Red River rising: 18th consecutive year of flooding--why?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:08 PM GMT on March 19, 2010

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The Red River at Fargo, North Dakota continues to rise, with a peak expected Sunday at the 4th highest flood level observed in the past century. "Major" flood level is 30 feet, which the river surpassed on Wednesday, and the river is expected to crest near 38 feet on Sunday, just 2.8 feet below the record set last year. Flood stage is eighteen feet, and the Red River has now reached flood stage at Fargo for eighteen consecutive years, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to this remarkable stretch of flooding (which began in 1993), the river flooded in just 29 of 90 years. This year's flood is rated as somewhere between a 50-year and 100-year flood. Last year's record flood was a 100-year flood. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lists the 10-year flood level for the Red River at Fargo to be 10,300 cubic feet per second. A 10-year flood, historically, has a 10% chance of occurring in a given year. In the last twenty years, the Red River has had eight 10-year floods--one every 2.5 years, on average. This year is the fourth year out of the past five with a 10-year flood. Clearly, flooding has increased significantly along the Red River over the past twenty years.


Figure 1. Current and forecast flood stage for the Red River of the North at Fargo, ND. You can access images like these using our wundermap for Fargo with the "USGS River" layer turned on. Click on the icon for USGS station 05054000, then hit the "click for graph" link.

Reasons for flooding: landform factors
According the U.S. Geological Survey, the unique landform characteristics of the Red River Valley make it highly susceptible to flooding. These factors include:

1) A relatively shallow and meandering river channel--a shallow channel holds less water and the meandering can cause flow to slow down as the channel makes its turns, causing over-bank flooding.

2) A gentle slope (averaging 0.5 to 1.5 feet per mile) that inhibits channel flow and encourages overland flooding or water "ponding" (especially on even, saturated ground) in the basin.

3) The northerly direction of flow--flow in the Red River travels from south (upstream) to north (downstream). The direction of flow becomes a critical factor in the spring when the southern (upstream) part of the Red River has thawed and the northern (downstream) part of the channel is still frozen. As water moves north toward the still frozen river channel, ice jams and substantial backwater flow and flooding can occur.


Figure 2. Peak flow of the Red River at Fargo, North Dakota through time. The two largest flow rates occurred last year (2009), and in 1997. The projected crest for Sunday (red circle) would be fourth greatest flood since reliable records began in 1901. Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey.

Reasons for this year's flood: highly unfavorable weather conditions
The USGS also cites five weather factors that can act to enhance flooding along the Red River. All five of these factors occurred to a significant degree this year:

1) Above-normal amounts of precipitation in the fall of the year that produce high levels of soil moisture, particularly in flat surface areas, in the basin. North Dakota had its 22nd wettest fall in the 115-year record in 2009.

2) Freezing of saturated ground in late fall or early winter, before significant snowfall occurs, that produces a hard, deep frost that limits infiltration of runoff during snowmelt. Fargo had a November that was much warmer than average, followed by a sudden plunge to below-zero temperatures by the second week of December. This froze the saturated ground to a great depth.

3) Above-normal winter snowfall in the basin. North Dakota had a top 15% winter for precipitation, with the period December 2009 - February 2010 ranking 15th wettest in the past 115 years.

4) Above-normal precipitation during snowmelt. Precipitation for March 1 - 18 has been 1.41", compared to the average of 0.61".

5) Above-normal temperatures during snowmelt. High temperatures in Fargo have averaged 6°F warmer than normal for March 1 - 18.

Urbanization increases flooding
Urbanization has had a major impact on increasing flooding not only along the Red River, but in every river basin in the U.S. Many cities and developed areas are located in flood plains next to major rivers and their tributaries. Highways, streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and buildings now cover large areas of the ground that used to absorb excess rain water and slow the rate at which run-off from precipitation and melting snow reached rivers. By developing large portions of our flood plains, run-off now reaches rivers more quickly, generating higher floods.

