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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: The Cruel Winter of 1996-97

If there’s one thing you need in order to have a substantial flood in the spring, it’s a winter filled with abundant snowfall. The winter of 1996-1997 certainly delivered on that front.

Before the snow, however, another event struck the Red River Valley that would later affect spring flooding. An unusually late outbreak of severe thunderstorms moved through the region on October 26, brining thunder, lightning, and drenching amounts of rain. Grand Forks picked up 1.12 inches of precipitation on that day alone; Fargo received 0.84 inches, but had another storm pass through 3 days later and bring an additional 1.31 inches. Of course, all of this rainfall in such a short amount of time saturated the ground right at the time when it was beginning to freeze for the upcoming winter. Indeed, the freezing process was accelerated after a cold front passed through a few days after all the rain and brought temperatures to near record-breaking levels in the lower teens. The cold meant that the excess moisture had little chance to evaporate or drain out of the soil. As a result, the ground would be less able to soak up moisture produced by melting snow when the spring thaw finally arrived.

Snow arrived with vigor in the Red River Valley on November 16 when Blizzard Andy struck (at the time the Grand Forks Herald would wittily gave names to all blizzards that passed through the area during a winter season). The storm bought strong winds in excess of 40 miles per hour and over a foot of snow to many communities in the area. One of the first storm-related deaths of the season affected the UND community when computer science major Francis Delabreau suffered hypothermia after he tried walking in the storm from a party to his house. His body was found two months after the storm in an abandoned van that he evidently climbed in to escape the elements.

Blizzard Andy ended up being a harbinger of things to come for the Red River Valley. Between the months of November and April, Blizzards Betty, Christopher, Doris, Elmo, Franzi, Gust, and Hannah struck, bringing white-out conditions, bone-chilling wind chills, massive amounts of snow, and unbelievably high snowdrifts. By the time the snow season was over, the area had received more snow than anytime before in recorded history. Between November and April, Grand Forks picked up 98.6 inches of snow, while Fargo received an astonishing 117 inches – 30 inches more than the previous snowiest season of a century before and 78 inches more than during an average season. What’s interesting to consider is how high the total snowfall would have been if February wouldn’t have been so relatively snowless – only 8 inches fell in Fargo during that month.

With the cold temperatures that often accompanied the snow, there was little opportunity for any of it to melt. It just kept piling up. By the middle of February, it was quite evident that some sort of flooding would take place once temperatures rose in the spring. On February 14, the National Weather Service’s North Central River Forecast Center in Chanhassen, Minnesota issued its first flood outlook for the spring. It called for major flooding to occur in the Red River Valley, with a predicted 49 foot crest of the Red River at Grand Forks (flood stage is at 28 feet). This would be slightly under the record 50.20 foot crest of 1897 and slightly above the 48.81 foot crest of 1979, which many in the community still remembered as being relatively undamaging. As it turned out, that number, 49, would later come back to haunt the forecasters in Chanhassen.

By the middle of March, cities in the region were bracing themselves for the major flooding that was likely on the way. Grand Forks turned on its brand-new, highly efficient sandbagging machine for the first time on March 15. Work was then underway on making sure that both Grand Forks and East Grand Forks would have a healthy supply of sandbags to use in raising preexisting dikes to 52 feet. The call for volunteers to help lay the sandbags on the dikes went out, and was answered by many in both Grand Forks and East Grand Forks as well as among students and staff at UND.

The last half of March ended up being much milder than the rest of the winter and finally afforded the chance for some of the snow to melt. But winter was in no way finished…

Check back around April 5 for the next installment in this series.

Pictures related to this entry:

Sources used in writing this entry:
Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: the University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota, 1998.

Staff of the [Fargo] Forum, comp. Fighting Back: the Blizzards and Flood in the Red River Valley, 1996-97. Fargo, ND: Forum Communications Company, 1997.

Staff of the Grand Forks Herald and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, comp. Come Hell and High Water: the Incredible Story of the 1997 Red River Flood. Grand Forks, ND: Grand Forks Herald, 1997.

Varley, Jane. Flood Stage and Rising. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Flood of '97 Series: Introduction

The 10-year anniversary of the devastating flood that inundated communities up and down the Red River Valley of northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota is fast approaching. In the coming days and weeks, expect to see quite a few entries commemorating this important anniversary. I am currently doing major research in hopes of presenting the most complete, thorough view possible.

Why am I doing this? The mission is really three-fold. First, it involves no intentional insensitivity or desire to dramatize the devastation inflicted on literally thousands and thousands of people. On the contrary, I think the story of the flood of 1997 is an uplifting one that shows how people, faced with adversity, can come together and remain determined to rebuild their community. Grand Forks and, arguably to a larger extent, East Grand Forks could have practically disappeared from maps after 1997. Plummeting population figures and scarce economic renewal could have left the cities as shells of their former selves. However, 10 years on, this has not happened. Grand Forks has more people now than before the flood, and new development continues at a brisk rate.

Secondly, I feel the 10th anniversary of the flood will be one of the most important ones. 10 years is recent enough that those who lived through the experience still have vivid and poignant memories. On the other hand, 10 years is also sufficient enough to allow for reflection and a look back at all that has been accomplished during the time span.

Lastly, a lot of my readers were quite young when the flood happened. Unless they experienced it first-hand or had family members who did, they probably don’t remember that much. Hopefully I’ll be able to provide some sort of historical record.

The first entry regarding the flood will come in a few days; it will discuss how the moist autumn and relentless winter preceding the flood combined to set the stage for destruction in the spring.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of Mitch Wahlsten and the participants
Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001