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They Braced For Floods But Got The Unusual Record Snow, Thaw, Then Blizzard And Cold Combined To Sculpt A Weird Early Spring

Mon., April 14, 1997

Mark Chekola’s back yard features a statue of Primavera - spring incarnate, a woman standing tall in the sun. But three weeks into the season of thawing, his 5-foot concrete sculpture and his optimism were locked in 3 feet of water and ice.

Flooding alone is bad enough, but a freak series of circumstances - the winter’s record snowfall, a quick thaw, a spring blizzard with blistering cold and even more snow, and the table-top terrain - made this one of the most unusual calamities anyone has ever seen around here.

Water from melting snow spilled across the plains, spreading to the horizon. Then it pooled and froze after the blizzard struck, sealing scores of square miles of farmland in ice. Some farm animals were frozen in their tracks. Entire towns were enveloped by a slow sheet of errant river.

The factors that made it so:

The winter’s record snowfall, about 115 inches across the river at Fargo, N.D. Residents of Moorhead, Fargo and the surrounding region had been building dikes and bagging sand for weeks in anticipation of flooding from the spring thaw.

“In many ways, we were prepared,” said Dennis Walaker, operations manager in Fargo, where an earthen dike and copious sandbags augmented a permanent dike.

The blizzard and the cold. After days of 60-degree temperatures, a final snowstorm just one week ago brought still more snow and freezing temperatures, with wind chills below zero.

In addition, on the north-flowing Red River the ice made things far worse because thaws start in the south and proceed northward. Broken river ice floats north, doesn’t melt and runs into additional ice, producing jams like the one at Hickson, N.D., that even dynamite didn’t dislodge.

The flat terrain. This isn’t called the Plains for nothing. Because the land grade is virtually nil, floods are measured in breadth as much as depth.

“This is flatter than almost anywhere in the world,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. “This may not be extremely deep flooding, but it just goes on and on.”

The river system. The Red and the smaller rivers around it are the leftovers from a vast glacial lake that emptied out of the Fargo-Moorhead region about 9,000 years ago, making them very young as rivers go.

Because of that, experts say, the rivers haven’t had time to cut deep valleys. So when they overflow, the flood plain is lower and water spills out - and onward.



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