After Yellowstone, floodwaters menace Montana's largest city

After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
A washed out bridge shown along the Yellowstone River Wednesday, June 15, 2022, near Gardiner, Mont. Historic floodwaters that raged through Yellowstone National Park may have permanently altered the course of a popular fishing river and left the sweeping landscape forever changed. Credit: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Devastating floodwaters that wiped out miles of roads and hundreds of bridges in Yellowstone National Park and swamped scores of homes in surrounding communities moved downstream Wednesday and threatened to cut off fresh drinking water to residents of Montana's largest city.

Heavy weekend rains and melting mountain snow had the Yellowstone River flowing at a historically high level of 16 feet (4.9 meters) as it raced past Billings. The city gets its water from the river and was forced to shut down its treatment plant at about 9:30 a.m. because it can't operate effectively with water levels that high.

"None of us planned a 500-year flood event on the Yellowstone when we designed these facilities," said Debi Meling, the city's public works director.

Billings had a just a 24- to 36-hour supply of water and officials asked its 110,000 residents to conserve while expressing optimism that the river would drop quickly enough for the plant to resume operations before the supply ran out. The city also stopped watering parks and boulevards, and its fire department was filling its trucks with water from the Yellowstone River.

Cory Mottice, with the National Weather Service in Billings, said the river was expected to crest Wednesday evening and drop below minor flood stage, 13.5 feet (4.1 meters), by mid to late Thursday.

After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
A house that was pulled into Rock Creek in Red Lodge, Mont., by raging floodwaters is seen Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Officials said more than 100 houses in the small city were flooded when torrential rains swelled waterways across the Yellowstone region. Credit: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

The unprecedented and sudden flooding that raged through Yellowstone earlier this week drove all of the more than 10,000 visitors out of the nation's oldest park, which remains closed. It damaged hundreds of homes in nearby communities, though remarkably no one was reported hurt or killed.

It also pushed a popular fishing river off course—possibly permanently—and may force roadways torn away by torrents of water to be rebuilt a safer distance away.

On Wednesday, residents in Red Lodge, Montana, a gateway town to the park's northern end, 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 went out. And it diverted the creek, and the water started rolling in the back, broke out a basement window and started filling up my basement," Pat Ruzich said. "And then I quit. It was like, the water won."

After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
The Yellowstone River flows past a washed out bridge Wednesday, June 15, 2022, near Gardiner, Mont. Yellowstone National Park officials say more than 10,000 visitors have been ordered out of the nation's oldest national park after unprecedented flooding tore through its northern half, washing out bridges and roads and sweeping an employee bunkhouse miles downstream. Credit: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Park officials say the northern half of the park is likely to remain closed all summer, a devastating blow to the local economies that rely on tourism.

In Gardiner, Montana, businesses had just started really recovering from the tourism contraction wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, and were hoping for a good year as Yellowstone celebrates its 150th anniversary, said Bill Berg, a commissioner in Park County.

"It's a Yellowstone town, and it lives and dies by tourism, and this is going to be a pretty big hit," he said. "They're looking to try to figure out how to hold things together."

Meantime, as the waters recede, parks officials are turning their attention to the massive effort of rebuilding many miles of ruined roads and hundreds of washed-out bridges, many of them built for backcountry hikers. Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said assessment teams won't be able to tally the damage until next week.

After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
The Yellowstone River flows through Gardiner, Mont., Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Yellowstone National Park officials say more than 10,000 visitors have been ordered out of the nation's oldest national park after unprecedented flooding tore through its northern half, washing out bridges and roads and sweeping an employee bunkhouse miles downstream. Credit: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Kelly Goonan, an associate professor at Southern Utah University and an expert in national parks and recreation management, said rebuilding will be a long process.

"This is something we're definitely going to feel the impacts of for the next several years," Goonan said.

As the Yellowstone rebuild efforts get underway, rangers will have to consider the reality of the park's altered landscape as well as potential future natural disasters.

"We certainly know that climate change is causing more natural disasters, more fires, bigger fires and more floods and bigger floods. These things are going to happen, and they're going to happen probably a lot more intensely," said Robert Manning, a retired University of Vermont professor of environment and natural resources. Officials may also be able to rebuild in a way that's more ecologically sound than the roads and bridges built a decade or century ago, he said.

