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Advance preparation makes 2011 flood fight easier

FARGO -- Every flood, it's often said, is different. Forecasters predict this year's version could finish as the third-highest on record, if not higher.

FARGO -- Every flood, it's often said, is different. Forecasters predict this year's version could finish as the third-highest on record, if not higher.

If enough rain falls in a storm that could douse the area Sunday, in fact, there's a chance it could even top the record 2009 crest of 40.84 feet.

But the run-up to this year's crest, expected to arrive this weekend, is an orderly march compared to the frantic dash of 2009.

"'09 was just controlled chaos, and it wasn't very controlled," Chad Martin, operations director for the city of Moorhead, said Wednesday. "In '09, it was just a madhouse for three days straight."

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney agrees that fighting the 2009 flood was entirely different, with this year's effort relatively placid because of all the advance preparation.


"Basically we had six days to get ready in 2009," he said. "So much has already been done this year. It's kind of taking off like a lamb."

The early preparation sprang from an early warning, a flood outlook issued by the National Weather Service two days before Christmas warning of a possible major flood. It was a bit of a holiday dampener but got the readiness gears turning.

Millions of sandbags were stockpiled to protect Fargo and Moorhead well before this spring's melt began in earnest - and the thaw has come gently and gradually, instead of the torrent of 2009.

Although it was clear the 2009 snowpack had plenty of moisture, capable of producing a serious flood, the elements that produced the record crest didn't come together until very late, WDAY meteorologist John Wheeler said.

And what a combination: a blizzard that dumped 10 inches of wet snow; winds that scoured fields of much of their snow, setting the stage for brown, heat-absorbent earth to be quickly exposed in the thaw; 2 to 3 inches of rain; followed by a dramatic warm spell, with temperatures in the 50s.

By contrast, Wheeler said, "This entire melt season has been ideal."

Except for the memorable "thunder snow" storm of March 22-23, the area hadn't really received significant moisture since mid-February, he said.

"We were really kind of chasing the river" in 2009, Wheeler added, "whereas this year we have the high ground."


Fargo has bought about 250 flood-prone homes since the 2009 flood, allowing the city to replace many truckloads of sandbags with clay levees, City Administrator Pat Zavoral said. Those levees will be reworked so they can serve as permanent protection.

Filling sandbags early, Zavoral and Martin agreed, was a key ingredient of this year's much more orderly flood fight. The cities aren't in the position of having to ask volunteers to simultaneously fill and place the bags.

This year, as in the 1997 flood, the city of Fargo finds itself essentially working to save vulnerable neighborhoods, whereas in the 2009 flood it was a scramble to save the city, Zavoral said.

But both cities must prepare for the possibility the Red River, which officially became a major flood on Wednesday, could go as high as 41 feet, if heavy rains fall this weekend.

"The water's come up so quickly, that really triggered urgency," Zavoral said of the greater seriousness he detected Wednesday than the day before. "The Red is acting like it's cranking up the flood."

Laney said his deputies, who won't have as much federal assistance this year, will be plenty busy with this flood. But much of the preparation already has taken place, he added.

"I'd much rather be prepared and waiting for it," the sheriff said, "than chasing it."

Springer reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.

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