Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Blizzard Named Franzi and Another One Named Doris

We are supposed to hole up this week around here, to not go outside risking life and limb in the howling arctic winds.  But Bye-Bye Nesquik is running low on wet cat food, not to mention that her  mullet needs a trim, bad.

In fact, the winds just started up.  They make the house crackle and the kitten dash from room to room, her eyes all big and her ears perked up.  

We may be having a winter like the one described in Ashley Shelby's Red River Rising.  In 1996-97, poor old North Dakota got eight blizzards.  They named them, just like hurricanes:  Andy, Betty, Christopher, Doris, Elmo, Franzi, Gust and Hannah.  After days of confinement under roof-high drifts, they dug out and searched for their frozen-solid cattle.  Then they braced for the next one.

When the National Weather Service added up all those inches of snow, they warned the people who lived along the Red River of the North:  It's going to be a lot of water this spring.  Buy flood insurance, folks.

Only the middle third of Shelby's book was what I expected.

The first third described an alphabet soup of agencies attempting to guess how much water they might expect.  This part of the story was all about reconnaissance flights gauging the snow-pack, about scientists taking measurements from bridges, and other scientists drawing graphs.  Cities like Grand Forks wanted a number; at how many feet will the Red River crest?

They didn't want the number too low.  The river might rise higher and there they'd be, with water rushing down their streets.

They didn't want the number too high.  The river might not rise that much, even if they'd spent millions of dollars laying down even one extra foot of flood protection all up and down the banks.

I might just mention here that it didn't help that the Red River's mouth is in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  That's northward, folks.  I used to read about a river in Siberia that flowed north into the Arctic Ocean.  The frozen-up waters of its mouth blocked the river's flow, causing it to flood the blighted plain.  Well, thought I, that is why we are the Promised Land and they are not. 

Little did I know we had our own misbegotten river right here. 

But back to our story.

The middle third of the book is the story I expected.  The town filled sandbags.  Pretty soon, the exhausted citizens worked all night, lit by flood lights.  Pretty soon, they ran out of sand and dug up the golf course and a couple parks, all while listening to the eery sound of the river rushing louder, over on the other side of the floodwall.

And, pretty soon, it was time to grab the photo albums and a few clothes, then run, with a last look back at the house.  Because, when they returned, they found the door blocked by the china hutch, the couch upright against a wall, one shoe on a ceiling fan and its mate in the basement.

The last third was the recriminations.  Why didn't the the engineers and the hydrologists predict the right river crest?  How do we start over again?  Why are so many of us taking anti-depressants and attending city council meetings, raising our fists in the air?  

Naturally, people who survived such an apocalypse vowed "Never again!"  But when the engineers showed them the plans for the grand dike that would keep even an 8-blizzard spring run-off out of their streets and second-stories, this master project would swallow up the grandest avenue in town, with its lovely Queen Anne homes.   The flood had already stolen all their frontier-era downtown buildings.  People of more modest means lost their cherished neighborhoods.  Urban planners built new homes for the displaced, far from the river, out by the freeway.  All this loss of what little beauty existed in Grand Forks drove home the truth that their hometown lay on a bleak and lonely plain.

Red River gave a lot of pages over to scientific and political drama, most likely to place the human drama in context. But the explanations of graphs and the many, many names of government officials in the public favor today and out of favor tomorrow tested my patience.  Shelby's account of a city turned upside down was thorough, her elucidations of complicated science illuminating.  But her book is not casual reading. 

And now, as the wind continues shake the rafters, I give you tonight's dinner, perfect for a blizzard-y evening:

Creamy Chicken Rice Soup

Mozzarella Ham Stromboli

We added apple slices and some slightly under-baked chocolate chip cookies to our dinner.   

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