Building levees and flood defenses increases flood peaks
Defending ourselves against floods has made floods worse. Every time a new levee is built, or an old floodwall raised in height to prevent overtopping, more and more water is forced into the river bed, which raises the height of the flood. Flood waters that used to be able to spread out over their natural flood plains are now forbidden from spilling out over newly developed land in flood plains. For example, proposed improvements to the flood defense system in Fargo could cause a 4 - 10 inch rise in floods immediately downstream from the city, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Precipitation is increasing
As the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air. According to the 2007 IPCC report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. Satellite measurements (Trenberth et al., 2005) have shown a 1.3% per decade increase in water vapor over the global oceans since 1988. Santer et al. (2007) used a climate model to study the relative contribution of natural and human-caused effects on increasing water vapor, and concluded that this increase was "primarily due to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases". This was also the conclusion of Willet et al. (2007). This increase in water vapor has very likely led to an increase in global precipitation. For instance, over the U.S., where we have very good precipitation records, annual average precipitation has increased 7% over the past century (Groisman et al., 2004). Precipitation over the Red River drainage basin increased by about 10 - 20% during the 20th Century (Figure 3.) The same study also found a 14% increase in heavy (top 5%) and 20% increase in very heavy (top 1%) precipitation events over the U.S. in the past century. These are the type of events most likely to cause flooding. Kunkel et al. (2003) also found an increase in heavy precipitation events over the U.S. in recent decades, but noted that heavy precipitation events were nearly as frequent at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, though the data is not as reliable back then.


Figure 3. Change in precipitation over the U.S. between 1900 - 2000, from the U.S. Cooperative network. Precipitation in the Red River drainage area increased by 10 - 20% over the 20th century. Image credit: Contemporary Changes of the Hydrological Cycle over the Contiguous United States: Trends (Groisman et al., 2002).

The future of flooding
As the population continues to expand, development in flood plains and construction of new levees and flood protection systems will continue to push floods to higher heights. With global warming expected to continue and drive ever higher precipitation amounts--falling preferentially in heavy precipitation events--it is highly probable that flooding in the Red River Valley--and over most of the northern 2/3 of the U.S. where precipitation increases are likely--will see higher and more frequent floods. With these higher and more frequent floods comes the increased risk of multi-billion dollar disasters, when a record flood event overwhelms flood defenses and inundates huge areas of developed flood plains. Obviously, we need to make smart decisions to limit development in flood plains to reduce the cost and suffering of these future flooding disasters.

References
Kunkel, K. E., D. R. Easterling, K. Redmond, and K. Hubbard, 2003, "Temporal variations of extreme precipitation events in the United States: 1895.2000", Geophys. Res. Lett., 30(17), 1900, doi:10.1029/2003GL018052.

Groisman, P.Y., R.W. Knight, T.R. Karl, D.R. Easterling, B. Sun, and J.H. Lawrimore, 2004, "Contemporary Changes of the Hydrological Cycle over the Contiguous United States: Trends Derived from In Situ Observations," J. Hydrometeor., 5, 64.85.

Milly, P.C.D., R.T. Wetherald, K.A. Dunne, and T.L.Delworth, Increasing risk of great floods in a changing climate", Nature 415, 514-517 (31 January 2002) | doi:10.1038/415514a.

Santer, B.D., C. Mears, F. J. Wentz, K. E. Taylor, P. J. Gleckler, T. M. L. Wigley, T. P. Barnett, J. S. Boyle, W. Brüggemann, N. P. Gillett, S. A. Klein, G. A. Meehl, T. Nozawa, D. W. Pierce, P. A. Stott, W. M. Washington, and M. F. Wehner, 2007, "Identification of human-induced changes in atmospheric moisture content", PNAS 2007 104: 15248-15253.

Trenberth, K.E., J. Fasullo, and L. Smith, 2005: "Trends and variability in column-integrated atmospheric water vapor", Climate Dynamics 24, 741-758.

Willett, K.M., N.P. Gillett, P.D. Jones, and P.W. Thorne, 2007, "Attribution of observed surface humidity changes to human influence", Nature 449, 710-712 (11 October 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06207.

