By Leo Wolfson, Jimmy Orr and Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
Yellowstone National Park officials continued their efforts to clear the park of visitors on Tuesday as they made plans to repair extensive damage caused by record flooding.
Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, in an email outlining the park’s long- and short-term objectives in the wake of the flooding that forced the park’s closure Monday, said the park was still working to clear the park’s southern loop on Tuesday morning.
In addition, the park was working to determine whether it needed to begin evacuations of the park’s backcountry as well.
At the same time, the park was working make roads such as the Old Gardiner Road passable to allow people who have been stranded by rising waters and collapsing roads a way out of the area.
“Work should begin on this today or tomorrow once precipitation subsides,” Sholly’s email said. “Plan will be to use this road for (administrative) and to evacuate visitors from Gardiner (Montana) should (U.S. Highway) 89 remain impassable.”
Sholly’s email was delivered Tuesday morning, while the park planned to issue more detailed information during a news conference at 4 p.m.
The Montana communities of Gardiner, Red Lodge, Cooke City and Silver Gate have been heavily impacted by the flooding, the result of several days of torrential rain falling on melting snow.
Silver Gate, just north of the park, received more than 2.8 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. Cooke City reportedly received 5.5 inches.
Sholly said one of the park’s objectives in the short term would be to remove visitors in Gardiner and supply the town’s residents with food, water and medicine as necessary. In addition, the park is trying to find lodging for park employees who lost their residence when a house used by park employees toppled into the river on Monday.
Calm Despite Upheaval
Despite the problems in Gardiner, a private guided tour company based in the community said the town’s residents remained calm.
“We are all blocked in and have no roads to drive out,” Yellowstone Insight posted on Facebook.
The company also commented on the loss of the park employee house, posting photos of the building as it broke away from its foundation and fell into the river.
“As the sun set over Gardiner this evening, a house was swept away, only to be given the execution blow by the high water trying to get below the Corwin Springs Bridge just 7 miles down river from Gardiner,” the post read.
By Tuesday, a “GoFundMe” page established to help those living in the house, who reportedly were forced to leave many of their belongings behind, had raised more than $16,000.
Another “GoFundMe” page established Monday to help pay for repairs caused by flooding outside of the park had raised $130 by Tuesday afternoon.
Safe Water Supply
In addition to flooded and collapsed roads in and around the park, the flooding damaged the park’s water and wastewater systems, destroying sewer lines in Gardiner and Mammoth. Sholly’s memo said the park has already started work to repair the damage.
While the floods were more damaging and dangerous in the park’s northern half, its southern half was closed in part due to damage to the water and wastewater systems.
Videos posted by the park to its Facebook page showed portions of the park’s North entrance road washed out by the floods.
There was no mention in Sholly’s email about restoring roadways and infrastructure in park’s northern loop, but he did reference changes to the park’s southern loop reservation system.
“(The park will) prepare strategy for reservation system for southern loop for the remainder of the year,” it said. “We will not allow full visitation into the southern loop when it reopens and are working on options to control the amount of visitors who can enter the park.”
He added it was unlikely the southern loop would open before Saturday.
More Help Needed
As park officials developed their plans, a part-time Cooke City resident said he was unhappy more attention as not being paid to the community, which was out of power as of Tuesday afternoon.
Mark Kearney is a part time Cody resident who owns a vacation rental cabin in Cooke City. He’s frustrated with the government for not giving Cooke City more National Guard support, as he said the town requested before flooding started on Saturday. As of Tuesday afternoon, he said there was one National Guard member stationed at the town.
“They should’ve been a little more prepared,” he said. “Once again our government officials are failing to perform again.”
Due to the difficulty of bringing gravel and heavy equipment to Cooke City from the only road that can access it right now in Cody, waiting for water levels to fall is likely the most immediate solution the town of 140 residents can hope for.
Kearney said the situation in Cooke City is improving as the level of Soda Butte had receded slightly. But many concerns still remain as rising temperatures later in the week will bring the creek levels back up again.
Kearney said the road from the Northeast Entrance into the Lamar Valley is still passable, but he has no idea beyond that.
It’s a tough situation to bear for Kearney, who also owns a motel in Cody. He said the gas prices have put a damper on that business, with visitor numbers falling by about 40% from last year so far this summer.
“The whole economy is slowly coming apart,” he said.