Spring flood season here, but so far Midwest is smiling

A below-normal winter snowfall, current preparations by state emergency planners, and cooperation from the public may combine to make this year's spring flood season more of an inconvenience than the disaster it was last year.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, about $61 .3 million in federal disaster aid and loans were channeled last year to Illinois, Minnesota, and North Dakota after the Illinois River and the Red River of the North overflowed and inundated the surrounding countryside. Parts of Indiana also were declared disaster areas as local rivers flooded.

But this year "things look pretty good," says Lloyd Lund, an emergency planner for the Minnesota division of emergency services.

John Crandall, director of the Iowa Office of Disaster Services, says that "because of the relatively mild winter, and because the waterways stayed open, the threat [of floods] is virtually nonexistent."

The National Weather Service (NWS) is a bit more conservative in its forecast.

Jose Marrero, flood information specialist with the NWS, says, "The frost layer continues to be a problem, especially in southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa."

In some places, he notes, the frost depth reaches two feet or more.

The frost level is one of the prime factors that determine the severity of spring-thaw flooding. The amount of snow on the ground and any heavy spring rains also play a role, as does the length of time required for the thaw.

Taking all of these factors into account, the NWS says the possibility exists for minor- to-moderate flooding for portions of several Midwestern rivers -- assuming normal future temperatures and precipitation.

Some of the areas that bear watching include portions of the upper Mississippi River and the upper Iowa River, the Red River of the North, portions of the Souris River in North Dakota, the upper Illinois River basin, and the upper James River in North and South Dakota.

Despite initial indications that the Mid- west may be getting off lighter than last year, state emergency planners are preparing just the same.

"I'm not knocking the National Weather Service, but I don't have a whole lot of confidence in their flood forecasts," says Erie Jones, Illinois director of emergency services. "We had a number of problems on the Illinois and lower Mississippi Rivers last year that were not predicted. We had a very long period of flooding along the Illinois River -- in excess of six weeks -- which was predicted as short-term, not long-term."

Those planners who put more stock in the NWS also are gearing up for the flood season.

"One thing we learned from last year's flood is that people in some areas of the state have forgotten how to build emergency sandbag dikes," Mr. Lund wryly notes.

As a result, and because of personnel changes that take place during the course of a year, Mr. Lund's office has been conducting detailed training programs throughout the state for county civil defense directors. And the pattern of training programs is being repeated throughout the Midwest.

Beyond the training of personnel and the stockpiling of sandbags, emergency generators, pumps, and other equipment, flood specialists say all that remains is to sit back, monitor river levels and weather patterns, and wait.

As for residents of flood-prone areas, Mr. Jones outlines some of the steps they should take as the spring thaw approaches.

First on his list of "do's" is flood insurance, which he calls a bargain at about 25 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation.

"If you live in a flood plain and you live in a mobile home, make some arrangement to move the home if a flood threatens," Mr. Jones says. "People should have a plan that will enable them to protect lives and perhaps some of their more treasured possessions."

But above all, says the Illinois emergency specialist, "get ready to respond to flood information." Often, people try to beat the odds, he says, only to be plucked from a roof- top later by a rescue helicopter or skiff.

Ideally, people should not build in flood plains, observers say.

"That would mitigate the effects of flooding, but that's a long-range goal," says Mr. Lund. Still, he points to the example of East Grand Forks, Minn. Following last year's flood, municipalities used federal assistance to help flood victims rebuild on higher ground.

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