Minor major flooding

Ah, you got me again, newspeople and weatherpeople! A few months ago, when you warned about “major flooding” on the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities, I envisioned this:

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Not this:

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This is the bike path near the Science Museum where all of the TV reporters set up to document the drama of the major flooding. Rule of thumb: If a bike path underwater is the only visual element of a major flood, you don’t really have a major flood.

The Mississippi River crested this morning in Saint Paul at about 19 feet. That, according to the hydrologists at the National Weather Service, constitutes major flood stage. So when newscasters, as ours did this morning, report “the National Weather Service says major flooding is still occurring along the Mississippi in St. Paul,” he’s not wrong. That’s the categorization the NWS is using.

Here is the definition:


* Minor Flooding – minimal or no property damage, but possibly some public threat or inconvenience

* Moderate Flooding – some inundation of structures and roads near streams. Some evacuations of people and/or transfer of property to higher elevations are necessary.

* Major Flooding - extensive inundation of structures and roads. Significant evacuations of people and/or transfer of property to higher elevations.

There are a few structures on Harriet Island taking on water. And some of the roads there are closed.

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Buildings on Rasperry Island are still OK…

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Several islands and low-lying parks are underwater, but nobody lives on them, and there are, as far as we know, no major — or minor — evacuations of people.

One section of Shepard/Warner Road is under water. It’s been closed to traffic for more than a week, and someone from the Ramsey County Department of Homeland Security is sitting on it to keep people away…

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Closed roads, flooded parks, and impassable bike paths are certainly inconvenient, but did we overplay this thing? Originally the estimate was the river would hit 22 feet — that would be significant and, as I pointed out earlier this week, it’s difficult to estimate the height of a river from far enough out to be able to do anything about it. What if it had reached 22 feet and a temporary levee hadn’t been built, for example?

But we’ve been hearing for months, predictions that we’d experience “major flooding,” in this area and we — I — never accurately distinguished whether that meant “major flooding” as defined by the National Weather Service or “major flooding” as defined by the way many people hear that phrase — needing to carry cats down a flooded main street?

It’s an important distinction because next time officials and newspeople warn us to prepare for major flooding, we need to take it seriously if it’s major major flooding and not minor major flooding.

  • davidz

    Heavens! We’ve learned from the past, built up our protective infrastructure and know what to do when the water rises. What will we think of next?

    The river level charts from the NWS show flood stages based off of the extra amount of water level over the local norm.

    See this chart for an example for Saint Paul.

    The NWS does not have the ability to know what the exact preparations a community has taken, so the stage descriptions in terms of damage have to be taken with the additional knowledge of the mitigation efforts.

    Saint Paul seems to have learned (mostly) how to deal with these river levels. Some well known sections of the river neighborhoods are affected.

    Communities that regularly see this sort of flooding should be expected to know how to handle it. Something much higher than has ever been seen is something else, but these river levels are within the statistical norms. The predictions have been in place for weeks. No one should be surprised by the overall effects of the high water. Specific cases may indeed be unusual.

    Those communities who are surprised by (yet another) flood of this level have to wake up to the reality they live in. So far, it doesn’t sound like this is much of an issue this year.

  • Bob Collins

    When the Red River floods, we usually get a lot of people in the cities asking, “What’s the matter with those people, building so close to the river.”

    A 22-foot crest would’ve provided an interesting opportunity for Red River area residents to weigh in.

  • davidz

    Yes, it would have been interesting (in the morbid curiosity sense) to see what a 22′ flood stage in Saint Paul would look like. But I’d still offer the same “what were they thinking” to anyone affected by that.

    Anyone who hasn’t noticed the increasing level of 100 year floods in the upper Midwest hasn’t been looking. For one, our notion of 100-year flood is impaired by around (at most) 200 years worth of history in the area. We’ve also dramatically influenced the water-retaining capacity of the land (all of those ditches and drain tiles throughout the fields).

    Anyone who would be affected by 22′ in Saint Paul would have also been affected in 1997 and 2001. We sure haven’t done much (if anything) to positively affect the water absorbing capacity of the land. If anything, the upstream flood control efforts will serve to push more water downstream.

    Me? Given our (yeah, I’m a Saint Paul resident) historic record flood of 26.4′ in 1965, I wouldn’t build anything in the river plains affected to 28′ or so unless I knew it was expendable and easily replaced.

    I wouldn’t worry (much) about levels like 35′ — those are so far outside of our history that they’re likelihood is minimal (and the damage elsewhere would be more of issue, I suspect).

    I don’t understand the Red River neighborhoods who are doing this again and again and again. Maybe I’ve moved enough in my life (on my 14th residence) that I’ve figured out that those sorts of hassles aren’t worth the benefits of any specific place. It doesn’t make sense to me to stay in someplace where I regularly have to put up a 6 or 8 foot dike to protect my house and keep a boat in or on the garage to cope with an emergency escape.

    But what would we have done without our flood protection infrastructure? I don’t know, but I’m glad we have it. But it can be expensive, so the first step in flood planning is determining the places that are savable and those that aren’t. Put the emphasis on the former, and buy out the latter (if the circumstances warrant).

    We cannot protect everything. I don’t even think we should try.

  • JackU

    I was in the Mississippi River Gallery at the Science Museum last night looking out across the river. I was struck by the fact that the Paddleford boats might be able to float past the Pavilion if they slipped their moorings. I suspect the same is true for the marina of houseboats nearby. While that is unlikely to happen if it did I think it would be a significant problem.

  • Al

    I’ve been wondering all along if the lack of damage this year has been because people are wising up and choosing not to live in the flood plain or anywahere close. The MPR commentary earlier this week showed that isn’t entirely true. The commentator described the thought process, reasoning The Landings in St. Paul aren’t the best place to build, but he moved in anyway. Let the taxpayers and those who donate to the Red Cross bail you out when you make bad decisions. Thankfully most people aren’t like that.

    And Bob, I understand your soft spot for those who live near the Red River. The terrain is flat. But if you know that, take it into consideration. And after the past few years, you have all the evidence you need to make a better choice.

    Our flood prep began 4 years ago when we looked for a house. Fridley was in our search area, but the strip between E. River Rd. and the river was not. Those houses popped up in the search. We didn’t even click on them. It was the summer and the river was way down there. But that’s a decision at the confluence of history, common sense, and an overabundance of caution, considering this is the most expensive purchase of your life.

  • Bob Collins

    When I was up there last month. i asked people at dinner who would take a buyout if it was offered. Everyone’s hands went up. The problem is the buyout isn’t being offered to everyone. And you can’t put a FOR SALE sign on your property because nobody is going to buy it.

    The people along the Red are trapped. They have no choice but to sandbag and try to get out another day.

    BTw, I caught hell from people at The Landing a few weeks ago for suggesting that it might not be a great place to be during the flood. Apparently it’s quite high off the water. The only reason they would have had to leave is if utilities — ie. sewers — were shut off.

  • Al

    I have no problem with people living at The Landing. If they love the close views of the river, fine. But they need to foot the bills themselves when something goes wrong. There is clear known risk to living there regardless of how high they say they are above the river. Just because the river has never gone higher than X feet doesn’t mean it never will. If there is any environmental cleanup following a flood, such as pulling the pile of garbage that used to be their home out of the river, they need to foot the bill for that too.