Summerland Spirit Festival (SSF) received its initiation by storm when a flash flood on the eigth day of the nine day festival washed out a footbridge and, for a short time, trapped ten attendees. The campers escaped by creating a rope system that allowed them to reach the rest of the camp safely. No one was injured. Festival president Todd Berntson commented, “It was like something from CNN. Quite literally, there was a river that was flowing through our campground. It was surreal. In some spots, it was five feet deep and rushing quickly. Very dangerous.”
Sean Nilsen was among the ten campers caught on the flooded side of the bridge. “There were 5 of us camped together including Gypsy, our two boys of 9 and 11 and one other adult family friend. I believe there were 5 others also camped on the same side of the creek as us – this bringing the total of us to about 10 – out of over 100 Festivants who were not camped on that same side of the creek.” Nilsen performed a safety check, and drew upon his training in Boy Scouts to devise a system to get the group to safety. “After crossing the causeway section we reached what would have normally been another causeway section leading to the bridge crossing the creek. The bridge was absolutely fine. It was the causeway section that had floated about 30 feet out of place. I knew from seeing this earlier that it was roots and stones underneath and there was already a crew of people on the bridge beginning to plan our crossing. One of the other people on our side of the creek and I both tested a step into the creek bed to determine the depth and it was up to my chest – too much for kids to cross considering the current at the time. I called for rope to help us and the speed the toss came with told me someone on that side had already had the same thought. The throw was just barely short and I had to dive into the creek to retrieve the rope end and depend on the other adults on our side to assist me back to the safety of the tree we had taken shelter under. Thanks to my background with Scouting, I tied off our end of the rope to the closest tree, which was luckily directly in line with the bridge railing. Once the rope was tested and secure, adults from both sides built a chain from end to end to assist the two little ones, then the remainder of the adults across, I was somewhere in the middle of the chain. After everyone else was across, I believe I was the last to come up out of the water and we decided that the causeway leading up to the bridge, the piece which moved out of line, was secure where it had shifted to and would not float away from where it was,” said Nilsen.
4 hours of rainfall on July 16th between 4:15 and 8:55 am softened ground already wet from steady rain the day prior. Per National Weather Service records, the last flash flood in the festival area was in 2002. No injuries or deaths were reported from the recent or historic incident.
Mark Digatono, a festival attendee, camped in one of the tents washed out by the storm. “The person I was with woke me up. I was sleeping pretty soundly. I had been up about half an hour before it really hit and everything seemed fine. The ground seemed a little soggy because it was raining hard. I woke up to the water rising very rapidly. I got up to the road that the tent was by, and people around it. In very short order, things started floating by,” says Digatono. Despite the tent wash-out, Digatono did not experience any damage to his property or vehicle.
Digatono and Berntson report that property loss was minimal. “People lost some personal items in the flood and there were some broken tents, but there wasn’t any significant property damage. The part of the bridge that was washed out was a section of dock that simply floated up above the poles that anchored it into the creek bed and was pushed down stream a bit,” said Berntson.
Digatono said, “I witnessed several community members tying a rope out so that the people that were camped on that opposite side of the bridge had something to grab a hold of and have footing with so they could get across to safety. Elsewhere in the camp a number of us were stepping up and helping the safety crew that was on duty get people up to the lodge and get them safe. When you see something like that happening on television, you’re awed by what you’re watching and when you’re standing in the middle of it, it’s infinitely more awe-inspiring.”
The festival safety team evacuated all 120 attendees to a lodge on the same property. The ground parking lot filled with 3 feet of water, and cars did have standing water in them. After the water drained, all vehicles started except one. Berntson comments, “Had people not been warned about not starting their cars while the water was high, the automobile casualty rate would have certainly been much higher.”
Three people left on Saturday night because the storm washed away their tent and left their belongings too wet for use. The remaining dislocated campers slept on air mattresses in the lodge.
While FEMA and DNR maps do indicate that Turtle Creek Grove, the location of SSF, is in a flood plane, Berntson states that the event was wholly unexpected. “The last time that this creek had flooded like this was over a hundred years ago. It has never flooded in the 30 years that the current owner has lived on the land. I have not had a conversation with the owner specifically about the footbridge, but knowing him like I do, he will be reinforcing the dock portion of the bridge.” The property owner could not be reached for comment or confirmation.
The SSF had spent time prior to the festival in safety planning. One team member brought a two-way radio set for communication, and a bell tower on the property was used as an emergency signal. “Prior to the start of the festival, we had made several trips to the festival grounds and utilized high-definition aerial maps to plan everything out, from the location of the campsites, to severe weather protocols. For example, we intentionally created very wide pathways throughout the camp that were illuminated by more than 300 solar lights, so that people would be able to navigate the campgrounds safely and quickly in the event of severe weather when tiki torches are ineffective. During the heavy rains of the flood, it was difficult to see your hand in front of your face, but you could easily follow what looked like a nighttime airport runway of lights to navigate through the camp. All we had to do was to have a small team go down each row of lights and wake up everyone in the tents along that path. Once one of us reached the end of a path of lights we just radioed in that a particular path was completed. That way we could know for certain that everyone had been alerted, even in that chaotic situation with limited visibility.”
The SSF, this year in its inaugural year, was beset by extreme weather even before the storm. Along with an oppressive heat wave, a windstorm early in the week damaged tents and forced campers to take shelter in the area lodge. Says Berntson in his festival recap notes, “Throughout the festival, we endured blistering heat, high winds, floods, and the loss of many of our shelters.” In these notes, he describes the windstorm: “Over the next three hours, the storm was fantastic. A carport that had been cinched to the ground was lifted almost 50 feet into the air and hurled over a hundred yards. Two of our three workshop shelters, which were made from thick steel pipe, were crushed by the wind.” No injuries were reported after the windstorm.
According to Nilsen, the festival grounds had also installed WiFi the day before the event. “We were able to track the weather system as it progressed and subsided, which helped alleviate concerns and allow people to plan their own next steps.”
Berntson says of the emergencies,”Between all of the Directors and Coordinators, we have approximately 40 years of collective experience. This proved to be invaluable because each of us understood what each other was doing and what had to be done in order to secure the safety of our participants and to navigate the challenges of keeping everyone warm, fed, and calm through both severe weather events. What could have resulted in a crisis and tragedy has become part of our legacy of success.”
Berntson also noted that the festival attracted attention from local citizens and that Barron County did inspect the group for due diligence in safety standards. “We purchased our own festival insurance policy and the land owner secured the permits from the county. We had a couple of county inspectors at the festival throughout the week just to see how things were going. Frankly, I think they just wanted to see what a group of Pagans looked like. We also had a visit from city council members, the families of employees who worked there, and even the entire family of the guy who came to clean out our porta pots. At first it kind of felt like we were on display at a zoo, but we just decided to embrace it.”
The festival will proceed on the same grounds in 2012, and plans are already in place based on the first year experience. “Next year we will be implementing additional training for our safety team and will have an official safety coordinator. We will also be purchasing additional first aid and basic lifesaving equipment. With all of the other things we had to handle this year, we just didn’t have the time to do as much for the safety team as we would have liked. Fortunately, all of us on the council were familiar with emergency procedures and had resources available to us in order to successfully handle some pretty extreme condition.
Digatono is undaunted by the weather of 2011. He says, “I am absolutely planning on attending next year.”
Note: Festival attendees have posted their own accounts of their personal experiences in Facebook pages and blogs.