Summer vacationers and seasonal cottage owners were milling about Glen Arbor last August when the Leelanau County community was struck by a storm that left it in shambles. Winds approaching 100 mph came off Lake Michigan and hit the mainland like a sledgehammer, toppling thousands of trees in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, around Glen Arbor and the cottage-lined Big and Little Glen Lake shorelines.
Century-old timbers were left splayed on the ground, blocking roads and driveways and crushing rooftops and vehicles. No one was killed, which many deem a miracle, but the power outage that followed left the community without lights and electricity to pump water. It put shops and restaurants out of business for a week or more, scattering summer tourists and sending property owners into a frenzy of worry, cleanup and repair.
“In our lifetime, most of the forested areas we’ve enjoyed will not be that way (again), but they will be for grandkids or great-grandkids. Eighty to 120 years is going to be needed.”
— Kama Ross
The story was similar in cottage communities across northwest Michigan, as the storm stretched from Frankfort to north of Traverse City. Property damage tallied in the millions in the hardest-hit areas of Leelanau, Grand Traverse and Antrim counties, prompting a book, “Storm Struck,” which details the storm’s impact and ensuing community heroes. A dollar from every print book sold benefits Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
“In our lifetime, most of the forested areas we’ve enjoyed will not be that way (again), but they will be for grandkids or great-grandkids. Eighty to 120 years is going to be needed,” says Kama Ross, district forester for Benzie, Leelanau and Grand Traverse Conservation District.
Those who stayed in Glen Arbor to help clean up say the storm of the century brought the popular lakeshore community together. A hot spot for tourists and seasonal residents, Glen Arbor is a place people go to escape, known for its quaint cottage life, natural beauty and traditions like a homespun Fourth of July celebration and Manitou Music Festival on the dunes.
But on Aug. 2, 2015, around 4 p.m. on a busy summer Sunday, the idyllic setting turned dark and left people fearing for their lives.
“People took shelter in the center of our store,” recalls Sue Boucher, owner of The Cottage Book Shop, in Glen Arbor. She wasn’t there but made contact with an employee. “She said it was craziness. Kids were screaming and people were under tables. It sounded like a train was coming through and it was black as night. Children were crying and she gave them stuffed animals to hold and read them books to calm them down.”
All across northwest Michigan, people were shocked by the storm’s ferocity. Its destructive 10- to 15-mile wide path stretched from Lake Michigan’s shoreline east to Rapid City, according to the National Weather Service. Downed trees in Glen Arbor stranded some at home and kept others at bay, stuck in town and unable to return home or to nearby campsites. Downed power lines added to the hazards.
“We had trees on three sides of the house. I looked out to the woods and there was no forest anymore.”
— Bill Witler
“We were shell-shocked, scared and shaken,” explains Bill Witler, choking up as he recounts the experience. “People were breaking down in tears for weeks after it happened.”
Witler, a retired banker and vice president of the Glen Lake Association, was at the family cottage on Glen Lake with his wife, Rita, their son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. Its forested Northwood Drive location was hit hard by the straight-line winds. When the winds began to gather force, the family scrambled to close windows, anticipating yet another downpour. They quickly realized that what approached was no common summer thunderstorm.
“I looked out and saw all four uprights on the shore station were at 45-degree angles and said, ‘We need to get into shelter,’” Witler recalls. “My daughter herded everyone into the center bathroom without windows. Ten minutes later, we came out and looked out on the lake and there was nothing there. Twenty-three dock sections, a boat lift and canopy all had been moved 150 feet. It was smashed and upside down. We had trees on three sides of the house. I looked out to the woods and there was no forest anymore.”
The widespread tree damage left most locals stunned.
“Picture an area 200 to 300 yards wide and a mile long where every tree was down — beech, maple, oak — they all are down. … It was unbelievable,” says Henri Boucher, a Glen Lake cottage owner.
Nearly 300 homes were damaged, according to John Soderholm, the Glen Arbor Township supervisor. More than 20 boats were blown off hoists or were found flipped in Glen Lake. Area residents reported seeing dock sections and boats float by. The fierce winds shifted water levels, to the point portions of the lake bottom were visible.
“There were trees that dropped through roofs, and we had one 200-year-old tree drop through the middle of a garage,” Soderholm recounts.
“This is having an emotionally draining and devastating impact on people who have established roots in the area since the 1930s and 1940s — long-standing families. The topography has changed forever, and that is what people are wrestling with.”
“I have been amazed by the community for a long time and how people step up to help one another. This was another example of their willingness to get together and solve a problem.”
— John Soderholm
Glen Arbor, also a gateway to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, bears the distinction of being a wealthy community, but its residents are people who will rally for an important cause. People indeed looked out for one another, Soderholm says. In the storm’s aftermath, some offered others temporary shelter. Others banded together to clear the woody debris from yards and driveways. Neighbors checked on neighbors and offered extension cords to those with no emergency generator.
Visitors to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are bound to see some differences in 2016. The August 2015 wind storm blew down approximately 2,000 scattered acres of trees in the 71,000-acre park. National park staff report that most trails, campsites and other facilities have been cleared and repaired, but the once-attractive shade canopies may be gone in a number of areas.
Heavy tree damage occurred along the 13-mile Heritage Trail between Empire and Port Oneida, at the popular D.H. Day campground, in Glen Haven and along the 9-mile Alligator Hill Trail.
