Baker Lake

Trash cans and other debris sit in the drained lake bed of Baker Lake on Wednesday.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Jan Lovec thought it might hail as she looked outside on the evening just before a tornado ripped through her neighborhood.

It was June 11, 2016. Lovec wanted to go see her husband, Mike, who was laid up in the hospital across town. But their old pickup wouldn’t start, so she ended up staying home that evening.

The tornado — one of the strongest recorded in Montana history — hit her neighborhood on the southeast end of Baker Lake at about 7 p.m. It pulled apart a row of homes, including the one that had just been remodeled by the Lovecs.

Amid the noise of the storm, Lovec grabbed her Havanese dog, Max, and headed for the bathroom with no windows. She lay with the dog in the tub as the tornado ripped off the green tin roof.

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Max the six-year-old Havanese

Max the 6-year-old Havanese rode out the 2016 tornado in Baker with his owner, Jan Lovec, in family's bathtub.

“We covered up with the shower curtain,” said Lovec, now 68. “I don’t know what good that was gonna do.”

She wasn't hurt in the ordeal. And a little more than a year later, the Lovecs are among the fortunate. They were able to rebuild their home on the same lot — a modest one-level building that still lacks grass in the yard. Lovec said Wednesday that she considers herself extremely lucky amid news coming out of the Houston area.

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Baker Lake

A flag flies over a restored home near Baker Lake on Wednesday.

Out east from the Lovec home is Baker Lake. The couple has a clear line of sight now, because large trees that once obstructed that vantage were removed after the tornado.

But for now, it's not a lakeside view. It’s more of a littered desert-scape, like the messy remains of some long-abandoned community.

That’s how things look since giant pumps drained all the water out of the lake this summer, exposing again the pieces of what residents lost to the storm.

Some houses still show damage from the storm. There are unfinished garage rebuilds and torn siding here and there. But much of the affected neighborhood has recovered, and local officials are just getting ready to start a massive recovery effort to restore Baker Lake.

“The lake is still full of garbage,” said Jason Rittal, Fallon County development adviser. “And it doesn’t look very nice.”

Digging out

Baker Lake is full of garbage, but also garbage bins.

They dot the dry lake-bottom — large, black garbage bins that once sat outside people’s homes but are now sunken into the sediment.

There are also shards of mangled metal, tires and other indistinguishable trash, most of which is covered by a layer of dried, browned algae. Rittal said that before draining, officials turned off the lake’s aerators, which circulated the water. Algae then formed and settled atop the rubbage.

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Baker Lake

Trash cans and other debris sit in the drained lake bed of Baker Lake on Wednesday.

There were stories about cows getting flung into the lake, but no remains have been found.

Soon after the tornado, the lake was identified as a major part of the recovery. The town's landmark served thirsty steam-engine trains in the town's early days. Railroad crews built the water body in 1908.

After months of planning, Fallon County officials are nearly ready to green-light a project to dig up the lake bed. They say it's to remove the debris and to improve the recreation area.

The first phase of the project, removing the debris, will be funded mostly from by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 120,000 cubic yards of stuff will be dug out and trucked away.

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Baker Lake

A shelter other debris from Jaycee Park sit in the drained lake bed of Baker Lake on Wednesday.

For the second phase, crews will dig out another 400,000 cubic yards for an improvement project that the county was planning for years before the tornado hit. With FEMA funds helping to pay for the draining of the lake and the initial dig, the county says it’s saving a bit of money.

“We just need to plow forward and know that we’re getting some kind of discount by doing it all at once,” Rittal said.

The price tag was estimated at $2.5 million for the FEMA-aided relief portion. It will be another $6 million to fulfill the rest of the dig, which the county will pay. That includes a 2-mill levy the county raised after the tornado that brought only about $90,000.

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Fallon County DES and 911 coordinator Chuck Lee

Fallon County DES and 911 coordinator Chuck Lee talks about the damage and restoration plans for Baker Lake on Wednesday.

The estimates could change, however. Chuck Lee, who directs Fallon County Disaster and Emergency Services, said that there could be logistical issues related to driving huge excavators and trucks onto a dried lake bed. The lake bed could be lowered as much as 20 feet in some spots.

There are some unknowns in this kind of job. Sinking trucks in the silt, for example, could drive up costs.

“They’re going to build a road into this,” Lee said. “Into the lake.”

The sediment will be trucked to the county landfill, six miles to the south. Officials estimated that the tornado tossed 325 tons of debris into the lake. Initial cleanup efforts removed some of that.

Rittal said that they’ve identified a low bidder for the project, but it hasn’t been awarded. The county still needs to seek approval from various state and federal agencies before placing it before Fallon County commissioners.

A tentative completion date is June 1, 2018.

“We’re just working through it,” he said. “It’s been a unique project.”

Recovering

Parked at the mouth of Iron Horse Park, Lee said a tornado ripped through the spot about a year ago.

“This would have been the epicenter,” he said.

It lasted 10 minutes, touching down on Baker Lake and then moving into the neighborhood. The EF-3 storm matched the strongest recorded tornadoes in Montana history.

Storms in the EF-3 category decimate homes and strip trees down to stumps. Tom Frieders, National Weather Service meteorologist in the Billings office, told the Gazette last year that higher category tornadoes have never been recorded in Montana and represent less than 5 percent of those reported nationally. They typically occur in the Great Plains and Midwest.

“When you’re talking about EF-4s, your well-constructed houses are completely leveled and cars can be thrown around like missiles in the air,” he said.

Montanans have experienced EF-3 tornadoes four times since record keeping began in 1950. They include Wibaux County in 1952, Choteau County in 1988, Sheridan County in 2010 and Carter County in 2014. One person died in Wibaux County and the Sheridan County storm resulted in two deaths, Frieders said.

No one died in the Baker tornado. While some houses were leveled, others nearby sustained only minor damage.

“The thing that still amazes me is how picky Ma Nature is,” Lovec said.

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Baker Lake

Restored homes line a street near Baker Lake on Wednesday, August 30, 2017.

She kept cookie jars that belonged to her and her husband as children. They survived intact, sitting above a cupboard in their house.

“The roof was totally gone,” she said, “but the cookie jars are there.”

The sign of a fulfilled recovery might come when the Lovecs and their neighbors can view the lake again, after trucks spend months hauling out dirt and debris.

After that, well, they’ll just wait for the lake to fill.

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Reporter for The Billings Gazette.