda Dewey, Jeff Gietzen, Ann Hilton, Raquel Jackson, Paul May, Chris Sack, Bob Sutherland and Norm Wheeler. It was our honor to feed the outside world news of Glen Arbor’s recovery.