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20 years later, emergency officials recall the aftermath

Becky Vargo • May 31, 2018 at 10:00 AM

Wind gusts were clocked at more than 120 mph in the early morning hours of Sunday, May 31, 1998, when a storm rolled across Lake Michigan and slammed into the Lakeshore.  

Trees and utility poles were toppled like toothpicks. Roofs were ripped off buildings and slung hundreds of feet away.

The Story & Clark piano factory smokestack near what is now the Harbourfront Condominiums in downtown Grand Haven was toppled, smashing into hundreds of pieces in the parking lot below. 

A three-story section of the Mill Point Condominiums in Spring Lake collapsed, trapping several people inside. Fortunately, no one suffered serious injuries.  

At Grand Haven State Park, campers scrambled for cover in the bathrooms as their pop-ups, travel trailers and motorhomes overturned or blew across the park. 

The Tri-Cities area was declared a local state of emergency. More than 800,000 Consumers Energy customers were without power. 

Early estimates put the damage at somewhere between $20 million and $25 million. 

The greatest loss of all was the death of Consumers Energy employee Paul Luna, who was electrocuted when he stepped on a downed power line that was covered by beach grass. 

Following are some recollections of emergency personnel working at the time:

Bryan Tithof

Tithof was keeping close tabs on the weather as he patroled Grand Haven while working the night shift for the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety, May 30-31, 1998.

“Central Dispatch kept notifying us of the impending storm with lots of rain and wind, said the current public safety detective.

Around 5 a.m., Tithof pulled into the City Beach parking lot, next to a North Ottawa Community Hospital ambulance.

“You could see the lightning coming across the lake,” he said. “I remember when that wind hit. The ambulance started to rock.”

Tithof said he and the paramedics looked at each other and said, “We’ve got to get out of here.”

The ambulance headed up Lake Avenue and back to the hospital. Tithof turned his patrol car toward Grand Haven State Park.

“I couldn’t get through,” he said, noting all of the debris across Harbor Drive.

The officer turned around and went up Lake Avenue, and noticed the power was out. He couldn’t radio anyone because Central Dispatch had also gone down.

Tithof said he stopped by an off-duty officer’s house, roused him, and told him to grab his chainsaw and head to the station.

Central Dispatch was soon back online and “we started getting calls of trees down all over the place,” Tithof said.

All of the officers on duty were sent to the state park because many campers had overturned, he said.

Eventually, all of the officers made it to the office.

“Everyone worked 12 (hours) on, 12 off,” Tithof said. “We did that for seven days.”

Tithof continued to work the night shift and said it was eerie.

“The only lights we had were our headlights,” he said.

Still, that turned out to be enough one night to catch a juvenile on a bicycle, who had just looted a downtown business. He had a milk crate full of stolen property, Tithof said.

Incidents that stand out the most from the time were the Spring Lake condominium collapse, large power poles tipped over on Harbor Island, and the fact that such a force could go through town without creating a fatality (at the time), Tithof said.

“For all that stuff to come down through that waterfront, it was absolutely amazing,” he said.

Rich Szczepanek

Now retired Deputy Public Safety Director Rich Szczepanek said his power went out, his pager went off and he had to manually open his garage door to respond to the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety office that morning.

He saw some wind debris, but had no indication of how bad things were until the calls started coming in as people rolled out of bed.

One of the first things he had to deal with was a back-up generator for Central Dispatch that wasn’t working.

“We tested that every Friday,” Szczepanek said.

Fortunately, it was a quick fix to get it running and get Central Dispatch back on the air.

At that time, Ottawa County Central Dispatch was located in the lower level of the city’s public safety building, so Szczepanek was able to meet with the county’s emergency services director, Bill Smith.

“Most of our problem was trees down and the power outage,” Szczepanek said.

The Grand Haven Board of Light & Power had six circuits in their system. That day, five of the six were compromised, Szczepanek said.

Aluminum ripped off a building at the Wharf Marina on Third Street and wrapped around the wires and shorted out the city, he said. Parts of the city were without power for five days.

Szczepanek said he stayed inside the building most of the day. When he finally got outside, “it wasn’t anything that I had ever seen before. You wonder, with the development we have today — with all the condos — what would have happened.”

Szczepanek also remembers the big old traffic arms from the drawbridge were folded in half by the storm.

What transpired from the windstorm was a planning process and relationship building that kicked in with the change of the millennium and continues today, he added.

Kevin Allman

Retired Ottawa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Allman was also a volunteer for the Spring Lake Fire Department when the storm hit. 

When the call went out to respond to the collapse of a three-story condominium building next to the Holiday Inn, he was one of the few firefighters who could get there. 

“We couldn’t get our trucks through,” Allman said. “I lived on the west end of town and could get through.”

Allman said he will never forget how the handful of firefighters and a bunch of Consumers Energy employees pulled together to lift a wall off a child trapped in the collapse. The child was on a sleeper sofa and somehow sank into it, saving his life, Allman said. It was amazing when the child popped out, he added. 

LeeAnn Dixon

The current administrator of Christian Haven Home was the volunteer coordinator for the local United Way when the windstorm hit.

“I had just started the week before,” LeeAnn Dixon said. “It was kind of trial by fire.”

Dixon slept through the storm, but received a call from then-Grand Haven City Manager Ryan Cotton later in the day.

“He said they were getting a lot of calls from people wanting to help,” Dixon said. “So, we arranged for all of the volunteers and people who needed help to call the United Way.”

Dixon said something memorable to her was when a Grand Haven Township couple called for help to remove several trees from across their driveway.

“We sent some Coast Guard guys out there,” she said. “They had chainsaws and got rid of the trees. They formed a relationship that continued long after.”

Dixon said she was really impressed with the volunteer response. 

“I bet there were 100 people who called with chainsaws and the willingness to work,” she said.

Dixon said groups from businesses and organizations led the way.

“It’s like this town always is,” she said. “There’s a situation (and) people will help.”

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