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'97 vs '09: Pre-crest storms not comparable, experts say

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FARGO - The weather that struck the Red River Valley on April 5 and 6, 1997, was extreme, even by Great Plains standards.

Freezing rain and 70 mph winds reduced power poles to kindling, as up to seven inches of snow blanketed the valley.

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A record cold snap followed.

Then the big flood came, with the Red River cresting at 39.57 feet on April 17.

With snow and cold pushing into the Red River Valley ahead of another flood crest, it begs the question: Is history repeating itself?

Not exactly, say weather experts.

"I really don't think it's fair to make a comparison between the two storms," said WDAY Chief Meteorologist John Wheeler.

"That 1997 April storm was one of the most powerful storms I've ever seen in the Great Plains, just in terms of its intensity," said Wheeler.

Knock out punch

The heavy precipitation that fell the first week of April 1997, much of it in the form of freezing rain, was largely to blame for making the month as miserable as it was, according to Wheeler.

"You had thousands and thousands of people in the valley who were fighting a flood in the dark, without electricity," he said.

On the other hand, the record cold that followed that season's last blizzard slowed runoff and "probably gave us a broader, less sharp crest," said Wheeler.

Even so, the chill was as much a hindrance as a help, according to Brad Bramer, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, N.D.

When sandbags freeze, they essentially become bricks, said Bramer, adding, "It (the cold) would have hampered sandbagging efforts in that respect, even though it gave people a little more time."

When it comes to the impending deluge, chilly temperatures in the next few days will not be cold enough to significantly impede the Red River before Saturday's anticipated crest, Weather Service officials said.

More on the way?

Snowfalls Tuesday and Wednesday created a new snow pack that will eventually thaw and send more water into the Sheyenne and Red Rivers, according to Weather Service officials, who said the extra water could create lesser secondary crests, or keep water levels high for an extended period.

And that's not all, according to Wheeler.

"We've got another storm system we're going to have to worry about on Monday, and it looks pretty wet," said Wheeler, adding there's a chance of another storm at the end of next week.

"It's looking stormy and probably mostly cold," Wheeler said.

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