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Think this is bad? You should have seen the winter of 1996-97

A mountain of snow between houses. Nick Carlson / The Forum 1997 flood1 / 5
Dave Odden blows snow from his driveway March 14, 1997, at 1426 15th Ave. East, West Fargo. Bruce Crummy / The Forum 2 / 5
A letter carrier delivers mail Dec. 23, 1996. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 5
James McBenge shields his face from sub-zero temperatures and bone-chilling winds during a morning walk along First Avenue East near Ninth Street to a West Fargo convenience store Monday, Jan. 27, 1997 as mountains of snow are piled beside him. Bruce Crummy / The Forum4 / 5
Jerry Walker shovels a mountain of snow from the top of his Dilworth home so the roof won’t collapse under the weight. Andy Blenkush / The Forum5 / 5

Feeling miserable about this winter weather? This should cheer you up — it could be a lot worse, and in the winter of 1996-1997, it was worse with a vengeance.

Temperatures were way below average in November, December and January, and that winter saw one blizzard after another. Headlines from the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Becker County Record tell the story:

It was so bad that 40 Minnesota counties were declared a disaster area, and Becker County received $450,000 in FEMA disaster aid for snow removal, much of which went to hard-hit western townships.

The brutal winter took a toll on families, with the Lakes Crisis Center receiving 14 calls for restraining orders in one week in January, and other calls for help from women with frozen water lines, or frozen sewer lines in substandard rental property, whose landlords wouldn't fix the problem.

Lots of calls came from people whose fuel assistance was all used up. One day in late January, a receptionist at Mahube logged 60 calls for energy assistance.

"Propane prices are the highest I've ever seen them," Nancy Cummings, who directed the fuel assistance program for Mahube, told the Tribune.

"Pure frustration is what's going on out there," read a headline from Jan. 9, 1997, Tribune. A foot of snow had just fallen with 35 mph wind gusts in the worst storm of the season. Highway 10 had been closed and stranded motorists had filled up Detroit Lakes motels. Tow truck drivers had been operating on adrenaline for over a week of cold temperatures and snowy weather, and there were long wait times to get help.

Plow operators were also feeling the strain

"We worked from daylight to dark on Saturday and were back out on Sunday," John Okeson (then county maintenance supervisor) told the Tribune.

By early January, Detroit Lakes had already seen a total of 40 inches of snowfall, high above the 13-inch total average for November and December. Detroit Lakes schools had already had so many snow days that extra classes had been scheduled for May 27-28, and other area schools were in the same boat. By the end of the season, kids would have been going to school into June, had the DL district not decided to just drop four days off the schedule.

"I've been in administration for 24 years and I've never seen a winter like this one," said Frazee-Vergas Superintendent Joe Merseth, after 10 inches of snow, that had not even been forecast, fell over a weekend.

A Detroit Lakes woman, who had been dropped off by a friend, froze to death outside her home and was found covered in snow.

And it wasn't just Detroit Lakes, the whole region was hammered.

Blizzards struck western or west-central Minnesota Nov. 16-17, Dec. 17-19, Dec. 20-21, Dec. 23, Dec. 31, Jan. 15-16, Jan. 21-22, March 4, and even on April 5-6 during a huge flood fight to hold back the swelling Red River. Total seasonal snowfall in the Fargo-Moorhead area was 117 inches, which set up worst flooding ever, according to the DNR.

The record-breaking snowfall during the 1996-97 winter was followed by a 500-year flood during which Fargo eclipsed previous recorded Red River flooding high marks as it rose to 37.55 feet on April 17, 1997.

While Fargo-Moorhead narrowly skirted disaster, Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were not so lucky, and suffered major flooding from the Red River.

An estimated 500 people from the Grand Forks area temporarily located in Becker County.

"In the historical record, we have not seen a comparable sequence of such extreme precipitation events which have affected so much of the Red River basin in a single over-winter season," DNR Director of Waters Kent Lokkesmoe said at the time.

The winter of 1996-1997 brought the greatest snowfall totals ever recorded over large areas of the Red River and upper Minnesota River basins, according to a DNR climate report. "Not only was the snowfall noteworthy in its intensity," the report said, "but also in geographical extent. Six to eight blizzards, and numerous smaller snowstorms, dropped over six feet of snow over northwestern and west central Minnesota."

Tough times, but it kinda puts this winter in perspective, doesn't it?

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