This past Memorial Day, I thought a lot about last Memorial Day.
The weather last year during that holiday was memorable, which is a provable statement. The Press & Dakotan’s weather data shows that Yankton set heat records on three straight days during last year’s Memorial Day weekend (which is the kind of milestone usually reserved for the Dust Bowl 1930s). It included hitting 100 degrees on the Sunday of that weekend, which was the last time Yankton reached triple digits.
But that Sunday wasn’t so oppressively miserable that it could prevent a group of friends and me from gathering at a camp along the James River. There was enough breeze to make it tolerable as we sat in the shade and watched the river quietly crawl by. I also recall a conversation about how, given the recent heat, the area could really use a shot of rain to help the crops along, even though Yankton itself was already 2 inches ahead of normal overall for that year to date.
Last weekend, that same spot along the James was under almost a foot of river water — it has been for a while, in fact — and much of the James River valley these days reminds me of Lake of the Woods. Also, the temperatures were in the low 60s, there were virtually no crops in the fields and water was standing everywhere.
What a year it’s been …
A week or so after Memorial Day 2018, it began raining. These were just scattered showers at first, but they soon evolved into heavy, regular, record-breaking events. We had nearly 22 inches of rain between Memorial Day and Labor Day, along with a couple of epic flash floods. This spring has produced more flooding, made even worse by the moisture left in the ground from last year.
In 2018, Yankton recorded more than 40 inches of annual precipitation for the first time ever. However, between Memorial Day last year and Memorial Day this year, Yankton received about 48 inches of moisture (not including the inch of rainfall we’ve had since Monday), which is TWICE the normal average for a typical year.
These have been prodigious times that have created some jarring sights. The flooding we saw last summer. The James River flooding out in September. The March “bomb cyclone.” Parts of Auld-Brokaw Trail looking like something from a Marvel movie. (Seriously, whenever I look at the trail north of the Fourth St. overpass, the first two words that come to mind are “HULK SMASH!”) The torn-up roads throughout the countryside. The image of ice slabs crushing parts of Niobrara, Nebraska. More “Road Closed” signs than I could count. Farm fields that are still unworkable so deep into spring.
Last weekend, I saw a sign up in Menno that said “Pray for sun” — a call for intervention I’ve never seen displayed before.
This is crazy.
And yet, there are some things that also feel the same.
The Missouri River basin makes me nervous these days, which takes me back to another Memorial Day, this time in 2011. That’s when I saw an army of people mobilizing throughout the area to fill sandbags because of a surging Missouri River supercharged by rainstorms. That historic threat lasted throughout a very long, uncertain summer.
This year isn’t a carbon copy yet, but we do seem to be hovering near another critical mass. The waters are rising and the releases at Gavins Point Dam are climbing. The snowmelt is still coming. Every major rain event forces a recalculation and ups the misery. And if we have a summer even remotely like last year ...
Between last Memorial Day and this one, I went from mildly fretting about the need for a little timely rain to wondering about what the next storm will do to us. The turnaround has been extraordinary.
I’ve also worried a lot. I think about the farmers who can’t get in the fields, and the economic ramifications that can have for everyone. I think about the trees I see in the James River valley that are engulfed by water and wonder what will live and what won’t …
And I also worry for an ironic reason. I sometimes view this situation not in terms of the glass being half-empty or half-full, but as when the glass is turned upside down: If it can get this wet in our landlocked corner of the universe, how dry could it get when these weather patterns turn the other way?
Who knows? Maybe we’ll have that answer by next Memorial Day.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.