  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    The roaring Yellowstone River is seen from the air sweeping over trees and near homes Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Billings, Mont. Credit: AP Photo/Brittany Peterson
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    Residents of Red Lodge, Montana, are seen clearing mud, water and debris from the small city's main street on Tuesday, June 14, 2022, after flood waters courses through a residential area with hundreds of homes. Credit: AP Photo/Matthew Brown
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    Flood damage is seen along a street Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Red Lodge, Mont. Residents were cleaning up after record floods in southern Montana this week. Credit: AP Photo/Matthew Brown
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    The roaring Yellowstone River is seen from the air sweeping over trees and near homes Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Billings, Mont. Credit: AP Photo/Brittany Peterson
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    Floodwaters are seen along the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River near Bridger, Mont., on Monday, June 13, 2022. The flooding across parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming forced the indefinite closure of Yellowstone National Park just as a summer tourist season that draws millions of visitors annually was ramping up. Credit: AP Photo/Emma H. Tobin
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    This aerial photo provided by the National Park Service shows a flooded out North Entrance Road, of Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont., on June 13, 2022. Flooding caused by heavy rains over the weekend caused road and bridge damage in Yellowstone National Park, leading park officials to close all the entrances through at least Wednesday. Gardiner, a town just north of the park, was isolated, with water covering the road north of the town and a mudslide blocking the road to the south. Credit: Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service via AP
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    This photo provided by Katherine Schoolitz shows flooding in Red Lodge, Mont., on Monday, June 13, 2022. Raging floodwaters that pulled houses into rivers and forced rescues by air and boat began to slowly recede Tuesday across the Yellowstone region, leaving tourists and others stranded after roads and bridges were knocked out by torrential rains that swelled waterways to record levels. Credit: Katherine Schoolitz via AP
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    Floodwaters inundate property along the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River in between Edgar and Fromberg, Mont., on Monday, June 13, 2022. The flooding across parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming forced the indefinite closure of Yellowstone National Park just as a summer tourist season that draws millions of visitors annually was ramping up. Credit: AP Photo/Emma H. Tobin
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    This photo provided by Katherine Schoolitz shows flooding in Red Lodge, Mont., on Monday, June 13, 2022. Raging floodwaters that pulled houses into rivers and forced rescues by air and boat began to slowly recede Tuesday across the Yellowstone region, leaving tourists and others stranded after roads and bridges were knocked out by torrential rains that swelled waterways to record levels. Credit: Katherine Schoolitz via AP
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    Floodwaters inundate property near the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River in between Edgar and Fromberg, Mont., on Monday, June 13, 2022. The flooding across parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming forced the indefinite closure of Yellowstone National Park just as a summer tourist season that draws millions of visitors annually was ramping up. Credit: AP Photo/Emma H. Tobin
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    A road is closed from floodwaters along the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River near Bridger, Mont., on Monday, June 13, 2022. The flooding across parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming forced the indefinite closure of Yellowstone National Park just as a summer tourist season that draws millions of visitors annually was ramping up. Credit: AP Photo/Emma H. Tobin
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    In this photo provided by the National Park Service, is high water in the Gardiner River along the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Montana, that washed out part of a road on Monday, June 13, 2022. Credit: National Park Service via AP
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    Micah Hoffman is seen in his mud-covered yard as a pump removes water from his basement, Tuesday June 14, 2022, in Red Lodge, Mont. Residents were cleaning up after record floods in southern Montana this week. Credit: AP Photo/Matthew Brown
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    Residents of Red Lodge, Mont., inspect damage to a house that was flooded after torrential rains fell across the Yellowstone region, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Local officials say more than 100 houses in the small city were flooded. Credit: AP Photo/Matthew Brown
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    Ken Ebel is seen in front of his flood-damaged house and yard, Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Red Lodge, Mont. Ebel says sandbags placed by volunteers likely spared his property from further damage. Credit: AP Photo/Matthew Brown
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    This aerial photo provided by the National Park Service shows a washed out road at North Entrance Road, of Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont., on June 13, 2022. Flooding caused by heavy rains over the weekend caused road and bridge damage in Yellowstone National Park, leading park officials to close all the entrances through at least Wednesday. Gardiner, a town just north of the park, was isolated, with water covering the road north of the town and a mudslide blocking the road to the south. Credit: Doug Kraus/National Park Service via AP
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    The roaring Yellowstone River is seen from the air sweeping over trees and near homes Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Billings, Mont. Credit: AP Photo/Brittany Peterson
  • After Yellowstone, floodwaters near Montana's largest city
    Floodwaters of the Yellowstone River flow through Emigrant, Mont., Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Historic floodwaters that raged through Yellowstone National Park may have permanently altered the course of a popular fishing river and left the sweeping landscape forever changed. Credit: AP Photo/David Goldman

The rains hit just as area hotels filled up in recent weeks with summer tourists. More than 4 million visitors were tallied by the park last year. The wave of tourists doesn't abate until fall, and June is typically one of Yellowstone's busiest months.

Yellowstone officials are hopeful that next week they can reopen the southern half of the park, which includes Old Faithful geyser. Closure of the northern part of the park will keep visitors from features that include Tower Fall, Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar Valley, which is known for viewing wildlife such as bears and wolves

Still unresolved is how it will handle all the tourists when only half the park is open.

"One thing that we definitely know is that half the park cannot support all of the visitation," Sholly said Tuesday. The park will likely implement some kind of reservation or timed-entry system to let people in without sending crowd sizes sky-high.


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