Area campgrounds gradually adopting protections from dangerous weather
LARIMORE, N.D. — Pearl Beck and her sister were camping at Larimore Dam and Recreation Area in August 2007, when tornado warnings sounded through much of Grand Forks County.
While the Larimore campground had no early warning siren at the time, word spread fast. Many long-term summer campers own radios that pick up National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather reports.
They briefly discussed seeking shelter about 20 miles away in Northwood, N.D., where they had a place to stay.
“We said, ‘We’re here, we might as well stay. If it’s going to take us, it can take us here’,” said Beck, a Bagley, Minn., resident who spends summers at the Larimore campground.
That day, an EF-4 tornado devastated Northwood, killing one person and causing more than $50 million in damage. The series of tornadoes that hit the Red River Valley that August afternoon missed the Larimore campground.
Weather warnings have been a common topic of conversation at campgrounds throughout the valley this week, in the wake of the EF-2 tornado that roared through a residential camp near Watford City, N.D., Monday night, destroying 13 trailers and injuring several people.
One of the biggest problems victims of that storm faced was not having someplace to seek shelter, according to authorities there.
Many public campgrounds in the Red River Valley lack storm shelters, too. But most have made improvements in their warning systems in recent years.
“We’ve been lucky,” said Rich Axvig, a board member of the Grand Forks County Water Resource District, which operates recreational facilities, including campgrounds, at the Larimore and Fordville, N.D., dams.
The board recently installed warning sirens, which are being used for the first time this season, at both facilities. The sirens are connected with local fire departments, so when an early warning siren sounds in town, they also blare at the campgrounds.
“We have a responsibility to give our guests a warning, at least,” Axvig said.
In the past, the full-time summer campers, especially those with weather radios, helped campground staff members notify other campers when Larimore was in the direct path of severe storms, according to Paul Flynn, a longtime Larimore resident. He and his wife, Carol, have spent summers at the campground since 2000, while spending winters in Arizona.
“The siren is a good addition,” he said. “We’ve had a few times when the weather really threatened and we got some wind, but never really had a big one.”
Larimore and Fordville are among several campgrounds and cities in Grand Forks and Nelson counties that have received federal grants since 2009 to install early warning sirens or other emergency equipment, according to Janet Dvorak, grants administrator for the Red River Regional Council in Grafton, N.D.
Early warning siren grants also have been awarded to Turtle River State Park near Arvilla, N.D., Stump Lake Park in Nelson County, as well as the cities of Inkster, Lakota and Pekin, N.D.
The projects, which cost about $20,000 per siren, are funded through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program, with 75 percent of the money coming from the federal government, 10 percent from the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services and 15 percent from the local governments.
Grants also have been awarded in the past couple of years for emergency generators for city water treatment plants, storm shelters and other projects in Drayton, Grafton, Michigan, Minto and Pekin.
The grants are not available all of the time, according to Dvorak. Rather, they are part of FEMA’s hazard mitigation program. When a federal disaster is declared, 5 to 10 percent of the total funds allocated are set aside for what are called initiative projects, those that do not involve property acquisitions.
Many counties throughout the region now have CodeRed Weather Warning systems, which provide automatic notification to landline telephones.
The CodeRed system also notifies cell phones. However, cell phone users must register their phones to be included. Sign-up forms are available on most county websites. Smartphone users also can download an app to get the notification, according to Nancy Shafer, Polk County 911 Dispatch director and emergency manager.
Cities and counties promote the program to encourage more people to register. The system has been in use in Grand Forks and Polk counties for about two years. However, officials did not have data this week on how many people have registered in each county.
That storm also caused major damage at Polk County Park, on Maple Lake south of Mentor.
While the Maple Lake park does not have a warning signal that alerts residents and campers of a pending major storm, it does have a bathhouse that doubles as an emergency storm shelter to offer refuge, according to Shafer.
And the county highway department, which operates public parks in Polk County, has a system to notify campground hosts and other officials.
Full-time summer residents at Larimore Dam and Recreation area say the new early warning system is a good addition to the campground.
“It gives some peace of mind,” said Joan Anderson of Larimore. She and her husband, Mark, have spent the past seven summers at the campground.
When the early warning siren was installed, the campground was notified that the nearest storm shelter was at Larimore Public School, which is nearly a 10-minute drive away.
“That’s going the speed limit,” said Mary Beth Hoffman, an East Grand Forks resident. “But if a tornado’s coming, I won’t be driving 15 mph.”
If there’s too little time to travel, regular campers say they’ve discussed seeking shelter in a low spot near the campground, in the Turtle River valley.
Axvig said a storm shelter is a dream among county water board members.
“Maybe someday we will,” he said. “Maybe we can find a grant for that.”