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20 years later: 'You knew, this is epic'

FARGO -- A snow plow operator remembers working 25 straight days for 12 hours at a crack, moving mountains of snow. A police officer recalls having to borrow four-wheel-drive vehicles from another city department in order to get around. A meteoro...

Snow drifts over and aroung Dilworth Elementary School on Jan. 24, 1997.Dave Wallis / The Forum
South Fargo is seen with deep snow in this aerial photo from Jan. 17, 1997.Bruce Crummy / Forum News Service

FARGO - A snow plow operator remembers working 25 straight days for 12 hours at a crack, moving mountains of snow.

A police officer recalls having to borrow four-wheel-drive vehicles from another city department in order to get around.

A meteorologist is reminded of the North Dakota National Guard being called out for emergency snow removal.

For a commuting mail carrier, being stranded comes to mind.

Memories are vivid in the Fargo-Moorhead area of the infamous winter of 1996-97, which brought eight blizzards, a record-smashing amount of snow and brutal cold followed by a terrible flood.

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Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the first of the eight blizzards. What began as a slushy snow segued into a blizzard that dropped 13.5 inches of snow and packed winds gusting to 47 mph.

Fargo Public Works supervisor Lee Anderson said from there, it was an uphill battle for city street crews.

"We were losing control of the streets that winter," Anderson said. "I think we lost control from the start."

John Wheeler, longtime meteorologist at WDAY TV and 970 AM WDAY radio, said the winter featured many tough days for people simply trying to get to work, the store or to school.

"It just wore down on you," Wheeler said.

Plows and police cars

Lee Anderson, who has been with Fargo Public Works for 36 years, said the first snow was difficult to move because it was so wet and heavy. The city's biggest equipment - loaders and road graders - managed OK as the snow piled up, storm after storm. The same couldn't be said for the plows.

"You can only push so much," he said. "Some of the banks were literally 5 to 6 feet tall, for hundreds of feet."

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Anderson said Fargo's street crews were never able to fully widen the roads and the intersections "were ridiculous."

Between the winter and the spring flood that followed, Anderson racked up many hours of overtime from November through June.

"To this day, that winter and spring, it's still the most money I ever made," he said.

For another city employee, the brutal winter made for a rude welcome.

Deputy Police Chief Joe Anderson was 24 and newly hired to the force in January 1997.

Instead of the all-wheel or four-wheel-drive vehicles police now have for patrol duty, the department was mostly equipped with rear-wheel drive Ford Crown Victorias or Chevy Caprices.

"They didn't get around well at all," Joe Anderson said.

The police department had to borrow 4-by-4's for much of that winter.

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"I remember the entire night shift driving city engineers' vehicles," the deputy chief said.

Those vehicles had no radios, lights or sirens - just a city of Fargo emblem on the side. Officers sometimes used plug-in strobe lights to pull someone over.

Another issue was the huge snowbanks at corners, which prompted drivers to inch precariously into intersections, leading to more than the usual number of crashes.

Joe Anderson was involved in one of those. Driving his personal vehicle, he tried backing up after venturing too far into the street to see approaching traffic.

In his high-profile pickup, he failed to see a car right behind him, causing a fender bender, he said.

'Neither snow nor rain'

According to the U.S. Postal Service's motto, the weather isn't supposed to prevent carriers from delivering the mail.

The winter of 1996-97 didn't keep Darrell Boreen from doing his job, but it did keep him from sleeping in his own bed many nights.

Now a letter carrier in Fargo, back then he delivered mail in Wahpeton and commuted from his south Fargo home each day. When the storms raged and he couldn't make it back, he got a hotel room across the street from the Wahpeton post office.

A number of times that winter, he only made it home to Fargo on weekends.

"Maybe 20 to 25 days, maybe more, spending nights in a hotel," Boreen said. "I lost track."

Lynn Brosowske, another postal carrier, remembers piles of snow around his own home and the landscaping job they brought later.

"A brother-in-law got hold of a skid steer and came and pushed it all up in my yard and managed to take about three-quarters of my turf with it," Brosowske said, adding, "I was regrowing grass for a while."

'Rogue record'

Wheeler describes the 117 inches of snow that fell that winter as a "rogue record."

"That's 3 inches shy of 10 feet! Not only that, that's more than 2 feet more than second place," he said.

Wheeler said it really got crazy when the National Guard brought out its equipment in mid-January. According to Forum archives, 20 bulldozers and six large rotary snow blowers were deployed, mostly in the southeast and south-central parts of the state.

"You knew it was not a standard winter," Wheeler said. "You knew, 'this is epic.'"

Dave Odden's mark on that winter was seen far and wide. A photo of him blowing snow in his driveway in West Fargo, surrounded by towering snowdrifts, was published in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

He still lives in the same house and still owns the snowblower that got him and his family through the winter of 1996-97.

He said the machine still runs great, and is ready for another round of whatever winter dishes out.

"It's tuned up and starts on the first pull," Odden said.

F-M Winter of 1996-97

Nov. 16: First blizzard, 13.5 inches of snow

Nov. 20: Winter storm, freezing rain and 6.1 inches of snow

Dec. 16: Second blizzard, 8.4 inches of snow

Jan. 4: Third blizzard, freezing rain and 10.7 inches of snow

Jan. 9: Fourth blizzard, 7.5 inches of snow. North Dakota and South Dakota declared federal disaster areas.

Jan. 15: Fifth blizzard, trace of new snow, 50 mph winds. Minnesota declared federal disaster area.

Jan. 22: Sixth blizzard, 2 inches of snow, 45 mph winds. Drifts are 20 feet high.

Jan. 26: Temperature drops to 30 below zero

March 3: Seventh blizzard, 15.7 inches of snow

April 1: Red River flood begins

April 5: Freezing rain, high winds snap power poles and power lines

April 6: Eighth blizzard, 7 inches of snow

April 17: Red River hits then-record 39.51 inches in Fargo

Related Topics: WEATHERMOORHEAD
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