“The heaviest damage was at D.H. Day Campground and Alligator Hill,” notes Merrith Baughman, public affairs officer for the national lakeshore. “(As of last fall) our crew cleared 2,000 trees and a mile-and-a-half of the 9-mile trail at Alligator Hill. This spring, Alligator Hill (trail) will still be closed. That’s going to be a long process”
Other hard-hit areas expected to be open to the public this spring include:
D.H. Day Campground: The popular 88-site campground had significant tree damage and damage to tent pads. Tent sites, picnic tables and water fountains have been repaired. Campers should anticipate the sites will be a lot sunnier in 2016.
Heritage Trail: Much of the tree canopy that shaded the trail between Glen Haven and Glen Arbor is gone. The trail otherwise is open for use. A new 3.8 mile segment will be added to the northern end this spring, running from Port Oneida east.
Glen Haven: An iconic feature at Glen Haven was a row of black locust trees. Half of those were damaged and had to be cut down. None of the historic buildings were damaged.
Local residents began bringing food to the Glen Arbor Township Hall that had been quickly converted into an emergency shelter, thanks to a generator that provided emergency power.
“I have been amazed by the community for a long time and how people step up to help one another,” Soderholm says. “This was another example of their willingness to get together and solve a problem.”
The township hall became a vital community hub offering shelter, food and water for nearly a week. Coffee was available and area residents arrived early each day, often to charge cell phones and laptops so they could communicate with others, or to find out how they could volunteer to help.
Several groups, including American Red Cross and The Salvation Army, and businesses came to the rescue. The owner of Jimmy Johns in Traverse City donated 500 sandwiches along with staff to serve volunteers, Soderholm says.
Randy Chamberlain, a local chef and owner of Blu, an upscale restaurant on the bay, heard about the shelter and rallied his employees to cook a gourmet meal for everyone. An initial collection for the meal was given to Chamberlain, who gave it to his staff and they donated it to the Red Cross, according to Soderholm. By week’s end, the donor bucket had $800 to $900 in donations.
“After the storm, we were all stunned.”
— Bob Sutherland
The township also received $28,000 in unsolicited donations from local residents to help pay for the community cleanup. Soderholm said he was not surprised. That is the nature of those who live in Glen Arbor.
“The townspeople really looked out for each other,” notes Witler, chairman of the Glen Arbor task force that was convened to organize the ensuing disaster relief effort. “There is a strong sense of pride here and the caretaking that was exhibited was consistent with that.”
Bob Sutherland is another who took it on to provide for the community. The 54-year-old president and founder of Cherry Republic, which is headquartered in Glen Arbor, spearheaded a post-storm, tree-planting and cleanup campaign called “ReArbor Glen Arbor.” Sutherland raised $46,000 in private donations for the work. In the days after the storm, he often climbed on his tractor and helped clear roads and driveways.
All across northwest Michigan, people were shocked by the storm’s ferocity. Its destructive 10- to 15-mile wide path stretched from Lake Michigan’s shoreline east to Rapid City, according to the National Weather Service.
Cherry Republic, Sutherland says, donates 1 percent of its annual sales — more than $1 million over the past 15 years — to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Glen Arbor and other communities and area organizations that work to benefit the environment. The company gave $5,000 to the Glen Lake Community Reformed Church to help fund storm cleanup work. Congregation members went out every weekend to help less fortunate people clean up their property. Another $5,000 was given to Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes to aid the cleanup work in the national park.
“After the storm, we were all stunned,” Sutherland shares. “Many were faced with a major calamity and many of us were unscathed. I feel fortunate about what this town has done for me growing up here. I wanted to give something back. What has united us is getting the town back on its feet. The goal is to raise money and recharge the people and develop a new positive vision. ReArbor is an attitude. It is more than just trees.”
Preparing for stormy weather
Severe weather can strike anywhere, at any time. It’s hard to prepare for 100 mph winds, but here are some helpful tips to protect your cottage or lakefront property from storm damage:
• Inspect your roof to look for any problem areas like missing or damaged shingles.
• Inspect the exterior of your home to check for things like cracked windows, damaged or missing siding, etc.
• Install whole-house surge protectors to prevent lightning strikes or artificially generated electrical surges from damaging appliances.
• Inspect plumbing for wear and tear.
• Remove overgrown vegetation away from your cottage/home.
• Remove rotted or dead trees that are in close proximity to your cottage/home.
• Make sure your dock, boat, water trampolines and other watercraft are properly secured, especially when you are away; keep kayaks, paddles, rafts, outdoor furniture and other items that could blow away in a storage unit or stowed when not in use.
• Assess your property after a storm and report any major property or structural damage to your insurance company as soon as possible.
By taking the time to create an emergency supplies kit, your family will be prepared in the event of a disaster. The supplies can be kept in a plastic storage bin, suitcase, trash can or other containers, or in a closet.
• Water one gallon per person per day for drinking and sanitation (store a three-day supply).
• Ready-to-eat food, canned juices, comfort/stress foods (at least a three-day supply).
• Battery-powered or hand-cranked radio and a NOAA weather radio and extra batteries for both.
• Flashlights and extra batteries.
• First-aid kit.
• Non-prescription drugs such as pain reliever, anti-diarrhea medication, antacids.
• Whistle to signal for help.
• Water and pet food if you have pets.
Other tips: Replace food every six months. Rethink your kit and family needs once a year. Replace batteries. Invest in a generator or chain saw if possible and keep a wood supply for heat or cooking, especially in colder months.
Source: Ken Statly, client product development and property-casualty specialist with Farm Bureau Insurance
Award-winning writer Howard Meyerson lives in Grand Rapids.