Gateway towns to Yellowstone become dead ends after flooding

RED LODGE, Mt. (AP) – This gateway town to Yellowstone National Park has become a dead end as severe flooding ravaged one of America’s most beloved natural attractions and washed away roads, bridges and homes .

The unprecedented flood closed the entire park and forced the evacuation of 10,000 visitors. And towns like Red Lodge that lead to Yellowstone’s northern entrances and rely on passing tourists could suffer for the rest of the summer.

Officials said the southern part of the park, which includes Old Faithful, could reopen as early as next week. But the north end, which includes Tower Fall and the bears and wolves of Lamar Valley, could remain closed for months after miles of a main road inside Yellowstone were washed out.

Red Lodge faces a double disaster: it will have to clean up the flood damage in parts of town, and also figure out how to survive without the summer activities that normally sustain it for the rest of the year.

“Winters are harsh at Red Lodge,” Chris Prindiville said as he hosed down mud from the sidewalk outside his shuttered cafe, which had no fresh water or gas for its stoves. “You have to make your money in the summer so you can make it when the bills keep coming in and the visitors have stopped.”

At least 88 people have been rescued by the Montana National Guard in recent days from campsites and small towns, and hundreds of homes have been damaged by muddy waters. A large house that housed six park workers in the town of Gardiner was torn from its foundation and floated 8 kilometers downstream before sinking. No deaths or serious injuries were reported.

Red Lodge was under a boil water advisory, and trucks delivered drinking water to half the town 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 a lodge in 1964. Owner Mac Dean said he was going to have to empty the lower level, where 13 rooms were flooded in chest-deep water.

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“Rock Creek seemed to run its own course,” he said. “He just broke the bank and he went straight down Main Street and he hit us.”

Yellowstone is one of the crown jewels of the park system, a popular summer playground that attracts adventurous hikers camping in grizzly bear country, casual hikers passing steaming geothermal features, nature lovers watching moose, bison, bears and wolves from the safety of their cars, amateur photographers and artists trying to capture the pink and golden hues of the cliffs of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon and its thundering waterfall.

All 4 million visitors a year must pass through the small towns that line the park’s five entrances.

The flooding – triggered by a combination of torrential rains and rapid snowmelt – hit just as hotels around Yellowstone filled with summer tourists. June is usually one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.

President Joe Biden has declared a disaster in Montana, ordering the availability of federal aid.

The season had started well for Cara McGary who guides groups through the Lamar Valley to see wolves, bison, elk and bears. She had seen more than 20 grizzly bears on some days this year.

Now, with the road from Gardiner north of Yellowstone washed out, the wildlife is still there, but it’s out of McGary’s reach. His guiding business, In Our Nature, is suddenly in trouble.

“The summer we’ve been preparing for is not at all like the summer we’re going to have,” she said. “It’s an 80% to 100% loss of business during peak season.”

The flooding is another setback for companies like Gardiner-based Flying Pig Adventures, which guides rafting trips on the Yellowstone River.

It’s a blow not unlike how COVID-19 shut down Yellowstone two years ago, cutting tourist visits to the park by about a third in June 2020 before they rebounded during the rest of this summer.

“We are definitely a resilient company. We have a very strong team,” said Patrick Sipp, co-owner of Flying Pig Adventures. “But it’s devastating. You hate to see stuff like that in the community. We just hope we can get back there soon enough.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, has come under fire from Democrats and members of the public for being out of the country during the disaster.

Spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said in a statement Wednesday that the governor left last week on a long-planned personal trip with his wife and is “coming back early and as quickly as possible.” The statement did not specify where the governor was.

in his absence, Montana Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras signed a disaster emergency declaration on Tuesday.

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Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporters Brittany Peterson in Red Lodge, Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming and Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.

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