By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
With electricity restored to Yellowstone National Park, officials announced Friday there is a good chance the park’s southern portion could open sometime next week.
However, the opening will depend on the completion of repairs to a portion of the road south of Canyon Junction that collapsed Thursday, park officials said in an update on conditions following the flood that forced the park’s closure and evacuation on Monday.
“Crews will begin major repairs on Friday … with an intent to complete repairs by Monday … ” the update said. “This repair must be completed prior to opening the south loop.”
The park has been closed since Monday morning, when flooding caused by torrential rains and melting snow washed out roads and made the northern part of the park completely inaccessible. More than 10,000 visitors were removed from the park.
The flooding led to the collapse of multiple sections of roads in the park’s northern loop and park Superintendent Cam Sholly said the loop will remain closed for an extensive period while the roads are repaired. U.S. Highway 89, linking the park’s north entrance near Gardiner, Montana, with the northeast entrance near Cooke City, Montana, will remain closed through the season, Sholly said.
Damages to the southern loop were not as severe and park officials announced Friday that the west, south and east entrances could reopen as early as next week, assuming all infrastructure is ready for a return of visitors.
Sholly, in Friday’s update, said park workers had accomplished much to prepare at least part of the park for reopening.
“We have made tremendous progress in a very short amount of time but have long way to go,” he said. “All emergency and life safety objectives within the park have been accomplished or stabilized within the first 96 hours of the flood event, without major injury or death. We have an aggressive plan for recovery in the north and resumption of operations in the south.”
To prevent the southern loop from being overwhelmed by the extra traffic expected with the closure of the northern route, the park will adopt some kind of reservation or timed entry system, Sholly said during a town hall meeting earlier this eek.
“My intention was not to try to put into place some type of timed entry or reservation system or anything like that,” he said. “But what we can’t have happen is so much visitation on one loop of the park that wastewater treatment, the road infrastructure fails and then we end up having to close the southern end of the park for a long period of time like the north end will likely be.”
It may take three to four weeks to develop the system, Sholly said, and it will be developed with input from gateway communities. Until it is in place, people will be allowed to enter through the park’s east, south and west entrances without reservations, although some services may be limited, such as hotel accommodations.
However, he added other services, including food and gasoline, will be available by the time the park reopens.
The park said river levels swollen to historic levels by the rain and melting snow had gone down significantly Friday from the previous 24 hours.
However, Sholly said the park would continue to monitor weather conditions through the weekend.
Forecasts called for temperatures above 10,000 feet to rise to the low 60s over the weekend, melting snowpacks of up to 16 inches that remain in parts of the park. In addition, some rain was expected in the region and thunderstorms could drop another 0.5 to 0.75 inches of rain on the area through Monday.
“Current flood models DO NOT show any action levels or flooding, but that could change with with an unexpected heavy rainfall over snowpack similar to last weekend,” said Park County Homeland Security Director Jeff Martin.
Park crews were working Friday to determine how to proceed with work on collapsed sections of roads in the northern loop.
The park said preliminary assessments indicate damage to the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the park’s northeastern entrance near Gardiner is so extensive it is unlikely the road will be rebuilt along its former path.
All employees who lost their housing in the flood have been provided new housing, Yellowstone officials said.