In flood zone, predicting the Red is risky business


(AP) - An updated National Weather Service statement that said the Red River apparently crested lower than expected and a day early was good news for leaders of the communities in the area. But it was exasperating, too.

Over the course of a week, they have endured an emotional roller coaster of river forecasts that ultimately predicted a recording-breaking crest up to 43 feet.

Then the weather service announced that the Red crested at 40.82 feet midnight Saturday and was beginning to recede.

It's nearly as tiring as heaving a 40-pound sandbag.

"I call it waterboarding, the Red River of the North style," Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral said Saturday at a briefing after the crest was announced.

Gauging the crest of any river is a tough business, forecasters say. And when the river is at an all-time high, like the Red River is at Fargo-Moorhead, it's even harder.

The weather service said as much Saturday, warning the Red could rise again and that "the river will continue to behave in ways never before seen."

The forecaster delivering the warnings saw firsthand, in his hometown 12 years ago, the crucial importance of making sure a community is ready for devastating flooding.

Greg Gust, 51, was working on Montana flooding in 1997 when a 54-foot crest of the Red hit his hometown of Grand Forks and neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn., forcing out most of the area's 60,000 people.

"There's crying alert and there's crying wolf. There's a very big difference."

Many there are still bitter toward the weather service for being slow to project such a catastrophic crest.

"I think I'm in a role to do my darnedest to do everything you can to make sure that does not happen here," said Gust, who wasn't part of the 1997 projections.

As the Red crept up this week, so did the weather service's crest estimate.

Early in the week, it was 39 to 41 feet. The weather service eventually settled on as much as 43 feet, raising anxieties and forcing officials to scramble to build up dikes and reinforce levees.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker reacted with disbelief at the new forecast. On Saturday, he publicly apologized for being critical of the weather service, but made plain the stakes: "Every foot means so much," he said.

Forecasters across the nation, whether they're projecting hurricane paths, tornado formations or flood levels, are under pressure to warn communities to prepare for the worst without jading them with dire forecasts that don't play out.

"There's crying alert and there's crying wolf," Gust said. "There's a very big difference."

Residents get fatigued from repeated stressful evacuations. Even though forecasters called Hurricane Katrina an extremely dangerous storm as it approached New Orleans in 2005, some residents who had evacuated in 2004 before Hurricane Ivan missed the city decided to stay.

In flood situations, there is also the risk that triggering an evacuation too soon sends away volunteer workers who would have been helping keep watch and shore up dikes.

Gust, whose official title is warning coordination meteorologist, said the Red River projections come from round-the-clock work by hundreds of scientists, engineers and experts who brave the river for measurements of volume, flow and temperatures.

They also use computer models for mathematical and statistical analyses.

But even with improved forecasting methods, the river's record levels don't allow for certainty.

"It complicates it every way possible," Gust said. "The water is now out of the channel, the water is into areas that we never saw it go into before."

Jud Kneuvean, chief of emergency management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kansas City, said forecasting tools were improving, but the process was "still not foolproof."

Gust, who has been in the weather service since 1992, said he's most concerned about making sure his native Red River Valley is alert and prepared for what's coming, whether he's called right or wrong.

"If somebody wants to criticize us for that, I'm all right to live with that," he said.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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