Never Ending Snow: The Record Smashing Snowfall of ’96-’97

Twenty years ago tonight, a few flurries fell on the metro.

Nobody knew what sort of winter was about to begin less than a week later.

By the time spring arrived, snow records across the region were shattered.

I was living in New York that winter and I remember seeing the stories on the snow coming out of the Red River Valley.

All I remember thinking was what would happen when all that snow melted.

We know how it ended, but reviewing the way the winter played out ahead of the flood…is truly amazing.

At Fargo Public Works, they’re getting the plows ready to roll for winter.

The last two years these vehicles and workers haven’t had it so bad.

Twenty years ago this month…was a different story.
“It was before Thanksgiving I know that, we had a real storm,” remembered Lee Anderson,  who is the Fargo Public Works Director. “It was 12-13 inches, wind…heavy wet…you couldn’t hardly move it. And before we got turned around to get things cleaned up from that one, Thanksgiving came and we had another significant event.  I remember that.”

By the end of the month, just over 26 inches of snow had fallen in Fargo.

This, of course, was just the beginning.
Keith Malakowsky: “Back in December of ’96, we had four days that it didn’t snow,” said Keith Malakowsky, who is a National Weather Service Observer.

The winter of ’96-’97 was Malakowsky’s first as the official snow measurer for Fargo Moorhead for the National Weather Service

“I just thought this is way to get broke in on this,” said Malakowsky.

Another blizzard was recorded December 17th and 18th.

By the end of the month, another 20 inches of snow had fallen, pushing the season total to over 46 inches.

In January, the snow assault continued.

Ten point seven inches of snow fell on January 4th with blizzard conditions.

Another seven and a half inches and another blizzard on January 9th and 10th…and two more blizzards on the 15th and 22nd.

That pushed the season’s total to just over 75 inches.

“Obviously, when you have significant snow, it doesn’t seem like you get a weekend off,” said Anderson. “It just gets to be a grind on the staff.”

“The blizzards are when it’s hard to measure because nothing stays in place and you can’t get a decent measurement,” explained Malakowsky.

February offered a brief reprieve and hope that maybe the pattern was changing.

0nly eight inches of snow fell, at the end of the month with 83.4 inches falling in total.

By March, the snow was on again.

A whopping 15 and half inches fell on March 3rd and 4th with blizzard conditions.

At the end of that storm, there were 32 inches of snow on the ground.

“And trying to go out in the park and walk in that snow and try and get an average depth…” said Malakowsky. “That’s one of the things I remember.”

March 13th would tack on another seven inches.

Then the weather warmed on the 16th and the melt began with the water content of over six inches of liquid in the snow.

At the end of March, nearly 110 inches had fallen.

“You’re mentally exhausted,” said Anderson. “Physically you’re sitting and driving but you feel like you’ve been lifting weights all day and you’re tired and exhausted.”

That deep snow pack had melted to just six inches by April 1st.

Then what everyone had been fearing happened.

Nearly an inch and a half of rain fell on April 5th.

That rain then turned to freezing rain which brought down power lines and trees up and down the valley

By the 6th, that rain turned once again to snow…and a blizzard.

Another seven inches was tacked on to the season’s total.

The freeze up likely spared Fargo from a higher river crest than the 39.5 feet it would hit on the 18th when the snowpack finally vanished.

There was no freeze up to spare Grand Forks, though, as the Red crested at 54 feet and topped the levees.

The flood ruptured gas lines that lead to a fire that burned a large part of the downtown.

And when the last flake had fallen, the total snowfall in Fargo was 117 inches for the year.

But Malakowsky has no worries should this winter turn ugly.

“After 96-97, all the other snowfalls are easy to measure,” he finished with a smile. “I got broke in good.”

The odds of seeing snow amounts like the winter of ’96-’97 in our lifetime are very small.

To get a weather pattern to hold that long for one area of the country is a truly rare event.

On one last note, Keith Malakowsky has hung up his ruler and retired from officially measuring snow.

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