Located in the northeastern quadrant of North Dakota, Walsh County is separated from neighboring Minnesota by the Red River of the North—a 550 mile long river that flows from northeastern South Dakota into Canada. The county also resides within the Red River Valley and Forest River Watershed regions, all of which make it prone to flooding. As a result, Walsh County has declared 25 flood disasters since 1965.
The flood of 1997 (pictured at the top of this page) is often cited as the worst flood in recent memory for Walsh County. Leading up to the major flood event, the state witnessed three severe winter storms from November-December 1996 and four severe winter storms in January 1997. In those events, a heavy snow melt raised local expectations for flooding as spring approached and temperatures began to rise. As part of local preparations, the North Dakota National Guard assisted with snow clean up efforts and the Walsh County Highway Department delivered sand to rural residents. Despite the preparations, the flood cost $5 billion in damages throughout the Red River Valley, according to FEMA data. Additionally, more than 2 million acres of prime wheat land was inundated. The most affected area in Walsh county was Minto—a city very close to the Red River, with just over 600 residents. The snowmelt caused overland flooding into a rising Forest River—a tributary of the Red River—and upwards of three feet of water roared into Minto.
In 2010, a series of factors combined to create the perfect conditions for a particularly severe flood. To start, a large amount of snow had fallen across northeastern North Dakota during the winter of 2009-2010, totaling 40-50 inches by March. Then, throughout March the temperatures climbed to unseasonably warm levels. Climate stations located in the nearby cities of Fargo and Grand Forks registered temperatures 6-14 degrees above normal. As a result of these abnormally high temperatures, snowmelt quickly accumulated throughout the northeastern portion of North Dakota, including Walsh County. To make matters worse, a storm system from the central plains drifted into the area around the same time and dropped 1.5-2 inches of rain across the county. This series of events led to flooding in Walsh County that ultimately caused the closures of numerous roads, including portions of two main interstates.
Severe winter storms, although resulting in few disaster declarations by Walsh County, can also be a dangerous affair. The snow storms of 1997 prior to the massive spring flood event were extremely harsh. According to NOAA data, Walsh County experienced five severe snow storms from January 9th to April 5th. During this time, the Red River Valley experienced heavy snowfall ranging from 7-8 inches and strong winds upwards of 45 mph that produced wind chills of 50-70 below zero. The conditions were so harsh, a 33-year-old man died after he left his stalled car during a storm. Additionally, conditions caused a bus full of 15 people to become stranded, with its passengers waiting 15 hours to be rescued.
Finally, another dangerous element that overlaps the harsh conditions brought about by winter storms in Walsh county are ice storms. During the blizzards in 1997, two ice storms occurred. On top of the large amount of snowfall in the Red River Valley, both ice storms carried 0.5 inches of freezing rain over the region. Not only did the freezing rain heighten hazardous conditions on roads in the county, it accumulated on top of exposed surfaces. According to emergency planners, 0.5-2 inches of ice built up on electricity infrastructure, such as power poles and powerlines. Hundreds of power poles and power lines snapped due to the weight of the ice, and many businesses and homes were left without power.