Technology comes to the aid of Red River Valley flood fighters
GRAND FORKS -- When floodwaters threatened Clausen Springs Dam on the Sheyenne River in April 2009, forcing the precautionary evacuation of the 55 residents of Kathryn just downstream, the North Dakota National Guard used remote video cameras mounted on Black Hawk helicopters to inspect damage.
The Guard and the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services used social media -- Facebook, Twitter and YouTube -- to instantly spread the word and coordinate the emergency response.
Within hours, Guard pilots flying Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters placed more than 100 1,000-pound sandbags in strategic places to shore up the eroded banks near the dam.
"We started using Facebook and Twitter just a few months before the 2009 flood," said Capt. Dan Murphy, a public affairs officer with the Guard.
"From the very moment we started, we realized that real-time information was the key, whether it was for internal use, to other subscribing agencies, or to get information out to the media," he said.
A similar procedure, including the use of helicopters to place similar balloon sandbags, helped save Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo after two buildings were flooded when a permanent dike was breached.
Those cases illustrate just a tiny piece of the technical evolution in flood fighting since the Flood of 1997 devastated Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn.
Here are some of the technological wonders in use today:
- LIDAR. Light Detection and Ranging, or Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging, is an optical remote sensing technology similar to radar, using infrared lasers instead of radio waves. It can measure natural and manmade features, including subtle changes in the landscape, such as elevation, riverbank slopes, building locations and heights.
LIDAR has been used to map the entire U.S. portion of the Red River Valley.
- Global Positioning Satellites were not unheard of in 1997, but were in only limited use by the government. GPS applications now offer an almost unlimited array of tools to prepare for and battle floods. The technology was used during the 2009 Red River flood, for example, to help officials in Fargo determine how far the floodwaters would spread at various elevations.
- Unmanned (and manned) aircraft. Aerial surveys help forecasters determine snow depths and the amount of water in the snow, or snow-water equivalent. They also are used to survey the extent of flooding, to check for ice jams and to aid in search-and-rescue efforts. Unmanned aircraft, available in the Red River Valley only in recent years, can stay aloft much longer than manned aircraft.
- Smartphones provide users instant access to the latest information. They also can aid in emergency responses. For example, a person might notice some seepage in a levee while out for a walk. If the GPS application on a smartphone is enabled when a person calls to report the breach, emergency responders can pinpoint the precise location.
- HESCO barriers, trap bags and rapidly deployable floodwalls. Recent inventions, which use sand, water or other materials, can be set up quickly and in tight spaces, where equipment cannot be used, to erect temporary dikes.
All of these developing tools and more, including improved flood forecasting modeling methods, are helping flood fighters today.
The severity of a spring flood depends on several factors, including: the freeze-melt cycle; early spring rains or late spring snowstorms; snowpack depth and liquid-water equivalency; frost depth; soil moisture content; river flows and ice conditions; and liquid precipitation from the previous year.
While all of those factors can be measured, methods vary.
A study is examining ways to improve those methods, according to Lance Yohe, executive director of the Red River Basin Commission.
Among other issues, the study is looking at river gauges along the river, the data that is collected by automated systems and that which is collected manually by volunteers.
The goal is to produce an entirely automated system.
"What we would like to see is what it would take to get there and what it will cost," Yohe said. "Right now, the best frost depth information comes from grave diggers, pretty much."
The National Weather Service also gathers frost depth information from utility company workers and highway crews, people who dig year-round, according to Greg Gust, a meteorologist with the agency's Grand Forks office.
The agency's North Central River Forecast Center in Chanhassen, Minn., is testing a new model this spring to measure frost depth, he said.
Not long ago, Murphy recalls, the Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies relied on what now seem like ancient methods of communicating flood information.
"The old-school way was faxing and emailing," he said. "What we've seen, since 2009 especially, has been a vast improvement."
"The single biggest improvement is the ability to pull in various information from different agencies," said Master Sgt. Dale Franchuk of the Guard. "We're able to put that on one platform now. The old way, we'd have to go to 24 different websites. Now, we can put all of those layers on one map, right at your fingertips, without having to go to different websites."
That proved invaluable to people involved in the 2009 flood fight at Clausen Springs and in Fargo.
In the Oak Grove breach, for example, the National Guard shared its video instantly on YouTube.
"In addition to the immediate impact area, friends, family around the globe can use those social media platforms to see what is happening," Murphy said. "It provides a level of comfort and understanding for the community and for people who care about the community."