Top ten weather stories for 2008: story four

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4. Saint John River Floods From Top to Bottom

Map of Canada with affected regions highlighted

New Brunswick experienced its worst spring flooding in 35 years along the entire length of the Saint John River, affecting some 1,600 properties and causing $50 million or more in damages to homes, farms and small businesses. Miraculously, there were no deaths or serious injuries. However, more than 60 people and 140 farm animals needed to be rescued from rising waters.

The Saint John basin is no stranger to flooding, but this spring forecasters feared the "perfect storm": a record snowfall; a deep, growing and lasting snow cover well into spring; a delayed peak runoff; sudden warming; and a forecast of copious amounts of rain. At the beginning of spring, the record snowpack – some 50 per cent above normal – covered much of northern Maine, northern New Brunswick and Quebec's Temiscouata region. Amid sunny skies, mid-April temperatures soared 7 to 12 degrees above normal. Around-the-clock warmth melted ripened the deep snowpack, unleashing a huge overland flow, and priming rivers and streams. The look of winter disappeared in a few days. Yet, the still-frozen ground was incapable of absorbing the sudden melt. Compounding the picture was the occasional ice jam backing up the river. In late April came the threat of heavy rains to swell an already water-charged Saint John River. Experts feared the worst flooding since 1973, from communities in the northwest all the way to the city of Saint John on the Fundy coast – 670 km from top to bottom.

Around May 2, the Saint John River spiked sharply at its highest level in years. The overflow swamped properties along the river and its tributaries, prompting the evacuation of hundreds of residents. Several roads, including the Trans Canada Highway outside Fredericton and numerous highway exits, parks and waterfront properties, were submerged when rivers exceeded their flood stage. Motorists had to deal with flooded intersections, blocked roads and countless detours. Emergency personnel went door to door warning of imminent dangers and encouraging evacuation. Some 1,000 residents agreed to leave. Hundreds of riverside basements filled with smelly, debris-laden waters. Health officials feared private wells would become contaminated. In Fredericton, rising waters forced the closure of the New Brunswick legislature. Harried employees at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery rushed artworks up from the basement.

As it turned out, less rain occurred than was originally forecast. The Saint John River's highest level peaked at 8.36 metres in Fredericton, just 25 cm shy of its peak in 1973. At its height, flow through the Mactaquac Dam was 36 times the normal summer flow. There was so much water in the river that the popular Reversing Falls reversed its flow. While falling short of the historic levels in 1973, this year's flood exceeded the earlier flood in duration with 16 consecutive days versus 12.

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