We’ve had some crazy weather this spring – nasty thunderstorms, tornadoes, epic floods – could the locusts be far behind? In St. Louis our streak of unseasonably cool days came to an abrupt end around Memorial Day, as we were forced into summer mode with a blast of heat and humidity. Further north, warm weather has been stubborn to arrive, but the rains have overstayed their welcome. Last Saturday evening, a new round of storms moved into La Crosse and pitched a tent, delivering nearly 12 hours of non-stop thunder and lightning. I know this because the thunder woke me up nearly every hour.
La Crosse was soaked with more than seven inches of rain from that Saturday storm, triggering a new round of flash flooding that was at least as bad as last year’s washout. Sunday was supposed to be my day to check out motels in Prairie du Chien, but mudslides closed the River Road on both banks. The hour drive to Prairie du Chien took nearly twice as long, not counting the time it took to eat Sunday brunch at the Isle of Capri Casino in Marquette, Iowa. (Yum! They actually had breakfast items!)
Events this spring feel eerily similar to 1993, the year of the Great Flood in the Upper Mississippi Valley. In many places along the Upper Miss, forecasters are predicting crests in the next few days that would approach the record levels of 1993, which, as you may recall, was a “500 year flood.” Geez, five centuries sure pass more quickly than they used to.
Because the river rises relatively slowly, communities along its banks have time to dig in and pile up the sandbags. Flooding along the Mississippi is a lot like an American Presidential election: you have plenty of warning that it’s coming, so the drama builds slowly and you have a lot of time to gossip, but even though you try to pile up sandbags to protect yourself from it, ultimately you are powerless to do much about it.
The most vigorous preparations I saw were near Alexandria, Missouri, in the far northeast corner of the state, where work was underway to add height to existing levees. Along the river road, gauges were placed to show the depth of the water over the road and reflectors on metal posts marked the boundaries of the concrete. The whole ritual seems to happen so effortlessly, you’d think that folks up there had been through this before.
We still have a long way to go to reach the historic depths of 1993, but I am surprised that many areas are already within uncomfortable reach of those levels. This year’s pattern has been very nearly the same as 1993 – heavy winter snows, minor flooding in the spring that recedes, followed by heavy rain nearly every day in the Upper Mississippi basin. A couple more weeks of the same wet pattern, and those 500 year flood records will be in serious jeopardy. Hand me one them sandbags, will ya? By the way, did you hear the latest rumor about John McCain? I can’t believe he…
Today’s Bad Decision: Trying to drive the River Road during monsoon season. Because of the heavy rains, I ran into closed roads all week. Around Wisconsin, the River Road was closed on both banks because of mudslides. Further south, several sections of the River Road were closed because the Great River Road was not just next to the river but in the river. The detours in Iowa and Missouri added at least an hour to my drive home on Wednesday.