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Expect a Soggy U.S. Flood Season, but Less Severe Than Last Year’s

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Brace for another flooded spring — but not one as bad as last year, forecasters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned on Thursday.

“Flooding continues to be a factor for many Americans this spring,” with major to moderate flooding likely to occur in 23 states, said Mary C. Erickson, deputy director of the National Weather Service, in a call with reporters. The flooding should not be as severe, or last as long, as the ruinous conditions much of the country experienced last year, she said.

Major flooding involves “extensive inundation of structures and roads,” with significant evacuation, while moderate flooding involves “some inundation of structures and roads” near streams, according to NOAA.

The most severe flooding is expected in parts of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, but the extent of high water could range from the Northern Plains to the Gulf Coast, she said.

That forecast puts 128 million people at risk of flooding, and 1.2 million at risk for major flooding, said Edward Clark, the director of NOAA’s National Water Center. The heavy rains, he added, can be expected to lead to a larger-than-average zone of hypoxia — an area of low or depleted oxygen where life cannot be sustained, commonly called a dead zone — in the Gulf of Mexico this summer.

Farmers, hit hard by last year’s heavy rainfall, can expect less severe conditions this year, but nonetheless could encounter “significant planting delays in 2020,” said Brad Rippey, the Department of Agriculture meteorologist.

Forecasts of above-average temperatures over much of the country, as well as above-average precipitation in the Central and Eastern parts of the continental United States, mean that saturated soils and heavy rains could trigger flood conditions, according to NOAA’s climate prediction center. The heavy rains are expected across the Northern Plains and south to the lower Mississippi Valley, and extending to the East Coast. Alaska, too, should experience higher-than-average rainfall.

Not all of the country will be wet. Drought conditions in California are likely to expand, as well as drought in parts of the Pacific Northwest, the southern Rocky Mountains and parts of Southern Texas.

This year’s predictions are consistent in many ways with what scientists say the United States can expect from climate change.

Deke Arndt, chief of the climate monitoring branch of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, said that floods “are born from a set of ingredients that come together,” including precipitation, the timing of snow melt, the degree of saturation in soils and other elements of the landscape. Climate change expresses itself through some, though not all, of these factors, he said, including the “much wetter autumns” in the Ohio Valley and Upper Midwest.

This year’s flood season comes at the same time as the global coronavirus pandemic, which could strain resources for flood fighting. Many of the agencies that could be thrown into the coronavirus response, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are mainstays of the nation’s flood response. Local communities could find their own resources stretched as well.

Bob Gallagher, the mayor of Bettendorf, Iowa, and co-chairman of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a 10-state group of communities along the river, expressed relief at this year’s forecast of less severe weather conditions but said in an interview that “we’re going to be forced to fight two disasters on two separate fronts” because of the virus.

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