By MATTHEW BROWN and LINDSAY WHITEHURST, Associated Press
BILLING, Mont. (AP) — Damaging flooding that swept through Yellowstone National Park threatened downstream communities as residents cleaned up the mess and watched the river rise while others braced for the economic fallout while the park remains closed.
After destroying miles of roads and untold numbers of bridges in the park and inundating hundreds of homes in surrounding communities, the rough waters threatened to cut off the drinking water supply to Montana’s largest city.
Officials asked Billings residents Wednesday to conserve water because it was down to a 24- to 36-hour supply after a combination of heavy rains and rapidly melting mountain snow raised the Yellowstone River to record levels that they were forced to close their water treatment plant.
“None of us planned for a 500-year flood event in Yellowstone when we designed these facilities,” said Debi Meling, director of public works for the city.
Expressing optimism that the river would recede fast enough for the plant to resume operations before the tanks ran dry, the city of 110,000 stopped irrigating parks and boulevards, and its fire department filled its trucks with water from the river.
Cory Mottice of the National Weather Service in Billings said the river was expected to rise Wednesday night and drop below the minor flood stage, 13.5 feet (4.1 meters), by mid to late Thursday. .
Unprecedented flash flooding earlier this week drove nearly a dozen of the more than 10,000 visitors out of the nation’s oldest park.
Surprisingly, no one was injured or killed by the raging waters that ripped houses off their foundations and diverted the course of a river, possibly permanently, and may require damaged roads to be rebuilt at a safer distance.
On Wednesday, residents of Red Lodge, Montana, a gateway town on the park’s northern edge, used shovels, wheelbarrows and a pump to clear thick mud and debris from a flooded home along the banks of Rock Creek.
“We thought we had it, and then a bridge fell. And it diverted the creek, and the water started rolling out the back, broke a basement window, and started filling my basement,” said Pat Ruzich. “And then I quit. It was as if the water won.”
While the Yellowstone flood is rare, it is the type of event that becomes more common as the planet warms, experts said.
“We certainly know that climate change is causing more natural disasters, more fires, bigger fires, and more flooding and more flooding,” said Robert Manning, a retired professor of environment and natural resources at the University of Vermont, “These things are going to happen, and they are going to happen probably much more intensely”.
Park officials say the northern half of the park is likely to remain closed all summer, a devastating blow to local economies that rely on tourism.
The rains came just as area hotels have filled up in recent weeks with summer tourists. More than 4 million visitors were counted by the park last year. The wave of tourists doesn’t subside until fall, and June is usually one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.
The season had started well for Cara McGary, who leads groups through the Lamar Valley to see wolves, bison, elk and bears. She had seen more than 20 grizzlies some days this year.
Now, with the Gardiner Highway north of Yellowstone washed out, the wildlife is still there, but it’s out of reach for McGary and his guide service, In Our Nature, is suddenly in trouble.
“The summer we’re preparing for is nothing like the summer we’re going to have,” he said. “This is an 80% to 100% loss of business during peak season.”
Flying Pig Adventures, a Gardiner-based business that guides rafting trips on the Yellowstone River, will have to rely more on tourists staying in Montana now that roads into the park are impassable, co-owner Patrick Sipp said Wednesday.
It’s a similar blow to how COVID-19 temporarily shut down Yellowstone two years ago, cutting tourist visits to the park in June 2020 by about a third before they rebounded for the rest of that summer.
“We are definitely a tough company, we have a very tough team,” Sipp said. “But it is devastating. You just hate seeing stuff like that in the community. We just hope we can get out again. relatively soon.”
Meanwhile, as the waters recede, parks officials turn their attention to the enormous effort to rebuild many miles of dilapidated roads and possibly hundreds of destroyed bridges, many built for hikers. Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said assessment teams won’t be able to count the damage until next week.
Kelly Goonan, an associate professor at Southern Utah University and an expert on national parks and recreation management, said rebuilding will be a long process.
“This is something that we’re definitely going to feel the impacts of for years to come,” Goonan said.
Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writers Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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