Be glad it's not April. That's the good news about Blizzard Geraldine.
Geraldine begs comparisons with Blizzard Hannah, and the similarities are eerie and ominous. Examining the differences lessens flood anxiety.
An important difference is in the calendar. Blizzard Geraldine arrived earlier than "Hard-hearted Hannah," the blizzard that sealed our fate in Grand Forks in 1997.
Hannah began on April 4. Geraldine arrived on March 13. The three-week interval is crucial. The sun grows stronger with every day that passes in the spring, and the chance of a rapid snowmelt increases. Without that late blizzard and the rapid snowmelt, we might have won the epic flood fight in the miserable spring of 1997.
Geraldine's earlier arrival lessens the chance of a catastrophic flood; the near-term forecast is for temperatures to edge above freezing, meaning a slow melt and a gradual runoff.
But flooding would be less likely this year than it was in 1997 for several other reasons.
First, there is a lot less snow. John Wheeler, Forum Communications Company's chief meteorologist, tells us that Fargo has half as much snow as in 1997. This is important, because the water that floods Grand Forks comes mostly from the south. The main stem of the Red River accounts for about 60 percent of the river's flow here.
The monster snowfall totals reported from south-central North Dakota go in a different direction. Ellendale, which got at least a foot of snow, is in the James River Basin, and so are such places as Jamestown, Carrington and Oakes, all locations with blizzard conditions and heavy snowfall. The James River flows south, entering the Missouri River at Yankton, S.D. That water is not a factor in Grand Forks flooding; it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. The snowfall totals to pay attention to are those from Harvey, Cooperstown and Valley City, all in the Sheyenne River drainage. That water reaches the Red just north of Fargo.
The Red Lake River brings water from northwestern Minnesota to the Red River at East Grand Forks. The area north and east of the city got snow, but much of the area that drains into the Red River before it reaches Grand Forks got rain rather than snow. That water will move toward the river ahead of the snowmelt, suggesting a lesser flood threat.
There is a lot of snow in the valley, and the snow banks and road cuts look threatening. But in this our eyes deceive us. Despite the snow, this has been a relatively dry winter, unlike the winter of 1997, which began with a one-two punch in mid-November. I remember because the first blizzard, Andy, struck on my birthday; we were at a party for a young friend who turned 21 that day.
Andy was a "Colorado low," same as Hannah, the kind of storm system that brings heavy, wet snow. Most of this season's earlier storms have been Alberta Clippers, relatively windy but not very wet, despite the snowfall, unlike Geraldine. Geraldine is a genuine potential flood maker, with heavy wet snow quite unlike the airy powder brought by the clippers.
Greg Gust, forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Grand Forks, has said moisture from all of the storms so far, including Geraldine, has been factored into flood predictions, which make the chance of a major flood in Grand Forks about 75 percent.
Those are tough odds until you remember that the definition of a major flood in Grand Forks is a level of 48 feet on the river gauge. The 1997 flood crested at 54 feet and then some. The difference is the height of a fairly tall person. In 1997, I looked up at the river straining the dikes. My eyes are six feet above the soles of my feet. Those dikes were at 49 feet; today's flood wall protects the city to a gauge level of 60 feet.
Hard-hearted Hannah was not the only factor contributing to the 1997 flood. Though that April storm did seal the city's fate, it did not itself cause the flood. Andy, the early, wet storm - could be held equally responsible. So could a variety of geological, meteorological and structural factors.
Grand Forks learned a great deal from the 1997 flood. Today's flood protection is very much greater than it was in 1997 almost everywhere in the Red River Valley. Grand Forks itself has moved away from the river, making parks of what had been vulnerable neighborhoods. Flood-fighting techniques are better. In 1997, volunteers filled sandbags and built dikes. Today prefabricated dikes can be erected quickly to protect entire neighborhoods with less labor and a higher level of certainty than any sandbag dike.
Our valley learned the value of community. People helped one another, grieved together and rebuilt together. This success is easy to overlook; we tend to remember the trauma and forget to celebrate the triumph.
We can't reverse the suffering this nasty winter has already caused, and it would be foolhardy to overlook the flood threat in the Red River Valley. This is a flood-prone region. Catastrophic flooding is less likely than it was, though, even with a late March blizzard.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.