Links
A good way to track the flooding event is to use our wundermap for the Red River with the USGS River layer turned on.

The Fargo Flood webpage of North Dakota State University, Fargo, has some excellent links.

I'll have a new post on Monday or Tuesday.

Jeff Masters

Red River Flood 2006 (mw25)
The water level of the Red River when I took this photo was 47.2 feet, 19.2 feet above flood stage and the 6th highest level in Grand Forks' history. The river is expected to crest at 47.4 feet on Wednesday morning. Luckily, no homes have been lost in the Grand Forks area as of yet due to the flooding.
Red River Flood 2006
Fargo Flood 2009 - Elm & 15th Ave. N. (tliebenow)
Picture says it all. Clay dike built to contain the Red River in North Fargo.
Fargo Flood 2009 - Elm & 15th Ave. N.

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Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 424 Comments: 128348
Quoting stillwaiting:
there's definately some 50mph gusts w/the line offshore,could have a pretty widespread high wind event as the line moves ashore from tampa bay area south.winds here in sarasota are gusting to 30mph w/out any storms


Don't know about you, but there appears to be rotation developing within the thunderstorms directly west of Tampa on radar.
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there's definately some 50mph gusts w/the line offshore,could have a pretty widespread high wind event as the line moves ashore from tampa bay area south.winds here in sarasota are gusting to 30mph w/out any storms
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Aussie Storm, good Monday to you! Thanks for the updates on TC Ului today, a very small, but pretty potent TC!
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Can someone lend the DFW, TX area a warm 75F day PLEASE!! Today's high is supposed to be 45F!!
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Quoting weathermanwannabe:
Probably see more gusty winds, rather than severe t-storms in North Florida, today as the low is very robust but will have to wait a bit to see what happens in South Florida later.....Checking out for a Bit to do some chores......)


I don't for see a widespread severe weather outbreak in FL today! HOWEVER, conditions are ripe for strong, straight-line winds in the 40-60MPH, very heavy rains, possible isolated hail and or an isolated tornado. PLEASE, keep a close eye on the skies today!

This storm system has brought 1.05-1.10" of rain to the DFW, TX area yesterday morning, and 0.5-8" of snow late last night into this morning in the immediate DFW area. The storm is potent!!
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855. beell
Sweet spot for severe in FL may occur from the Cape down to Lake 'O and east to the coast. Dependant on cloud breaks and subsequent heating to drive the lapse rates up. Farther south-there may be a bit of a cap to keep convection elevated

DAY 1 CONVECTIVE OUTLOOK
NWS STORM PREDICTION CENTER NORMAN OK
0731 AM CDT SUN MAR 21 2010

FL PENINSULA THIS AFTERNOON...
EARLY MORNING VISIBLE SATELLITE IMAGERY SHOWS RELATIVELY CLEAR SKIES
OVER THE CENTRAL AND EASTERN FL PENINSULA. THIS SHOULD ALLOW A FEW
HOURS OF HEATING THIS MORNING BEFORE CONVECTIVE LINE MOVES ACROSS
REGION THIS AFTERNOON. FORECAST SOUNDINGS SUGGEST SUFFICIENT
VERTICAL SHEAR FOR ORGANIZED THUNDERSTORMS OVER FL
TODAY...ESPECIALLY IN THOSE AREAS WHERE TEMPERATURES WARM INTO THE
70S. LOCALLY GUSTY WINDS WILL BE POSSIBLE IN THE STRONGEST
CELLS...ALONG WITH THE RISK OF A BRIEF TORNADO AS STORMS INTERACT
WITH EAST-COAST SEA BREEZE CIRCULATION
.
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Probably see more gusty winds, rather than severe t-storms in North Florida, today as the low is very robust but will have to wait a bit to see what happens in South Florida later.....Checking out for a Bit to do some chores......)
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STORM SUMMARY NUMBER 6 FOR CENTRAL U.S. WINTER STORM
NWS HYDROMETEOROLOGICAL PREDICTION CENTER CAMP SPRINGS MD
1000 AM CDT SUN MAR 21 2010
Link
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851. cchsweatherman 11:03 AM EDT on March 21, 2010


Thanks. Pretty high dewpoints but the advancing cloud deck will hopefully keep temps a little cooler this afternoon before the front comes through...
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Quoting weathermanwannabe:
Good Moning and politics aside for the moment :), anyone on from South Florida? Just wondering how daytime heating and dewpoints are doing from Naples across to Ft. Laud/Miami areas. This will determine how unstable the air mass becomes later today as the front in the Gulf pushes through per SPC...


