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Recording rising waters: WDAY's chief meteorologist shares stories from 2009 flood

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In this file photo, John Wheeler, chief meteorologist for WDAY TV, updates his weather forecast before going on air during spring 2013. The Forum2 / 2

FARGO — One of the most critical and important elements of a flood fight is effectively communicating predictions.

John Wheeler, chief meteorologist at WDAY TV since 1989, has experienced this first-hand through numerous flood seasons in the Red River Valley Basin.

"By the time the '97 flood came around, my role was to help the newsroom be clear on the messages from National Weather Service and other technical things," he said. "So I helped them every day with the river stages."

Expected rainfalls and daily temperatures can dramatically affect the river's stage — a measurement of the water level above some arbitrary point. (Usually the zero height is the river bed.)

During the threat of springtime floods, river stage predictions are extremely important to shape flood-fighting efforts. Past records of river stages help meteorologists and hydrologists — scientists who study complex water systems to help solve water problems — to predict if the river will run over its banks and put homes, and sometimes people, in danger.

"By the time the 2009, 2010 and 2011 trio floods came along I was able to offer some insights throughout the winter and the flood-fighting efforts to try to keep the flood in perspective for our reporters," Wheeler said.

Unlike the '97 flood season where the region experienced record snowfall, the winter of 2009 only had significant snowfall early in the season.

"It had been a wet fall so we also knew there was a good chance of a flood but the winter wasn't just ganging up on us the way the '97 winter had with all those blizzards," he said. "It was more subtle until we reached March."

Wheeler remembers the rapid sequence of weather events that set in motion the 2009 flood: mid-March's quick snow melt and several heavy rainstorms which caused the river to rise quickly.

"For about three weeks it really just seemed like the weather was doing everything it could to kill us," he said.

After the heavy rainstorms, the weather turned cold, causing the rainstorm to transform into snowfall.

"All of this happened as we were fighting this rapidly rising river which was very surreal and scary," Wheeler said.

But, Fargo-Moorhead caught a break as freezing temperatures slowed the river's flow and limited its crest in some areas.

Wheeler explains the crest in both two and three dimensions. One way of evaluating the crest is looking for the river's highest water level. The crest can also be measured by the speed of the river's flow. Because of this, different points in the river crest will deviate from one another.

"The height of that crest may be different in Wahpeton or in Fargo. It may be different in Halstad or in Grand Forks because of weather conditions, the amount of water coming in and the speed of the runoff," he said. "There are various factors that will determine how high the river's crest will be along the way."

According to Wheeler, during each flood there is a crest that goes towards Canada — as the Red River flows north. But there will also be a "crest upon that crest," a certain location on the Red River that has a higher crest relative to every other place, Wheeler said.

"In 1997, that 'crest on the crest' was Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn," he said. "Everything went wrong for the flood to be at its worse right there. Downstream from Grand Forks things actually improved a little bit, although it was still a serious flood."

During the 2009 flood, the Hickson and Oxbow communities experienced the river's worst crest. Relative to the Hickson and Oxbow area, Fargo's crest wasn't that bad, although it was still a record crest of 40.84 feet, Wheeler said.

"I remember there were dikes in Fargo that were an inch or two from being overtopped that Saturday (March 28) when it was 7 or 8 degrees in the morning," he said.

Ultimately, Wheeler credits the freezing temperatures for saving the Fargo-Moorhead region from devastation like what Grand Forks experienced during the '97 flood.

"Because everything was frozen, the runoff did slow down a bit," Wheeler said.

The cold weather was able to slow down the river's flow and limit the crest in some areas, such as north Fargo.

"If it hadn't gotten cold, slowed down the runoff and not melted that snow, I think the river would've been a few inches higher," he said. "And I don't know that Fargo would've won that battle."

The science of forecasting

April Knutson

April Knutson is lifestyle-focused journalist producing stories for the Forum News Service about people, health, community issues, and services. She earned her degree in both English Literature and Mass Communications. After working as a digital marketing specialist and web design consultant for a few years, she joined Forum Communications in 2015. She grew up on a farm near Volga, S.D. Follow her on Twitter @april_knutson.

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