Floods leave Yellowstone landscape ‘dramatically altered’

RED LODGE, Mont. – The forces of fire and ice shaped Yellowstone National Park over thousands of years. It took decades longer for people to tame it enough for tourists to visit, often from the comfort of their cars.

In just a few days, torrential rains and a rapid snowmelt caused a dramatic flood that could forever change the human footprint on the park’s grounds and the communities that have grown around it.

The historic floods that raged through Yellowstone this week, ripped out bridges and poured into nearby homes, pushed a popular fishing river off course — possibly permanently — and potentially forcing roads nearly swept away by water torrents to be rebuilt in new locations .

“The landscape has literally and figuratively changed dramatically in the last 36 hours,” said Bill Berg, a commissioner in nearby Park County. “A bit ironic that this spectacular landscape was created by violent geological and hydrological events, and it just isn’t very practical for it to happen while we’re all here committed to it.”

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The unprecedented flooding drove more than 10,000 visitors from the country’s oldest national park and damaged hundreds of homes in nearby communities, although remarkably no one was injured or killed. The only visitors left at the massive park spanning three states were a dozen campers still en route from upstate.

The park could remain closed for up to a week, and the north entrances may not reopen this summer, Superintendent Cam Sholly said.

“I heard this is a 1,000 year event, whatever that means these days. They seem to be becoming more common,” he said.

Sholly noted that some weather forecasts include the possibility of additional flooding this weekend.

Days of rain and rapid snowmelt devastated parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming, where homes were washed away, small towns were flooded and power was cut. It hit the park as a summer tourist season began in the year of its 150th anniversary, attracting millions of visitors.

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Businesses in hard-hit Gardiner had just started to really recover from the tourism slump caused by the coronavirus pandemic and were hoping for a good year, Berg said.

“It’s a Yellowstone city and it lives and dies from tourism, and that’s going to be a pretty big hit,” he said. “You’re trying to figure out how to hold things together.”

Some of the worst damage occurred in the northern part of the park and in the Gateway communities of Yellowstone in southern Montana. National Park Service photos of northern Yellowstone showed a mudslide, eroded bridges and roads eroded by turbulent waters from the Gardner and Lamar Rivers.

In Red Lodge, a town of 2,100 that is a popular trailhead for a scenic route into the Yellowstone Highlands, a creek that runs through town burst its banks and flooded the main thoroughfare, causing trout to pop up a day later when the sun was shining the street swam sky.

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Local residents described a harrowing scene in which the water went from a trickle to a torrent in a matter of hours.

The water toppled telephone poles, knocked down fences and cut deep fissures in the ground through a neighborhood containing hundreds of homes. Power was restored Tuesday, but there was still no running water in the affected neighborhood.

Heidi Hoffman drove out early Monday to buy a sump pump in Billings, but when she returned her basement was full of water.

“We lost all our belongings in the basement,” Hoffman said as the pump pumped out a steady stream of water into their muddy backyard. “Yearbooks, pictures, clothes, furniture. We will clean up for a long time.”

At least 200 homes were flooded in Red Lodge and the town of Fromberg.

The flood came when the The Midwest and East Coast are sizzling with a heat wave and other Parts of the West are burning from an early wildfire season amid a prolonged drought that has increased the frequency and intensity of fires. Smoke from a fire in the Flagstaff, Arizona mountains could be seen in Colorado.

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While the flooding has not been directly attributed to climate change, Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that warming of the environment makes extreme weather events more likely than they would have been without the warming from human activity.”

“Will Yellowstone be doing this again in five or even 50 years? Maybe not, but somewhere there will be something equivalent or even more extreme,” he said.

Heavy rain on melting mountain snow pushed the Yellowstone, Stillwater and Clarks Fork rivers to record levels Monday, triggering rock and mudslides, according to the National Weather Service. The Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs surpassed a record set in 1918.

Yellowstone’s northern roads may remain impassable for significant periods of time. The flooding also affected the rest of the park, with park officials warning of even higher levels of flooding and potential problems with water supply and sewage systems in built-up areas.

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The rains hit as hotels filled with summer tourists in recent weeks. The park had more than 4 million visitors last year. The tourist tide doesn’t let up until the fall, and June is typically one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.

Rocky Mountain Rotors owner and chief pilot Mark Taylor said his company had flown about 40 paying Gardiner customers over the past two days, including two women who were “very pregnant”.

Taylor was speaking as he ferryed a family of four from Texas who wanted to do some sightseeing before heading home.

“I imagine they’ll rent a car and check out some other parts of Montana — somewhere that’s drier,” he said.

In a cabin in Gardiner, Parker Manning of Terre Haute, Indiana, got a direct view of the roaring waters of the Yellowstone River right outside his door. Whole trees and even a lone kayaker streamed by.

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In the early evening, he shot video as the water gnawed on the opposite bank, where a large brown house that housed park employees before their evacuation sat perched precariously.

With a loud crash that could be heard over the rushing of the river, the house fell into the water and was pulled into the current. Sholly said it swam 5 miles (8 kilometers) before sinking.

The towns of Cooke City and Silvergate, to the east of the park, were also isolated by flooding, making drinking water unsafe as well. People evacuated a hospital and low-lying areas in Livingston.

In south-central Montana, 68 people were rescued by raft at a campground after flooding on the Stillwater River. Some roads in the area were closed and residents were evacuated.

At least four cottages were washed into the Stillwater River in the hamlet of Nye, Shelley Blazina said, including one that belonged to her.

“It was my sanctuary,” she said Tuesday. “I was in shock yesterday. Today I am only in deep sadness.”

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Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writers Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, RJ Rico in Atlanta, and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/business/2022/06/15/floods-leave-yellowstone-landscape-dramatically-changed/ Floods leave Yellowstone landscape ‘dramatically altered’

Sarah Y. Kim

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