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Helmut Schmidt and Erik Burgess, Published June 26 2013

F-M readies for summer flood

FARGO - If this keeps up, we’ll be trading in our cars for kayaks. Severe thunderstorms drenched the Fargo-Moorhead area and parts of the Red River Valley late Tuesday and early Wednesday, dropping up to 9 inches of rain in spots and flooding roads and basements.

The heavy rain closed the North Broadway Bridge and caused bad enough flooding on the Red River to require an emergency levee in downtown Fargo, an unusual but not unprecedented step in the summer.

June averages 3.26 inches of rain in Fargo, with normal precipitation for the city through June 25 at a hair over 10 inches, said Bill Barrett, a technician with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks.

So far, 2013 is double the midyear average, with 19.23 inches of precipitation through Tuesday, he said.

That’s closing in on the typical annual precipitation of 20 to 25 inches in the Fargo area, he said.

Wolverton, Minn., was the bull’s-eye of the latest round of storms, recording 9 inches and 8.25 inches of rain in just a few hours at its two National Weather Service rain gauges.

From two waves of storms, north Fargo had rainfall amounts that ranged from 3.96 inches to 4.57 inches in 24-hour totals released Wednesday by the NWS office in Grand Forks.

Parts of south Fargo had 4 to 5 inches, Barrett said.

Two north Moorhead NWS gauges recorded 3.35 inches and 3.04 inches of rain.

Fargo set a rainfall record for the date on Tuesday, with 2.56 inches, Barrett said, breaking the 1969 record of just under an inch.

Flooding impact

The latest rain is expected to cause flooding on the Red River projected to peak at 30 feet, a forecast that prompted city officials in Fargo on Wednesday to build a 2-foot levee on Second Street downtown. It was nearly finished by 4:30 p.m., City Engineer April Walker said.

Though it prompted the construction of a dike, the river flooding wasn’t expected to cause any severe problems. Mayor Dennis Walaker said his only concern is another severe storm.

“We need about eight to 10 days to gain back our capacity to handle any future precipitation event,” Walaker said. “When you get this high, another thunderstorm on top of this would put us up into the category of major flood.”

The Red River was at 26.65 feet in Fargo at 5 p.m. Wednesday, with the crest expected midday Friday.

That put Campground B at Lindenwood Park under several feet of water, forcing park officials to send some campers to other area campgrounds.

Twenty-six of the park’s 47 campsites are unusable due to flooding, said Samantha “Sam” Larson-Frobig, a project coordinator for the Park District.

The lower campground is affected by the Red at a river level of 22 feet, but Campground “A” and its 21 spots won’t be threatened unless the river nears 37 or 38 feet, another campground worker said.

“We’re doing the best we can to rearrange (campsite reservations) or accommodate” campers if we can, Larson-Frobig said.

“We don’t want Mother Nature to screw up people’s plans,” she said.

Wednesday morning, Sue Davison, of Lakewood, Colo., was with three of her grandchildren in Campground A.

“We were kind of freaking out when we arrived here last night,” Davison said. “It was just a deluge of rain.”

“All the way from Colorado we had beautiful weather. All the way until we were about a half-hour from Fargo,” the 57-year-old said.

Outside of the main band of thunderstorms, rainfall amounts dropped significantly, the NWS reported. For example, Mayville and the Grand Forks Air Base recorded 1.26 inches, while Abercrombie got 0.77 of an inch.

Downtown dike time

To build the downtown Fargo dike, two contractors were called in and the city closed Second Street from Fourth Street South to Main Avenue and from First Avenue North to Sixth Avenue North, Walker said.

Eleventh Avenue North from Oak Street to Elm Street was also closed to through traffic to allow for easier hauling of clay to build the dike.

Walker said the river should drop fast and the closures shouldn’t last long, though she wouldn’t give a time frame.

The North Broadway Bridge will remain closed for some time, perhaps for the next week or more, Walker said.

A common sight for Fargo residents during spring flooding, Walaker said this is not the first emergency dike built downtown in the summer. Fargo built a dike on Second Street in June 2000, after 6 to 8 inches of rain in 12 hours caused widespread flash flooding.

The main purpose for the clay levee downtown is to protect the city’s storm water system, Walker said. If the river had hit 32 feet, it might not have spilled onto the road, “But it would’ve gotten into the storm sewer system,” she said.

An earlier forecast Wednesday had called for a flood of about 32 feet.

Street flooding was a problem in the area of 12th Avenue North in Fargo’s industrial park. But by Wednesday afternoon, storm sewers were “catching up,” Walker said.

Fargo residents north of Interstate 94 and east of 25th Street were asked to restrict their water use until noon Wednesday.

The street closures needed for the dike construction complicated traffic downtown, where an ongoing construction project already made navigating downtown streets tricky.

City officials were discouraging sightseeing along the river corridor, although downtown businesses remained open Wednesday, said Mike Hahn, president/CEO of the Downtown Community Partnership.

It’s ‘getting old’

If you think the rain is getting old, you’re not alone.

WDAY-TV meteorologist Daryl Ritchison says the early summer soakings over the past 17 years get his goat, too.

“It’s always been wet for 17 years. It’s the same old same old, which is getting old,” Ritchison said.

Barrett said the high altitude winds we call the jet stream have been locked into a flow out of the southwest, which is snatching buckets of moist air out of the Gulf of Mexico and dumping it here.

“That’s the type of stuff you see a lot of times on the Gulf Coast,” Barrett said.

Ritchison said the coming week should be fairly dry, and that the rest of the summer could follow suit.

But Barrett said the NWS is getting no clear signal on what the long-term forecast will be in terms of rain or heat.

“You could toss a coin,” Barrett said.

Ritchison said the latest rainfall was spotty, much like the May 30 downpour that left 4.5 inches of precipitation at Hector International Airport in north Fargo, with other parts of the metro area getting perhaps 1 to 1.5 inches.

The June 2000 flood was the worst in recent memory, Ritchison said.

On June 19-20, more than 7 inches of rain fell in eight hours at the Fargo airport, with 5-plus inches in other areas of the metro area. It flooded half of Fargo’s roads, swamped the Fargodome, and causing more than $100 million in damage, city officials said.

But since the wet cycle started in the 1990s, “there have been a lot of these events in the metro,” Ritchison said.

He said June 2008 was just as wet, and June 2005 was wetter.

Just two years ago, the Red River stayed above flood stage much of the time through the end of August. Everyone was concerned about flooding for the following spring, Ritchison said.

That was followed by 18 months of relatively dry weather, he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned on itself and in five or six weeks and we wished we had water,” Ritchison said.


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Readers can reach Forum reporters Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583 and Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518