To answer your question, here are the current dewpoints across South Florida:


And here are the current CAPE (Convective Available Potential Energy) values across South Florida:


Right now, the atmosphere across South Florida is not supportive for strong to severe thunderstorms, but of course, as the day goes along and heating takes place, things could change.
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Good morning everyone! The Dallas-Ft Worth, TX Int'l AP received 1.2" of snow this morning, a new record for the day! It also got down to 32F this morning!

Welcome, the first full day of Spring 2010!!
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Quoting P451:
Pretty potent system.

WV Imagery



Thats for sure. Pretty typical squall line developing in the Gulf coming into Florida later this afternoon into the overnight hours. Not expecting the storms to be as strong or severe as the system that came through Florida last Friday though as the atmosphere is relatively stable at this time preceding the storms.
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Good Moning and politics aside for the moment :), anyone on from South Florida? Just wondering how daytime heating and dewpoints are doing from Naples across to Ft. Laud/Miami areas. This will determine how unstable the air mass becomes later today as the front in the Gulf pushes through per SPC...
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I consider her a Gift that keeps on "Giving"..

Hizz,Booo....,LOL

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 424 Comments: 128348
Pat,

Bachmann amazes me.... and not in a good way....
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Sorry to here about your PC woes skye..be safe and dont let da rain ruin yer day
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 424 Comments: 128348
Quoting Tropicsweatherpr:
Returning to the weather topic,here are the subsurface waters in the Pacific and they are very warm meaning that El Nino is mantaining firm for now.



ENSO indicated the decay of El Nino to level off for a bit then start dropping rapidly. Seems to be holding true.
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 259 Comments: 24044
Invest 98W

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 424 Comments: 128348
841. Skyepony (Mod)
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
some people just don't get it pat got nothing better to do but make everyone just as miserable as them selves


Ain't that about right.. My lively ENSO debate with StormW lastnight ended with my bookmarks disabled & with this page in one window & a NASA one in another..I've got to suspect here. Not like they won't be restored or like I don't have this lappy with them on it too ..only the lappy has no spell check.. so enjooy.. may just spend the season from it..

I'd still like to see an offical definition of a reactionary El Nino.. Only thng google takes me too is some random blog where the guy says.."I believe that this El Nino is more reactionary to the overall cooling cycle of the Pacific." while refuring to this el nino when it was in it's beginning..he had also thought it would never be a strong one either..hhmm. Though the definition varies slightly from the one I've seen here.

Off to play before it rains..
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Returning to the weather topic,here are the subsurface waters in the Pacific and they are very warm meaning that El Nino is mantaining firm for now.

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Quoting stillwaiting:
KOG:I dont have a sister LOL and if we were fighting to "liberate" iraq because there government wasn't like ours(freedom of speech,etc.) there's a looooooong list of countries that were far more threatening to the world that Iraq back in 03',IMO,this is a wx blog and my last political post of the day:)
freedom what freedom o you mean freedom to do what your dictator tells you o ya right i forgot about that freedom
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53866
Quoting stillwaiting:
looks like some isolated severe wx possible for central and south FL as a line of strong storms moves in off the GOM w/alot of lightning......a touch of politics:ALOT of money spent on the iraq war over the last 6yrs,atleast the 940billion spent over the next 10yrs w/be helping my fellow americans the bill w/cost less a year than we've been averaging for the war(just iraq war)...but war is a highly profitable industry unfortunately,JMO
and if we had no war
maybe you would not be here typing whatever crap you want on a internet site
and maybe yer sister would have been stoned to death for wearing a little lipstick and reading some books
nice way to live huh i rather keep my wars so women and children are free
and i can write whatever i want on the internet
have a nice day
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53866
Here's something one cant make up..LOL

