Talk about timing.
The National Weather Service issued a flood advisory warning just before noon Wednesday for the Clark Fork River above Missoula, only six hours before a community meeting at Hawthorne School to help Orchard Homes residents prepare for the possibility of flooding this year.
According to the NWS, at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday, river gauge reports hovered just below 7.5 feet, which is the new designated minimum flood stage. That drop from 10 feet is based on the impacts seen during last year’s flooding.
“Recent river forecasts suggest that the Clark Fork River gauge above Missoula will gradually rise several inches over flood stage beginning this afternoon,” the NWS report states. “Anticipate minor street flooding and widespread standing water for residences along Kehrwald Drive and at the north end of Tower Street in Missoula beginning this afternoon.”
The forecast calls for increasing clouds on Thursday, with a 50% chance of showers by Friday. The flood advisory is set to expire by noon Thursday, but Ray Nickless, a hydrologist with the NWS, expects that while the river levels will drop, they will increase in May as the snowpack starts to melt.
“We’re showing that the peak doesn’t compare to last year, when the Blackfoot and Clark Fork (drainages) were seeing near record amounts of snowpack,” Nickless said. “But we have a decent amount of snow left up there — slightly above average levels — and with the upcoming cool weather and snow called for in the mountains, it will hold the snow up there.”
He expects the below-average cool temperatures to continue through the weekend and into May.
“I think at some point we will warm up in May, and unfortunately we haven’t melted any of the higher-elevation or mid-elevation snow, so the Clark Fork at some point will go back up,” Nickless said.
Adriane Beck, director of Missoula County’s Office of Emergency Management, said river levels are changing by the hour after cresting over 7.5 feet late Sunday. That resulted in the current flooding on Kehrwald Drive, as the river passes through channels created last year.
“The river is leaving its banks in the Tower open space area and finding established channels,” Beck said.
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Both Beck and Nickless don’t expect the same amount of flooding as last year, with Nickless forecasting crests in May in the 8- to 10-foot range.
“Certainly Mother Nature can do whatever she wants to do,” Beck said. “If we end up with a massive amount of precipitation during the snow melt, that will change things.”
She warned about 50 Orchard Home-area residents, who gathered at the Hawthorne School gym Wednesday night, to be prepared for anything.
"Don't put your guard down, pay attention to changing conditions and be aware of what's possible," Beck said. "Pay attention to the local media; they're great partners for us. Pay attention to the environment and changing conditions. If it's raining and warmer, expect the river to respond."
She also urged people to sign up for Smart911.com so they'll get alerts in an emergency, and to make plans for a place to stay in case they're evacuated.
Filled sandbags are available for residents at Fort Missoula off C Road, in the same location where they were last year, and the county also has bags and sand available for people to fill themselves.
Both Tom Gill and Kathy Galbavy had to abandon their homes after last year's flooding. Gill said he checked on the house on Sunday and watched as water started spilling into Kehrwald Drive. The have a variety of theories why the area flooded so much last year — the removal of the Milltown Dam, damage to a spur levee and urban development — and left the meeting with mixed feelings.
"I'm paying both a mortgage and rent," Gill said. "I've talked to Adriane a lot, but I want to know why they are not taking care of the spur levee."
Beck said they're partnering with the Army Corps of Engineers on some studies that include evaluation of the levees. She added that they're looking into buying out homes that were too damaged for their occupants to return, but that at this time they just don't have the money to do so.
"That doesn't mean we won't try to move the needle, but there's insufficient funding to do things to the scale we think they need to be done," Beck said.