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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Spring flooding? Season of extremes means 'anyone's guess'

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue  |  Posted Mar 14th, 2017 @ 6:24pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — It's fine to revel in these warm temperatures, but people should keep an eye on nearby streams and rivers and know the potential for flooding — always.

Weather experts and officials with the Utah Division of Emergency Management warned Tuesday that spring is no better time than to "be ready," and for people to prepare themselves for risk of property damage and potential safety risks around Utah's waterways, which are starting to deliver rushing water from a melting snowpack.

"If anything, this winter has been one of extremes," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

McInerney said December, January and February delivered precipitation 200 to 300 percent of average, and it would be foolhardy to believe March will put the skids on extreme behavior.

"What will happen is anyone's guess," he said.

The lower elevation snow is peeling off the mountains and this warmup will start to accelerate the melting of higher elevation snow.

Ideally, the snow would melt gradually, but McInerney said for that to happen it would need to stay cool into April.

These warmer-than-average temperatures are amping the potential for flooding, he added.

Utah's catastrophic flooding in 1983 developed from an average year snowpack that steadily developed late into the spring.

"It just wouldn't stop," he recalled. "And then we had 90 degree temperatures."

This year's snowpack is at least 30 percent more than what the mountains received that year, McInerney said.

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Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared this week National Flood Awareness Week, and emergency management officials are advising people to take precautions now. They held a briefing for the media Tuesday at the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

Kathy Holder, the national flood insurance coordinator for Utah, said only about 4,000 households in Utah have flood insurance.

"That is alarming for me considering how many people are at risk," she said.

While many people may not live in a high-risk area for floods, Holder pointed out that nationally, 25 percent of flood damage happens in low risk areas.

People can find their risk potential by going to the website msc.fema.gov and typing in their address. A typical flood insurance policy costs about $2 a day, she said, but after purchase, the policy holder must wait 30 days before the insurance takes effect.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse for flood damage, but that generally is only for public infrastructure like parks, roadways, bridges and water structures in canals or streams.

Box Elder County is still tallying the damages from February flooding, and officials there are putting rough damage estimates at $3 million, said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management. Dozens of homes were flooded and roadways washed away from an early snowmelt and a storm that lasted 48 hours.

In natural disasters, the information is reviewed and the governor's office then decides if a disaster declaration is warranted. If the declaration is made, funding is made available to help with repairs of infrastructure or replacement if necessary.

While FEMA can make a determination for individual assistance, the bar is pretty high, he added.

In the last 11 state disaster declarations, Utah has never received an individual assistance grant, including the 2005 flooding in Washington County in which several homes were washed into an engorged river when the banks gave way.

Dougherty and Holder said a lot of pain and heartache can be avoided from Utah's temperamental weather if people bought flood insurance, found a safe keeping place for irreplaceable and necessary documents and compiled a video or photographic inventory of their personal belongings.

McInerney, meanwhile, is keeping an anxious eye on the snowpack — hoping it hangs on long enough that Utah is looking at an ample water supply, not a shortage.

"It is a balancing act," he said. "Anytime you melt early in February or March, you lose a great deal to the atmosphere. You can have up to a 50 percent water loss in your snowpack if you melt prematurely."

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