RED LODGE, Mont. (AP) — This gateway city to Yellowstone National Park has become a cul-de-sac, a victim of severe flooding that swept through one of America’s most beloved natural attractions, washing away roads, bridges and homes.
The unprecedented flooding has closed the entire park and forced the evacuation of 10,000 visitors. And towns like Red Lodge, which lead to Yellowstone’s northern entrances and rely on passing tourists, could suffer through the rest of the summer.
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 miles of a major highway were washed away inside Yellowstone.
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 camps and small towns, with hundreds of homes damaged by muddy 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. 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.”
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 season had started well for Cara McGary, who leads groups through the Lamar Valley to see wolves, bison, elk and bears. She had seen over 20 grizzlies some days this year.
Now, with the Gardiner Trail to North Yellowstone washed away, 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.”
The flooding is another setback for companies like Gardiner-based Flying Pig Adventures, which organizes rafting trips on the Yellowstone River.
It’s a similar blow to how COVID-19 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 resilient company. We have a very tough team,” said Flying Pig Adventures co-owner Patrick Sipp. “But it is devastating. You hate to see things like that in the community. We just hope we can get back out there relatively soon.”
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 in a statement Wednesday that the governor had left last week on a long-scheduled personal trip with his wife and “will be back early and as quickly as possible.” The statement did not say where the governor was.
in his absence, Montana Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras signed an emergency disaster 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 contributed to this report.