Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office declared Montana a disaster Tuesday as historic milk-chocolate flood waters roared eastward down the Yellowstone River system after devastating the northern regions of Yellowstone National Park and nearby communities along the Absaroka and Beartooth fronts.
Gianforte’s declaration came after surging waters spread over banks at unprecedented highs into the communities of Red Lodge, Nye, Fishtail, Absarokee, Joliet and Livingston. By Tuesday afternoon, floodwaters in those regions had begun to recede, leaving destroyed homes, roads and bridges as well as rockslides and mudslides that stranded residents and tourists in Gardiner, Cooke City and Silver Gate.
“It is just the scariest river ever,” Kate Gomez of Santa Fe, New Mexico, told The Associated Press. “Anything that falls into that river is gone. The swells are huge and it’s just mud and silt.”
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Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly announced that the world’s first national park would be closed for at least five more days as staff assessed damage. Celebrating its 150th anniversary and at the peak of tourist season, Yellowstone is shut down for only the third time in 34 years — most recently in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and also for the infamous 1988 fires that burned a mosaic over one-third of the park.
No injuries or deaths have been recorded from the flooding, Sholly said.
“We’ve kept our teams out of harm’s way,” he said. “We won’t know exactly what the damage looks like until the water goes down.”
Sholly added that Xanterra staff in the northern part of the park would be relocated and added that concessions at Mammoth and Roosevelt “will not reopen likely the rest of the year.”
U.S. Highway 89 in the Paradise Valley was closed just south of Emigrant until early afternoon, when residents were allowed to return and tourists were told to depart while they can.
Late Monday, people living in a sizable portion of southeast Livingston were required to evacuate, and the city’s hospital, Livingston HealthCare, closed and its patients taken to Big Timber as the river’s record-high waters crept into its parking lot. The evacuation order was lifted just before 9 a.m. Tuesday as the river’s peak surge raced downstream.
Numerous Yellowstone County roads were closed. And at Red Lodge, power was restored to most residents Tuesday a day after Rock Creek’s waters raged through the town, collapsing the 19th Street Bridge and swirling around homes. The waters were receding somewhat by Tuesday afternoon.
Residents and tourists in Gardiner at Yellowstone’s North Entrance and Silver Gate and Cooke City just outside the Northeast Entrance were stranded due to roads made impassable by high water and damage that could take weeks or even months to repair, park officials said. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality also issued a “Do Not Consume” order for Gardiner over unsafe drinking water, but by Tuesday afternoon repairs were made and testing begun.
Employees at park headquarters in Mammoth, who remained without power Tuesday, planned to buy groceries and other essentials in West Yellowstone. A generator was providing power to Mammoth’s cell tower, enabling communication to the outside world.
The serpentine road from Mammoth to Gardiner in the Gardner River Canyon was badly damaged, as was the road between Tower Junction and the Northeast Entrance where the Lamar River surged well beyond its record flood level. Sholly said the park would explore using the gravel Old Gardiner Road between Mammoth and the North Entrance to bring supplies to park headquarters.
The Yellowstone River crested at just over 49,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Corwin Springs in the upper Paradise Valley on Monday, shattering its previous records of 32,200 set in June 1996 and matched a year later. In the park, the Lamar peaked at 16.7 feet Monday, breaking its 1996 record by more than four feet and rising two feet above the gauge’s upper reach.
Near Corwin Springs, a multi-family house for Park Service employees was pried loose from its foundation by the raging waters and spun downstream, splintering when it collided with a bridge. At least a dozen GoFundMe pages were set up for displaced residents.
The Montana National Guard evacuated 12 people from the communities of Roscoe and Cooke City on Monday as the flooding cut off vehicle access to the towns. Aircrews from the 1-189th General Support Aviation Battalion deployed a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to assist in search and rescue efforts at the request of local law enforcement.
“We are standing by for additional requests for support,” said Maj. Ryan Finnegan, Montana National Guard Public Affairs Officer. “As local law enforcement requests assistance, we will continue to provide what resources are available.”
A Florida family of eight were plucked by a helicopter from a flooded rental outside Cooke City after high waters stranded them. A Cooke City man was air lifted by the National Guard after he suffered hypothermia from cold waters as he self-rescued.
On Tuesday morning, the Guard unit conducted a third evacuation operation for recreationists around East Rosebud Lake.
The first stark hint that the Yellowstone River meant business Monday was when the iconic Carbella bridge leading to Tom Miner Basin was loosened from its supports and swept into the river like a toy.
Meteorologists said the unprecedented flooding was caused by a convergence of an unseasonably cool spring that retained snowpack, late-spring snowstorms and multiple days of considerable rainfall at high elevations. Parts of the park received more than an inch of rain over 24 hours Monday, more than tripling the previous single-day mark.
Most of the flood damage was centered on YNP and the streams flowing north from the Yellowstone Plateau, including the Gallatin River, which reached flood stage at Logan about 25 miles of Bozeman in the wee hours Tuesday.
YNP gateway communities not immediately affected by the flooding began working overtime Tuesday to accommodate either stranded visitors or tourists who had plans to visit.
The Teton County Fairgrounds in Jackson, Wyoming, was a landing site for a few dozen displaced Yellowstone campers Monday. About 38 RVs parked there overnight, according to Trista Hiltbrunner, a staff member at the fairgrounds. Some came from inside the park, she said. By noon Tuesday, just a couple remained.
West Yellowstone, at the park’s West Entrance, also announced late Monday that it would permit temporary camping in town for people impacted by the closure.
Also Tuesday, the Flathead River at Columbia Falls in northwest Montana was expected to surpass flood stage by 2-1/2 feet.
The floods highlighted the beginning of a week in which as much as two feet of snow has been forecast for some mountain areas and 100-degree temperatures later in the week for other parts of the state, accelerating runoff even more.