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Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published April 06 2013

Flood season busy for weather ‘first responders’

GRAND FORKS – Lugging a large modified rain gauge, Bill Barrett of the National Weather Service stepped outside his office here on Thursday to collect snow from a trodden field.

He and Mark Ewens, data acquisition program manager, were tracking a key part of the flood forecast by checking the moisture content in the snow, also known as snow core to meteorologists.

“This all goes into the process so we can say, this winter we had 53 inches of snow … for instance,” he said.

The datum that Barrett and Ewens were collecting was just one measure among thousands that add up to a deluge of information during the controlled chaos of flood season.

Ewens and Barrett, a meteorologist technician, are among several players in a huge network of weather experts throughout eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota who develop the data for the forecasts that drive flood planning.

When a flood or any severe weather hits, employees at the National Weather Service say the atmosphere is similar to a firehouse: Everyone is called to help.

“That’s your first responders, your emergency management, your volunteers,” said meteorologist Greg Gust, a 21-year veteran with the weather service. “They’re the people you’re always seeing; you’re in the thick of it with them. You’re dealing with highly trained professional people, and it’s a great process.”

Months of plans

The agency’s primary task is to generate weather forecasts. For the four- to six-week duration of a flood, extra employees are called in to cover the evening and day shifts, and even more during major events like a tornado, Barrett said.

Several local experts have weathered Red River floods for a decade or more. Planning for a flood begins months before the river begins to rise, and preparation extends from the Red’s origin at Wahpeton, N.D., until it passes the Canadian border.

Both the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey start communicating about flood information in January and keep working after it is over.

“When everybody else feels the flood has passed, we’re still in the business until it’s done,” said Chris Laveau, a supervisory hydrologist with the Geological Survey.

Leading up to the flood, meteorologist Greg Gust heads out to rural communities to offer up-to-date forecasts for spring flooding. For the majority of his job, he works closely with media, fielding questions and relaying information from the agency.

Flood season can also mean overtime for employees at the U.S. Geological Survey in Grand Forks, which measures the cubic-foot-per-second flow of streams using about 90 gauges.

Information from the coverage area, which includes the Red River Basin system and Devils Lake, will then be incorporated into the National Weather Service’s river stream models.

Getting the right information can carry immediate consequences, Laveau said. During the 2009 flood, he distinctly remembers kneeling in the snow and getting water measurements in Abercrombie, N.D., that caused the levee to be raised in Fargo within the hour. He realized at that moment that a costly and time-consuming decision would be made based on one set of measurements he was charged with making, he said.

“You don’t want to be wrong,” he said.

Pride in work

For some weather experts, the passion for the job started at an early age.

Barrett, who analyzes and collects data, has held a few careers, including broadcasting, outside of weather-related work. He kept coming back to the job because of the “burst of energy” he gets during major weather events, he said.

“You start to like this kind of stuff when you’re in grade school, fifth or sixth grade,” he said. “I’ve been here for about 11 years. It’s the longest continuous job I’ve had.”

Laveau said the employees take pride in their stressful and important work, but they also have fun with it.

“We feel like we’re doing an important public service,” he said. “Most of the people that work here obviously enjoy the outdoors, and enjoy interacting with the environment. I think that’s what drew all of us here in the first place – it sounds strange, but we like playing in the water.”

Flood experts say each flood is different and each can take its own toll. Gust said even during the worst event, whether it is a severe thunderstorm or blizzard, he can still enjoy the awesome power of nature.

“But you always have to realize the significant injury, death and destruction that can happen, and your role in that process is to try to mitigate that as much as possible,” he said.

From data to forecast

Flood experts rely on various methods of data-gathering for their forecasts, ranging from human observation to aerial mapping and river gauges.

During flood season, the weather service relies on about 300 volunteers in its coverage area – expanding from the Canadian border to South Dakota, then from Devils Lake, N.D., to Bemidji, Minn. – who provide snow core readings, wind speeds and other information. This data will help create the National Weather Service’s own forecast and also be pooled into a central online database accessible to a variety of local, state and federal offices.

Three agencies in particular work closely together, each with its own task.

The U.S. Geological Survey, located in Grand Forks and Bismarck, measures the cubic feet per second of a river’s stream flow. That information is also incorporated into the weather service’s river stream models.

The North Central River Forecast Center in Chanhassen, Minn., draws from aerial mapping and groundwork to develop models showing how water might pool or flow into the channels. It also provides river stage models in advance to the National Weather Service, which then develops a forecast and puts the information out on its website.

“We rely heavily on the River Forecast’s expertise, because they’re the experts,” said Mark Ewens, data acquisition program manager for the National Weather Service. “But there’s a lot of back and forth (among several agencies).”

The forecast center also receives data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs hydraulic models to determine where water will break out near communities.

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