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October 29, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Shipping on Great Lakes, flights to East Coast stopped by storm

Waves surge on Lake Huron
Waves surge on Lake Huron: Along the waterfront in Port Huron on Monday, October 29, 2012

Strong winds churned the Great Lakes on Monday, driving waves on Lake Huron to 14 feet on their way to 26 feet or more, forecasters said, while the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast canceled flights in southeastern Michigan.

The National Weather Service issued a storm warning for Lake Huron on Monday that called for wave heights of 26 feet, and possibly as high as 35 feet, as the winds peak around dawn Tuesday. Lake Michigan waves were expected to reach 19 feet, with a potential of 32 feet on Tuesday. Earlier forecasts had slightly higher peak wave possibilities.

The forecasts brought shipping traffic on the Great Lakes to a near-standstill, with several vessels seeking shelter away from the peak winds.

"We have ships at anchor," said Glen Nekvasil, spokesman for the Lake Carriers Association. "We have some ships that decided not to leave port after they we done unloading. We also have two ships still moving out on Lake Michigan. It all depends where the ships are."

The length of delays will dictate how big a financial dent the next dew days put the bottom lines of the shipping companies as well as their customers.

"The really important thing here is we have only a certain amount of time for these ships to do their jobs," Nekvasil said. "If this becomes a lengthy storm, it will impact our ability to meet our customers' requirements."

For Metro Detroit, the first big effect will be wind, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Sandy Schultz.

"Strong north winds will start to pick up … with wind speeds of 20 to 30 mph with gusts of 30 to 40 mph," the meteorologist said. "In Huron, Sanilac and St. Clair counties, we're forecasting winds of 40 to 50 mph with gusts of 55 to 65 mph developing this afternoon through Tuesday morning."

Temperatures are expected to peak in the mid-40s for Monday and the rest of the week with lows in the mid to upper 30s, according to Schultz.

Michigan is being impacted by a winter storm system coming in from the west, mixing with cold air streams from the Arctic and colliding with Hurricane Sandy, which is hitting the East Coast. That storm is expected to reach land some time tonight in the area of New Jersey or Delaware.

A check of arrivals and departures at Detroit Metropolitan Airport shows numerous cancellations to airports on the East Coast, including flights to New York City; Newark, N.J.; Boston; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Norfolk, Va.; Erie, Pa.; South Bend, Ind.; Elmira, N.Y.; and Ithaca, N.Y.

At Detroit Metro, Amy Darling was nervously standing in line Monday, hoping she and her 5-year-old daughter Emma could get a flight back to Elmira, N.Y.

But Darling, 36, admitted her chances were slim.

"My mom has already booked me a room here in Detroit," said Darling as her young daughter played with a stuffed animal near her in a Delta reservation line. "I might not be able to get out until Thursday."

Levi Sim was trying to get back to his home in Logan, Utah. He had tried to get to the east coast to teach photography classes for

Sim, 32, said he is happy to be safe from the approaching storm but is disappointed that he won't be near the coast to grab pictures of the storm.

"It's extremely disappointing," said Sim. "I had told (the students) that come rain or shine, I'll be there."

Brenda Wallace, a retired Detroit Public Schools high school teacher, was thankful to get back to Detroit on Monday. She and her granddaughter Arielle had been stranded in the airport in Norfolk, Va., waiting to get a flight back home.

Wallace had taken the teenager to homecoming at her alma mater, Hampton University, in hopes the young girl will attend her grandmother's school.

Getting stuck in Norfolk wasn't part of their plans.

"We were in the airport alone except for the security guards," said Wallace.

The two got lucky and flew standby Monday morning out of Virginia. They were routed through Atlanta and finally arrived home safely early Monday afternoon.

"I was a little apprehensive," said Arielle, who turned 16 on Monday. "I didn't want to celebrate my birthday in the airport."

The most immediate local impact was a high wind warning in effect through Tuesday for much of the Thumb of Michigan.

"As that storm moves inland, then we'll have the stronger rain bands come over on Tuesday and Wednesday, affecting our area and also picking up the winds," said Debra Elliott, an observation program leader with the weather service station in White Lake Township.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported wave heights of 14 feet in Lake Huron, 12 feet on Lake Erie and 11 feet on Lake Michigan on Monday.

The Coast Guard is advising mariners to stay off the waters, moving smaller vessels to sheltered areas and readying air boats and crews for possible rescue efforts. Officials also plan to talk with port partners on Monday about contingency plans.

"We're taking our precautions and preparations to deal with the worst," said Don Chace, search and rescue controller with the Coast Guard's Detroit sector.

Most mariners had responded to the alert, he said.

"They've taken heed to the warning," he said.

Despite the constant precipitation, "we're not going to get inundated like they are on the East Coast," said the weather service's Elliott. "We'll see steady rains, but we're not going to see heavy rain."

Still, with the high winds and temperatures hovering in the 40s, "it's going to be pretty nasty weather," she said.

DTE Energy Co. said Monday high winds could cause power outages in Michigan, and it's keeping an eye on the weather to respond to any power problems.

"Our meteorologist is predicting peak wind gusts in the 50 mph range for some time later today or overnight into tomorrow," said John Austerberry, a spokesman for the utility. Power line damage usually starts becoming a possibility once winds reach 45 mph.

DTE has allowed 100 of its contracted repair crews to head east in order help with anticipated power outages. Full-time crews will remain in Michigan to prepare for Sandy's impacts here.

Those could be lessened by the fact that fall weather and high winds have already taken most leaves off the areas trees, Austerberry said.

"Falling tree limbs are the primary source of outages during wind storms," he said. "Fortunately, without leaves on the trees, the wind tends to do less damage."

Like the DTE contract workers, a handful of Red Cross volunteers also made the journey east over the weekend. Six workers from the Red Cross of Southeast Michigan headed toward New York.

Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane, strengthened Monday and stayed on a predicted path toward Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York — putting it on a collision course with two other weather systems that would create a superstorm with the potential for havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes. About 2 to 3 feet of snow were even forecast for mountainous parts of West Virginia.

(313) 222-2023

News staff writer Oralandar Brand-Williams and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Heavy Waves hit the sea wall at Port Austin at the tip of the thumb in Michigan. / Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
Hurricane Sandy churns off the east coast in the Atlantic Ocean. Sandy, ... (NASA via Getty Images)

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