America's Congress Woman needs to learn how to spell AMERICA..LMAO


#
Michele Bachmann - "Amaricas" Congress Woman
Official site for Rep. Michele Bachmann, who was elected to represent Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District in 2006.
www.michelebachmann.com - Cached

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 424 Comments: 128348
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 424 Comments: 128348
some people just don't get it pat got nothing better to do but make everyone just as miserable as them selves
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53866
LOL.....

Has it started raining down there yet?
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YES..



Quoting leftovers:
probally get defeated but rememeber the food stamp parasites already have heatlth insurance this is for american working families have a great sunday everyone


Yeah,u have a fine American Day too.

Are disabled Veterans Parasites?

One best Hold their collective tongues for the Day when they see the world thru another Eyes.


Such BS isnt needed here in the wunderground Main Blog,but Im sure comments like the one I quoted have a Blog or two for that gibberish.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 424 Comments: 128348
Good Morning.
I see that the "wave" we were looking at yesterday has broken, without a murmur, on the Sand-Bar of Dry air out there in the Atlantic.
But wait! Is that another one coming?
Ooooohh, the Tension.......
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The "fire in the sky" aspect of volcanos gets me almost as badly. At least it seems natural to have wind and rain from the sky...
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Think I would rather deal with a hurricane than an unexpected earthquake!
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lefto... is that healthcaredebate comment?
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Quoting winter123:


Were you there during Katrina, or did you forget already?

I live about 200 miles from the ocean, just far enough to be protected from cyclones but able to go there for one week per year. I'm happy with that.
I think we had this conversation in here last year.... Like other natural disasters, hurricanes can't be prevented. However, even without the modern technologies we have available to us today, they have consistently been among the most easily forecast of the natural disasters humans endure. OTOH, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, etc..... even WITH modern forecasting ability, most people in the zone of such natural disasters have much smaller warning times, and seem to be subject to endure them with as great or in some cases greater frequency than do hurricane coast dwellers.

I guess it's all a matter of perspective, but in my view I'd rather live on a hurricane coast than in a tornado belt or on an earthquake fault or volcano flank....
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Morning all....
Quoting ElConando:
I couldn't live in a place more than 50 miles away from an ocean. I need my Ocean!!!
Same here. I lived in the Piedmont area of NC for 3 years while in college, and I had a really rough time without ocean. Even the air didn't smell right!
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Quoting winter123:


Not everyone... just the coastal cities have the fastest growing population of anywhere. Most people move there just for the fun of it... just to party every night in Miami, to live the new york lifestyle, etc..


I wasn't going to go there again! But partying every night in these coastal towns is hilarious. We do enjoy fishing around here but Rita and Ike pretty much took out the piers. Had to buy a boat. Lol. No the lifeblood around here isn't mixed drinks,white sand and palm trees. It's black gold. Texas tea. Oil that is. :) And for the last hundred years petrochemicals have drawn the people to this area until to some it has just become home. And that's enough reason to continue living here. We've been hammered by hurricanes lately. But some places are experiencing floods year after year. Droughts, tornadoes, freezes, blizzards...I always wonder when people say we shouldnt live here, just how would they like life without their cars and everything else that comes out of here. I wouldnt want to live in the midwest and face the threat of tornadoes all the time. But I'm grateful to the people who do live there and grow my food. Home is home. Even for a wanderer like me.
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Floods follow Cyclone Ului's wild path across north Queensland

PREMIER Anna Bligh has today visited Central Queensland communities including Mackay that have been left with significant damage bills caused by Cyclone Ului.

After visiting Proserpine earlier today, the Premier stopped off for a brief visit at Mackay to thank all those involved in helping protect the city from severe devastation.

She said tourism, fisheries and coal mining will be among the biggest industries to be hit during the cyclone and will be left with hefty damage bills.

