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St. Maries Resident Helps Forecasters Watch St. Joe River

The National Weather Service has extended its flood warning for the St. Joe River at St. Maries, Idaho until Monday evening. As of the noon hour on Friday, the river was about a foot-and-a-quarter beyond flood stage and there is minor flooding in the area.

One man in St. Maries is helping weather authorities monitor the river’s water levels.

Joe Epler has lived in St. Maries for all of his 64 years. He lives about 50 feet from the St. Joe River and he seems to have an encyclopedic memory for the floods that have covered his town over the years.

“If you look back through the history, we had a flood in 1917. We had one in 1933. We had a winter one in ’33 and a spring one in ’33. ’38 was a spring flood. ’48 was a spring flood. ’74 was a winter flood. ’96 was a winter flood. Most of ’64 was a winter flood,” Epler said.

It’s one thing to remember a list of flood years. It’s another to remember the details from a particular flood more than 52 years ago.

“Yeah, ’64, remember, it was ice. It was Christmas, six days before Christmas, living here. About 48 hours to get out, move our stuff out," he said. "It was not only high water, but we had an ice jam on the St. Maries bridge that crosses the St. Joe as you come into town. The ice jammed up there and it caused a very rapid rise in the river above the river bridge.”

He remembers that flood was trouble. It had the potential to cause major damage to the town’s levees, but he remembers the weather turned cold and the water level slowly receded.

He can recite details from most of the other floods during his lifetime too.

Epler laughed and said, “Yeah, well I guess when you live next to that event, I guess it sticks in your mind more than other things that aren’t as dramatic.”

He says the biggest percentage of the severe floods on the St. Joe have come during the winter months, December, January and February. And that’s made this year’s high water somewhat unusual. For one thing, he says, if you check the 100-year records, very few floods happen in March. And then the evidence, back in January, didn’t indicate a potential flood. The snowpack then was about 72% of normal. But then came the March rains.

“Right now we’re about 113-120% of normal,” he said.

But, as high as the river has been running the last few weeks, Epler says the water hasn’t topped the levee nearest his house as it did in 1933 and 1996, the highest levels he knows of. The 1996 flood is still vivid in his mind.

“I’m on an elevated basement so my living quarters are above it and we had about eight feet of water in the basement,” he remembered.

But he’s had nothing like that this year and he thinks the worst of the high water has passed.

“What we’re getting from now until June will be higher elevation and it comes off at a slower rate,” he said.

He says hot weather in late April and May could melt that higher elevation snow faster than usual and cause some additional flooding.