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Windstorm of 1998 is still the storm to remember

Becky Vargo • May 31, 2018 at 11:00 AM

The windstorm of May 31, 1998, was definitely a storm to remember. 

When I dropped off my daughter at a friend’s house that Sunday morning, I never realized how many hours it would be before I saw my 3-year-old girl again.

My husband had reported to work a couple of hours earlier; he was called in shortly after the 6 a.m. storm because of some power outages. He worked at the Grand Haven Board of Light & Power.

I stayed in bed a little longer, then eventually grabbed the scanner from the kitchen because it was making too much noise.

When I heard things like “Mill Point command” (Spring Lake) and firefighters discussing how they were checking homes, going door to door, and working their way down State Road in Spring Lake and Crockery townships, I knew it was something bigger than a scattered outage and that it was time to go into town.

At the time I lived off 104th Avenue in Crockery Township. We built our house in a former farm field and didn’t see or feel the effects of the storm that went through the area early that morning.

Later, we discovered that we lost 30 trees on our 40 acres.

I packed my daughter in the car and barely got out the driveway before I came to a tree that had fallen across the road. Someone had already used a chainsaw to cut an opening.

My plan was to take my daughter with me into town, but the farther I went, the worse it looked. So, I dropped her off at a friend’s house about 5 miles closer to Spring Lake.

Mimi Stalzer took care of my child all day before handing her off to the girl’s grandmother at about 5 p.m. Stalzer’s husband had also gone into town as soon as the call went out for the firefighters to respond. 

I took off for town again, stopping at a couple of homes along the way to take some pictures and talk to people doing storm cleanup in their yards.

It was becoming a beautiful day at that point. Sightseers were already trying to travel into town to see the heavy damage reported.

I finally made it to managing editor Len Painter’s house in Spring Lake Village. He didn’t realize how bad things were, either, but quickly made plans to go to the Tribune office in downtown Grand Haven, while I went over to Mill Point condominiums where one of the buildings had collapsed.

Andy Loree, our photographer, also stopped by Len’s house. Andy then headed out to get pictures of the damage.

I spent hours at Mill Point Condominiums as they dug through the wreckage, making sure everyone was out safely.

Eventually, I met up with other staffers at the Tribune office, which was also without power. This was a time when very few people had cellphones, so it was a meet at the office, coordinate operations, go out and meet back again.

This was also a time when the Tribune was printed on the press in the back of our building. That was not going to be operational without power, so we made arrangements with The Holland Sentinel to print our paper there. That meant reporters and editors had to drive down to Holland, write the stories, compose the pages, print the paper and bring it back to Grand Haven. And we had to wait until midnight, because that was when the Sentinel finished producing its own product.

I think it was about 24 hours after the storm hit that I was driving back to Grand Haven and then back home — where, of course, there was no power.

The rest of the week was somewhat of a blur: Grab a few hours of sleep, go to the YMCA for a shower (once their power was restored) and travel around town gathering stories.

We would drop off the film from our cameras at Meijer for processing. That’s when Meijer was on the southeast corner of Beacon Boulevard and Jackson Street, where Home Depot is now. It would be another year before we started to go digital.

While waiting for the film to be processed, we would write our stories in longhand on legal pads. We might go home for a couple of hours, but later in the evening a few of us would make the trip back down to Holland, type up our stories and do the process all over again.

A couple of days into the power outages, the Tribune acquired enough generator power so we could type stories on a computer, saving us a little bit of duplication. There was no way the generators could power the press.

Day after day, stories surfaced about the extent of the damage, the belief that straight-line winds caused the damage and the state declaration of a disaster site. 

For days, people were warned to be careful where they walked.

Stories about rescues and neighbors helping neighbors evolved. There was also the sad story of loss of life of a Consumers Energy worker.

Eventually, life returned to normal. New trees were planted to replace the many, many lost. And the windstorm of 1998 became history.

There have been some bad storms in the area since then, but several people in emergency services I have talked to recently still agree that one was still the worse in a very long time.

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