Lessons from the flood

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(AP) Forecasters are still stung by the spray-painted words, many of them obscene, on what was left of flood-ruined homes after the Red River swamped this city a decade ago.

"49 feet my A--," read one, a jab at the original 49-foot crest prediction - held for weeks - before the weather service predicted the 54-foot crest that forced most of the 60,000 people in Grand Forks and neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn., out of their homes.

"My husband's wasn't that catchy - but you can't print what he wrote on our house," said Colleen Bushy, who lives in neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn.

The National Weather Service has changed its forecasting methods since the 1997 flood disaster - not only for Grand Forks but also for disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

"Our science, modeling and communication are better," said Dan Luna, hydrologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen, Minn. "We learned a lot in 1997."

Some of what they learned involves telling people what forecasters don't know.

Forecasters now stress the uncertainties of their predictions in stronger terms, said Edward Johnson, the weather service's director of strategic planning and policy in Silver Spring, Md.

"The Red River of the North flood is used a case study on estimating and communicating forecast uncertainty," he said. "The flooding in 1997 provided strong motivation for improvements."

The weather service now gives a range of worst-case possibilities.

Johnson said forecasting today, whether for floods or hurricanes, "represents multiple possible future outcomes." He called it "hedging."

One of the biggest problems of the 1997 Red River flood was a communication breakdown, Luna said. Forecasters want to make sure that does not happen again.

"We actually make phone calls to emergency managers now," Luna said. "We've got to do whatever we can to make sure everybody gets the word."

During Hurricane Katrina, top weather service officials personally called governors and other officials to explain the forecast "and to let them know this is a really big deal," he said.

"If there were phone calls in 1997, there weren't many," Luna said. "That has changed."

Bob Bushy, of East Grand Forks, said the message he wrote on his home with a salvaged can of spray paint was done partly out of anger with the forecast.

"Mine was a little dirty," Bob Bushy said of his slogan.

His anger peaked, he said, when he found his prized beer mirror collection had been destroyed by the flood.

"Our two-story house had 2 feet of water on the second floor," Colleen Bushy said. When her husband found his water-damaged mirror collection, "that's when he lost it and wrote on our house," she said.

The weather service says it never touted that its original 49-foot crest prediction was perfect, nor was it something that residents could completely rely on.

But most did.

East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss, who also was the mayor when the flood swallowed his city a decade ago, said that if the weather forecast had been more precise or if it had stressed the uncertainties of the 1997 prediction, residents would have been better prepared.

"We relied on that prediction - that 49 feet was what was going to happen," Stauss said.

"We were protected to 49 feet," he said. "Then all of a sudden they (forecasters) moved it to 50, then 51 and then 52. At 52 feet, we just lost her and everyone had to desert the town - so an accurate prediction would have been very important."

Hydrologist Mike Lukes, at the National Weather Service office in Grand Forks, said there are still those in the area who are incensed with forecasters.

"It depends on who got wet or not," he said. "There was a lot of finger-pointing out of frustration. "We gave it our best shot, but we didn't get it right," Lukes said.

Over the past 10 years, the weather service has worked to rebuild credibility, he said.

Weather service officials said the flood helped push technology to better determine flood stages. The entire Red River bottom has been mapped, and 20 more monitoring gauges have been installed.

The agency gets immediate satellite updates of river stages today. Submerged bridges that held back floodwaters in 1997 are now part of the weather service flood model.

"The forecasting model that described how the river flowed was relatively simplistic in 1997," Johnson said. "It is much more sophisticated today."

Flooding forecasts come much sooner and with much more accuracy now, said David McShane, meteorologist in charge at the weather service in Grand Forks.

"Never say never," says Lukes, "but it would be a lot harder for a flood like '97 to sneak up on us now."