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Flooding forces closure, evacuation of Yellowstone

Flooding in Red Lodge, Montana, has affected homes and businesses on Broadway and several roads near the city center. Access to the town is limited due to road closings on Highway 308 and U.S. Highway 212, including the Beartooth Pass. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Kinzely for the Powell Tribune)

By Mark Davis and Kevin Killough
Powell Tribune
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL — Unprecedented rain, combined with fast melting late season snow, has flooded nearby communities and forced the closure and evacuation of Yellowstone National Park and nearby attractions.

Visitors in Yellowstone National Park were being evacuated Monday, as several roads in the park were closed due to substantial flooding, rockslides and mudslides from the recent unprecedented amounts of rainfall. At 10:45 a.m. Monday, the park closed all entrances to inbound traffic due to hazardous conditions inside the park — a first in decades, if ever, for the park. “

Due to record flooding events in the park and more precipitation in the forecast, we have made the decision to close Yellowstone to all inbound visitation,” said park superintendent Cam Sholly. “Our first priority has been to evacuate the northern section of the park where we have multiple road and bridge failures, mudslides and other issues. The community of Gardiner is currently isolated, and we are working with the county and State of Montana to provide necessary support to residents, who are currently without water and power in some areas.”

Preliminary assessments by park officials show multiple sections of road in the park have been washed out between Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana, and multiple bridges may be affected. Crews were also working to assess issues in the southern portion of the park, but had not made reports available by Tribune press deadlines. Included in the destruction was the dramatic loss of the Carbella Bridge in Gardiner, caught on video by residents as it washed down the river.

“Due to predictions of higher flood levels in areas of the park’s southern loop, in addition to concerns with water and wastewater systems, we will begin to move visitors in the southern loop out of the park later today in coordination with our in-park business partners. We will not know timing of the park’s reopening until flood waters subside and we’re able to assess the damage throughout the park. It is likely that the northern loop will be closed for a substantial amount of time,” Sholly said.

At Pahaska Teepee Resort, floodwaters “blew through the dike” Sunday night, officials at the resort reported. The facility is closed until further notice. The North Fork Highway was also temporarily closed due to rock and mudslides near the East Entrance, said Wyoming Department of Transportation spokesperson Cody Beers.

“It could get pretty ugly if the water keeps coming,” he said.

Beers said WYDOT officials are concerned about three area bridges; the main bridge in Crandall and two bridges near Clark. He said if the pressure continues to build from water and debris, the department may attempt to drill holes in the decks of the bridges to relieve pressure and hopefully save the structures.

“We’re getting equipment out there right now to begin working,” he said Monday afternoon.

Highway 308, between Belfry and Red Lodge, was closed by the Montana Highway Patrol early Monday. There were also real worries that bridges between Clark and Belfry could also be closed as water reached the decks of the structures Monday and debris began stacking up.

As Dean Webb watched the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River rise near Belfry, trailers floated down the river and cattle at nearby ranches were being surrounded on islands of grass by the muddy water.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” the 82-year-old from Bear Creek said.

Other residents were in the process of being evacuated, while some spent most of Monday trying to build make-shift dikes to hold the water back. Volunteers from the Belfry Fire Department were helping folks evacuate at some homes and getting sandbags up at others according to Fire Chief Bob Johnson.

“Everybody is trying to sandbag or do what they can right now,” he said while watching one of the low bridges into town.

Debris washed up along a bridge near Clark as water continued to rise, threatening the bridge. The Wyoming Department of Transportation may attempt drilling a large hole in the bridge to relieve pressure and save the structure. (Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune)

The area was under a voluntary evacuation order Monday, but things could change quickly as more rain is in the forecast through the week.

“I heard it could crest by Wednesday, then 95 [degrees] by Friday,” Johnson said.

In Red Lodge, reports stated that as many as 20% of homes and businesses in the city were flooded or in danger of being inundated. Some residential areas were being evacuated Monday and U.S. Highway 212 was reportedly closing due to the high water issues near Yellowstone and in the city.

Jimmy Kujala, DJ and founder of Music Ranch Radio in Red Lodge, declared “Red Lodge is a war zone.”

He’s lived in Red Lodge for 68 years, and said he’s never seen anything like it.

There are several bridges around Red Lodge that are washed out. The only way in is from the northeast, through Highway 212 through Rockvale, Kujala said. What’s likely causing the flood is that the area got a lot of snow late in the season, he said. Then, warm June temperatures combined with rain resulted in a lot of runoff.

In the coming weekend, Red Lodge is expecting temperatures near 80 degrees, “which might mean more flooding in the coming days,” he said.

The flood hit the treatment plant, meaning the people of Red Lodge have to boil their water and power was out over much of the city. There are reports of folks from as far away as Cody bringing supplies to Red Lodge to assist residents there.

“We’re not out of the woods by any stretch,” Kujala said. “There are houses hanging over the edge of banks.”

U.S. Highway 89S is closed at Yankee Jim Canyon due to approximately 3-feet of water on the road.

The following roads in Yellowstone National Park were temporarily closed: North Entrance (Gardiner, Montana) to Mammoth Hot Springs; Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt; Tower-Roosevelt to the Northeast Entrance; Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris Junction; and Canyon Junction to TowerRoosevelt.

“Some of these roads may remain closed for an extended period of time,” the park reported Monday afternoon.

The Northeast Entrance could take weeks to reopen due to the lost bridge. And preliminary assessments in the park show multiple sections of road in the park have been washed out between Gardiner and Cooke City, and several bridges may be affected. Crews will begin to assess damage in the southern portion of the park soon. The Beartooth Highway is also closed, said Beers.

“I’ve never heard of Yellowstone closing every entrance into the park. Not even during the fires of ‘88,” he said.

Rainfall is expected to continue for the next several days, complicating the issues further. Beers is trying to get the word out, worried that those coming to the area from around the country may not know about the floods.

“There will be a lot of frustrated visitors,” he said. “It’s hard to get information to them as they head to the park.”

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