"We have potential affects on all the industries in this region,'' Premier Bligh said.

Flooding was expected in Mackay this afternoon, however latest reports show this is now unlikely to happen with overcast conditions.

More than 50,000 homes in Mackay remain without power. Optus telephone services have also been cut in the region since Saturday night.

North Queensland residents cleaning up damage from Cyclone Ului now face the prospect of flooding with up to 450mm of rain reported in the area.

The Clarke range received 452mm in the 24 hours to 9am on Sunday, while 332mm fell on Finch Hatton and 169mm on Mackay.

"There's major flooding around Finch Hatton on Cattle Creek," said Ian Rocca at the Bureau of Meteorology flood warning centre.

"The floodwaters will reach Mackay during Sunday afternoon but they're not expected to exceed minor flood level."

It said moderate to heavy rainfall associated with the cyclone was forecast for coastal areas between Townsville and Yeppoon today.

A Courier-Mail team in the area reported "unbelievably heavy" rain at around 10.30am between Mackay and Midge Point, but that had eased slightly by just before 11am.

The road to Midge Point was cut by floodwaters and fallen trees.

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48,000 homes without power after Ului

* From: AAP
* March 21, 2010 6:04PM



AROUND 48,000 Ergon Energy customers battered by Cyclone Ului were still without power this afternoon.

But Premier Anna Bligh pleaded for north Queenslanders to be patient as authorities struggle to restore supplies in the wake of the category three cyclone which smashed into the coast this morning, knocking out power to 55,000 homes and businesses.

Ergon - using field crews from other parts of the state - says it must first restore power to essential facilities and services.

These include critical community infrastructure such as hospitals, police, ambulance, fire brigade, water treatment facilities and pumping stations.

Major commercial customers such as shopping centres will then have power restored before the field crews can target residential customers.

An Ergon spokesman said power had been restored to most of Bowen and Collinsville by diverting power to these communities from other parts of its north Queensland network.

The majority still without power are in the Mackay region.

Supplies were interrupted in the Sarina district in the South, Mackay and surrounding areas, the Pioneer Valley out to Glenden, and Proserpine and the Whitsunday Islands.

Additional field staff from outside the area are now being moved into the Mackay region to assist with the restoration effort.

Premier Bligh, who inspected damage in Proserpine today, stressed the need for patience.

"We would ask for people's patience because there is a very large number of people without power and a large number of powerlines and transmitters down," she said.

Ergon field staff from Rockhampton were on their way to Mackay later today while Townsville and Burdekin crews who had been en-route to Bowen, were diverted to Proserpine.

"Ergon Energy is working through the damage in a planned, methodical manner to ensure power is restored to affected customers as quickly and safely as possible," a company cyclone bulletin said.

















Sugar Cane Field.
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Quoting winter123:


Were you there during Katrina, or did you forget already?

I live about 200 miles from the ocean, just far enough to be protected from cyclones but able to go there for one week per year. I'm happy with that.


LOL! OK... You think I or anyone else in this city has forgotten? I stayed for Katrina and a day doesn't go bye without me thinking about the day that monster roared through here. Hurricanes are a part of life here, and it really isn't as bad as its hyped to be. Its not like we get hit by a Katrina type storm every year. If you want to stay away from the coast then good for you.
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Quoting SevereHurricane:


I couldn't agree more. I love New Orleans and I do not plan on leaving any time soon. I don't know what I would do without the Lakefront, the Seafood, and most importantly Mardi Gras.


Were you there during Katrina, or did you forget already?

I live about 200 miles from the ocean, just far enough to be protected from cyclones but able to go there for one week per year. I'm happy with that.
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Quoting ElConando:
I couldn't live in a place more than 50 miles away from an ocean. I need my Ocean!!!


I couldn't agree more. I love New Orleans and I do not plan on leaving any time soon. I don't know what I would do without the Lakefront, the Seafood, and most importantly Mardi Gras.
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I couldn't live in a place more than 50 miles away from an ocean. I need my Ocean!!!
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.