By MATTHEW BROWN and BRIAN MELLEY Associated Press
RED LODGE, Mont. (AP) — Lingering uncertainty hung over Yellowstone National Park’s gateway town of Gardiner this week after unprecedented flooding closed one of America’s most beloved natural attractions and swept away roads, bridges and homes.
Gardiner escaped flooding but briefly became home to hundreds of park visitors who were stranded when the road to it was closed along the rising Yellowstone River. When the road was reopened, the tourists disappeared.
“The city is eerie right now,” said Katie Gale, who makes reservations for a company that offers rafting and other outdoor trips. “We had all these people trapped here, and then as soon as they cleared the way…it was like someone pulled the plug on a bathtub.”
That visitor drain has become a major concern for businesses in towns like Gardiner and Red Lodge that lead to Yellowstone’s northern entrances and rely on passing tourists.
Officials have said the southern part of the park, which features Old Faithful, could reopen as soon as next week. But the far north, which includes Tower Fall and the Lamar Valley bears and wolves, could remain closed for months after sections of major highways within Yellowstone were washed away or buried by rockslides. Roads leading to the park also have widespread damage that could take months to repair.
Red Lodge faces a double disaster: he’ll have to clean up flood damage to parts of town, and also figure out how to survive without the summer business that normally sustains him for the rest of the year.
“Winters are harsh at Red Lodge,” Chris Prindiville said as he hosed off mud from the sidewalk in front of his shuttered cafe, which had no fresh water or gas for its stoves. “You have to make money in the summer so you can do it when the bills keep coming and the visits have stopped.”
The Montana National Guard has rescued at least 88 people in recent days from campgrounds and small towns, with hundreds of homes, including nearly 150 at Red Lodge, damaged by murky waters. A large house that was home to six park employees in the town of Gardiner was ripped off its foundation and floated 5 miles (8 kilometers) downriver before sinking. Four to five houses could still collapse into the Stillwater River, which has already swept away several cabins, according to a Stillwater County spokeswoman.
No deaths or serious injuries have been reported.
Red Lodge was under a boil water advisory and trucks were supplying drinking water to the half of the city that didn’t have it. Portable toilets were strategically placed for those unable to flush the toilet at home.
The Yodeler Motel, once home to Finnish coal miners, faced its first closure since it began operating as lodging in 1964. Owner Mac Dean said he will have to dismantle the lower level, where 13 rooms were flooded with chest-high water.
“Rock Creek seemed to run its own course,” he said. “He just jumped over the bank and came down Main Street and hit us.”
Dean was expecting a busy summer related to the park’s 150th anniversary. The Yodeler had the most bookings in the 13 years that Dean and his wife have owned the business. He is now waiting for help, possibly from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The damage is catastrophic,” he said. “We are between a rock and a hard place. And if we don’t get help, we won’t make it.”
Yellowstone is one of the crown jewels of the park system, a popular summer playground that draws adventurous backpackers camping in gray country, casual hikers hiking alongside steaming geothermal features, lovers wildlife watching moose, bison, bears and wolves from the safety of their cars and amateur photographers and artists trying to capture the pink and gold hues of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’s cliffs and its thundering waterfall.
All 4 million visitors a year have to pass through the small towns that line the five park entrances.
The flooding, triggered by a combination of torrential rain and rapid snowmelt, occurred just as hotels around Yellowstone were filling up with summer tourists. June is usually one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.
President Joe Biden declared a disaster in Montana and ordered federal assistance to be made available.
The tourist season was off to a good start 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. His guidebook business, 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.”
Officials and business leaders hope that Gardiner, Red Lodge and other small communities can attract visitors even without access to the park.
Sarah Ondrus, owner of Paradise Adventure Company, which rents cabins and offers rafting, kayaking and horseback riding trips, was frustrated by the number of cancellations.
“Montana and Wyoming still exist. I don’t know how I can convince these people,” Ondrus said. “Once our water quality is good and our police think it’s okay, we’ll be ready to move on. It is still a destination. You can still ride horses, go to cowboy cookouts, hike in the national forest.”
That could be a tall order for anyone coming from the south or east side of the park and hoping to exit from the north. After the reopening of the southern part of the park, it would take a nearly 200-mile (320-kilometer) detour through West Yellowstone and Bozeman to reach Gardiner. It would require a nearly 300-mile (480-kilometer) drive from Cody, Wyoming.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, has faced criticism from Democrats and members of the public for being out of the country during the disaster.
Spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said the governor had left last week on a long-scheduled personal trip with his wife and was due back Thursday. She would not say where he was, citing security reasons.
In his absence, Montana Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras signed a disaster emergency declaration Tuesday.
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Brittany Peterson in Red Lodge, Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.