By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
Taylor Monfort-Eaton woke up to the sound of water pouring into his Red Lodge, Montana, basement apartment around 4:30 a.m. Monday.
When he opened his front foyer door, the water started gushing in.
“It was pouring through like a waterfall,” he said.
The water came in at such a velocity he could not get the door closed. He knew he had little time.
Grabbing only his cell phone, Monfort-Eaton stashed his guitar in the highest place possible and started looking for an exit.
The front door wouldn’t open.
“I was freaking out when my door wouldn’t open for sure,” he said.
But the former Boy Scout and Virginia Military Institute student kept a cool head. Wading through his living room in his bare feet, Monfort-Eaton, 28, grabbed a shoe and kicked open a window he climbed out of.
“Fifteen minutes later (sleeping) and I would’ve been dead,” he said.
His roommate found him standing outside barefoot, wearing nothing but a T-shirt and jeans. The two then went to the town shelter to dry off.
Monfort-Eaton’s story of a close call was just one of a number told Cowboy State Daily by residents of Red Lodge and nearby Fromberg in the wake of historic flooding that left Yellowstone National Park and surrounding communities inundated.
The flood in Red Lodge came on quickly Monday, growing steadily worse through the night, as nearby Rock Creek reached flows of more than 2,000 cubic feet per second, knocking out a handful of bridges. Water came pouring through U.S. Highway 212 and smaller Red Lodge side streets, submerging entire blocks in its wake.
Upon returning home two hours later, Monfort-Eaton found his Honda Civic halfway submerged in a sinkhole the powerful flood waters had chewed away in the pavement.
“I’ve lost everything I own, but I’m alive and grateful for that,” he posted on Facebook.
Also destroyed were nearly all of his belongings, save for his guitar, found still inside its case, floating in a few feet of water in the foyer. The instrument did suffer some water damage, but is still usable, Monfort-Eaton said. To save this keepsake, a 1968 Ovation given to him by his father, means everything.
“It’s the one thing I have of his that I carry everywhere,” he said. “When I left that behind it was devastating.”
Picking Up The Pieces
The previous record high flow on Rock Creek was 1,320 cfs in 1935, leading authorities in Red Lodge to define this flood as the worst to hit the area in around 500 years.
Nearly all standing water in town had disappeared Tuesday night, leaving a scene of immense destruction behind.
The southern portion of U.S. Highway 212, Red Lodge’s main street, was covered with large boulders and other debris sitting atop more than a foot of sediment, looking more like a dried riverbed than any kind of road.
And more may be in store for the town with high temperatures predicted to reach the 80s Friday and Saturday, followed by rain Sunday and Monday. A combination of warm temperatures and steady, heavy rains led to Monday’s flooding.
“I’m extremely concerned because they say the worst hasn’t come yet,” resident Day Lynn Dodd said. “It’s definitely going to happen but is it going to be worse than this?”
Disaster After Disaster
Due to the possible second wave of flooding, the sandbags erected against Monday’s flooding are being left in place in town.
Meanwhile, water service has only been partially restored in town and even residents now receiving water must boil it to safely use it.
The flood is the second natural disaster in as many years the town has dealt with. Last year, the Robertson Draw Fire came dangerously close to city limits, burning more than 25,000 acres of wilderness and homes in northern Wyoming and taking one life.
Red Lodge resident Pam Peterson said the flood is an important reminder of the tight bonds shared by those in the community.
“The fire did it for us last summer and this event is doing it this summer. We don’t need anything else next summer,” she said with a laugh.
When Peterson fled her house on Monday she forgot deodorant but did remember two cans of bear spray.
“I am a true Montanan,” she said.
Dodd said she could hear large boulders being pushed through Rock Creek on Monday night, providing an eerie soundtrack to the already dire scene.
Her basement was flooded and she lost appliances due to water damage. Still, she was thankful the rest of her river-side property was unscathed and her cats survived without injury, as the water level rose to the lower portion of a picnic table sitting nearby. Her white picket fence stopped most of the debris that would have entered her yard.
Dodd was one of the lucky ones. Multiple homes fell into Rock Creek and entire properties were swept away in a manner of seconds.
“I was very very lucky, very fortunate” Dodd said, a Texas native. “I’ve never seen it flowing down the street like a river.”
Peterson, a pastor at Red Lodge Community Church, had her dogs Buddy and Bonnie rescued from her home by Nate Winning, another Red Lodge resident. Winning strapped on a wet suit and kayaking helmet to get the job done.
“Buddy thought he was going swimming,” Peterson said, while Bonnie, a poodle, was not so interested.
