Icy Floods Try Midwestern Optimism

A columnist from Fargo, N.D., muses on his state's particularly harsh winter

This has been the kind of winter that could drive Northerners South.

First, it was the 117 inches of snow - about three times more than normal.

Then an astonishing storm raked the Red River Valley here a few days ago: a record flood, heavy rain, an ice storm, and a blizzard - all in one day and one night.

Ice jams have clogged already swollen rivers, sending them careening over their banks. Cars, first sheathed in snow, then bathed in rain, are now encased in cubes of ice.

But, for the most part, people here don't go South. We stay. In fact, more people come every year.

Why? Well, it certainly isn't the weather.

It's the people, I guess.

The extraordinary hardships of the last couple weeks have been opportunities to help neighbors, strangers, anyone in need.

Here in Fargo, for instance, Randy Naslund was at his office when he heard the latest flood predictions. As he raced home to save his house, volunteers were already streaming into his neighborhood.

By afternoon, an assembly line of 20 sandbaggers had deployed in his yard. "I don't know hardly any of these people," he was heard to say. "I started to work, and they just showed up without a word."

Indeed, there's a certain mindset forged by all this calamity. Normal weather conditions in the Red River Valley can be harsh. Winter always is cold. Cryogenic even. Spring often brings floods. Tornadoes are commonplace. So is summer drought.

So dealing with nasty weather is a part of life - not an extraordinary event. The mindset that develops in people here is made up of three things: hardiness, stoicism, and optimism.

Fine, I thought. We survived the record-breaking winter: blizzards so fierce they closed interstate highways from the Canadian line to Nebraska, from central Minnesota to Montana. That's hardiness.

Relax, I thought, it's just nature doing the spring flood bit. Stoicism.

But then, as the most recent storm descended, our optimism was really tested.

Cold rain turned to ice. Trees splintered. The temperature dropped, the icy rain turned to snow. The wind cranked up to a steady 50 miles an hour. Rivers and streams poured into prairie towns, farms, and across roadways.

Our optimism was tested as powerlines collapsed and the countryside went dark. Electric company crews couldn't get to the downed wires because of the blizzard. Visibility was reduced to zero. Major highways were closed to all but emergency traffic.

Optimism, I thought, as I stumbled in the cold dark of my flooding basement. Optimism, I thought as I listened to the crack and crash of ice-laden tree branches coming down on the roof.

Optimism, I prayed, as I stoked the stove in the hope it would keep water pipes from freezing and bursting. They haven't.

It's not over. The rivers are cresting now at record levels - pushing 39 feet in Fargo today. And snowbanks from the last storm show no signs of melting, so a second flood crest is likely in a couple of weeks. For now, the worst of it is moving toward to our neighbors in Grand Forks, N.D, northern Minnesota, and Canada.

But in the end, the hardy stoics of the Northern Plains will survive. And somewhere in the snow and ice and floodwaters lies the faith that in a few weeks the first daffodil will bloom. That's optimism.

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