Theresa Whistler, a Red Lodge City Council member, said she is floored with the way community members have come out to support each other, volunteering construction equipment, water pumps and their time. Countless volunteers spent the past two days laying out sandbags, distributing food and bottled water, offering free lodging and holding barbecues.
“There’s nothing like a natural disaster to bring people together after all the divisiveness of the past four years,” she said. “Everybody is helping each other and that’s really what Red Lodge has always been about.”
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has already issued an emergency declaration in the wake of the flooding and Whistler said the town will be applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief.
Andrew Harper, a Red Cross staffer running the shelter at the town’s rodeo grounds, said his organization has received such an influx of food and goods it will start turning away donations away soon. He’s also had about a dozen volunteers helping at the shelter
“It’s been an amazing outpouring of support,” he said.
About 30 miles away to the east in Fromberg, water still flowing through the town made it difficult to assess how much damage the town had incurred as of early Tuesday evening. East River Street, a main corridor through the town, was the color of chocolate milk, filled with a river of water headed downhill.
Brent Boggio, a member of the Fromberg Fire Department, expects significant damage in the town of 395 people.
“I honestly think it’s going to hurt a lot of people; it’s going to break (them),” he said. “We’re going to have people who have a total loss out of this.
“I think it’s going to hurt this town a whole lot,” he continued.
Boggio said many people didn’t have flood insurance because they didn’t know they needed it or they were turned away by certain companies that said they didn’t need it due to a perceived low likelihood for flooding in the area.
When it comes to water damage, he said, a little bit goes a long way.
As water continued to flow through town Tuesday evening, about 10 residents gathered at the Two Bear Tavern and Eatery, where the mood was friendly but somber.
One resident said the flood was the biggest the town had seen in at least 100 years.
“This is history,” resident Sharon Walton said.
Shortly after Geri Peffers was advised by a law enforcement officer to leave her Fromberg trailer on Monday, she was told the same thing by her son.
“He says, ‘If we don’t leave real fast Mom, the truck ain’t going to get out of here,’” Peffers said.
Peffers gathered up the bare necessities, including the ashes of her late husband and other son, and the two high-tailed it out to the shelter at the local high school. She said the water was so deep the truck bed started getting pushed around in the water.
“I don’t want to have another heart attack, it was nerve wracking,” she said.
Her trailer was relatively dry when her son made a trip to check on it Tuesday afternoon, but the whereabouts of her cats are still unknown. She was uneasy about the idea of him wading through the streets filled with up to four feet of water, potholes, and dangerous undercurrents.
“I already lost his brother, I worry about him, he’s my caboose,” she said
Peffers said she knew of one local couple who had the cabin they were building completely wiped out by the flood.
Kolbey Wassenaar, a member of the Fromberg Fire Department, expressed frustration that Red Cross had set up a shelter in Bridger, a larger town with much drier conditions.
“It seems like every time there is a natural disaster, we get screwed,” he said.
Kim Waterfall, a Red Cross volunteer at the shelter in Bridger, said there was some home damage in that town and about five people stayed at his shelter Monday night, including one person who brought a canary.
“We don’t allow cats or dogs though,” he said.
Wassenaar wants people to take evacuation orders seriously, as a few helicopter rescues took place for people who disregarded warnings to leave their homes.
“That’s money and resources,” he said.
Thousands of people have rallied around the cause to support these flooded southern Montana communities.
A fundraiser for Monfort-Eaton and four of his co-workers has already raised $10,715 on GoFundMe.
Monfort-Eaton said he’s also received free lodging, money and hugs from friends and strangers in town. He moved to Red Lodge one month ago from Rochester, N.Y.
“For them to embrace me the way they have in a short amount of time, it’s overwhelming,” he said. “I’m committed to the rebuild. I’m going to stay along. As long as Red Lodge needs me, I’m going to feel a drive to help.”
Cody residents Matthew Thomas and James Ries have spent the past few days shuttling emergency supplies collected through a donation drive Thomas organized to affected Montana communities. The pair have brought supplies to shelters in Bridger, Fromberg, Columbus and Red Lodge, hauling with them a trailer and pallets of bottled water. Due to Montana Highway 308 being closed because of the flooding, the pair had to drive 45 minutes out of their way to reach Red Lodge.
Thomas said as a Christian and member of the Outpost Community Church, his faith compels him to help.
“Everyone is your next-door neighbor,” he explained. “The goal is to show the love of Christ to others.”
People can assist victims of the flood at rlacf.org/…/carbon-county-disaster-fund/ and volunteer at carbonalert.org/incidents/. Go to co.carbon.mt.us/departments/disaster-emergency-services/?fbclid=IwAR1KA4e5Jq7yUrgjQOEKFNUmwwKFTEYngbtOAk_nHpSJVWdktBl8yZ-ByQs for flood updates.