Heather Muldoon spent most of Monday bracing her Livingston garden business for the oncoming flood.
When she was prompted by local authorities to leave around 6 p.m., she thought the worst of it was over. But her entire business was gone when she returned to it, Heather’s Garden Service and Flower Farm, Tuesday afternoon.
“It got way worse after I left, and I just had no idea. I lost everything … it is a nightmare,” Muldoon, 52, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I don’t even know what to do. I don’t even know what to say. It’s crazy.”
Heather’s business, located on the 9th Street Island in Livingston, washed away as a historic flood took hold of the Yellowstone River and penetrated communities from Gardiner to Red Lodge on Monday — carrying homes, bridges, and businesses with it — leaving behind damage that could take years to repair.
The flood was brought on by snowfall over Memorial Day weekend, combined with warmer temperatures in higher elevations this past weekend that allowed the snow to start melting. The event closed the entire northern half of Yellowstone National Park, including attractions like Lamar Valley, Tower Falls, and Mammoth Hot Springs, for at least the rest of the summer. And more flooding could be on its way, according to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly.
“We still have very high water as of today … we still have somewhere around 12 inches of snowpack left, and if we get warming temperatures in the right mixture of precipitation like we did Sunday, we could have another flood event coming through Yellowstone in the upcoming four or five days,” he said at a press event broadcast via Zoom
And in Park, Sweetgrass, and Carbon counties, the National Weather Service in Billings forecast high water levels again this weekend.
“We have drying conditions through the rest of the week; there is going to be very warm temperatures showing up Friday into Saturday,” said the agency’s Dan Borsum. “Now, there will be no rain associated with it. So we do expect that to come out slower than what we saw the past few days.”
While the damage was extensive, no significant injuries or deaths have been reported, but, Sholly said one visitor did die since the flooding started from a cardiac arrest episode unrelated to the flood.
On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte declared a state of emergency for Carbon, Park, and Stillwater counties to help with the historic flooding. The declaration was signed by Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras because, as first reported by Lee Newspapers, Gianforte is out of the country and will return in a few days.
“With rapid snowmelt and recent heavy rains, communities in south-central Montana are experiencing severe flooding that is destroying homes, washing away roads and bridges, and leaving Montanans without power and water services,” Gianforte said in a statement. “Today’s disaster declaration will help impacted communities get back on their feet as soon as possible, and I have asked state agencies to bring their resources to bear in support of these communities.”
According to the release, Montana Disaster and Emergency Services is working to support local authorities in Carbon, Park, and Stillwater counties and with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on next steps.
Sholly and Park County Commissioner Bill Berg addressed about 100 reporters on Zoom Tuesday afternoon.
Sholly said he does not expect the northern part of the park to open this summer. He said the hardest-hit area was between Gardner and Cooke City, two gateway towns that rely heavily on the summer tourist months, and the road that connects the two towns will not be reopened this summer.
“I’ll stay as optimistic as possible, but even if we got started right now, I’m not sure we could get the road on the northern end reopened. So that will likely stay closed for the rest of the season,” he said.
That closure is devastating for Gardiner and surrounding areas that rely on summer tourism to keep the lights on year-round.
“It lives and dies by tourism,” Berg said about Gardiner.
Frank James of Livingston is one of those who rely on that industry. Last year he started Mountain Man Guiding, but he said he will likely have to find a new job because of the floods.
“You’re losing your life, basically,” he said. “I own a guiding business, and I can’t guide anymore. I’m going to have to go find a new job.”
And the flood comes right when businesses were starting to bounce back from COVID-19, Berg said.
“The businesses I talked to had reservations that were running even stronger for this summer. And now that’s all gone,” Berg said. “So businesses are already trying to sort out what they’re going to do with their seasonal staff that can’t afford to keep them. Their business projections are shot, reservations are being canceled, folks are asking for refunds, which is understandable.”
Sholly said the park is working with other gateway communities like West Yellowstone, Cody, and Jackson to see how they can support visitors to the southern loop of the park. The park can see up to 1 million visitors in the summer months.
“One thing that we definitely know is that half the park cannot support all of the visitations, so we are exploring a range of options,” Sholly said. He discussed timed entry and reservation systems for the south loop when it opens.
In the last 36 hours, Berg said multiple bridges in the county had been knocked out.
“Sunday night was when we got our first alert that there was trouble on the horizon when two of our bridges on the Bannack trail washed out,” he said.
As for the park, the North Loop took the brunt of the damage, Sholly said, but the full extent of the damage will not be known for some time.
“Water is extremely high. We’re not putting teams in harm’s way at this point. When the waters reside, probably early next week, we will be pulling together a large number of people from different agencies around the country to come to Yellowstone and help us assess what the damage is to various infrastructure in the park,” he said. “You can see by the pictures: it’s expensive. But we will not know exactly what the timelines are, what the costs are, or any of that information until we get teams on the ground can actually assess what happens and what it’s going to take to repair it.”
The park and surrounding gateway towns like Gardiner were full of visitors when the floods started, Sholly said. He estimated about 15,000 people were in the park when it shut down. As of Monday all visitors, outside of a dozen backcountry campers, have been removed from the park.
“We had to make a decision yesterday because of unsafe conditions to move all of the visitors out of northern Yellowstone, and we pushed them south into the southern loop,” he said.
“We have contacted or know the whereabouts of every backcountry user currently in Yellowstone. Right now, there’s only one group remaining in the Northern Range. We have made contact with them; we were prepared to do helicopter evacuations if necessary. That hasn’t been necessary up to this point,” Sholly told reporters. As of Tuesday, there is a full closure of Yellowstone backcountry in place. And the Yellowstone River has been closed for recreational activities.
Along with the visitors in the park, thousands of visitors were stranded in Gardiner, which was isolated after the flood took out Highway 89 on Monday. The highway was reopened late Tuesday afternoon. And road and bridge collapse in Silver Gate and Cooke City also caused temporary isolation.
“We’ve lost several roads in Park County and around the region as well. In addition to the three bridges we lost in Cooke City, Park County lost one bridge over the Yellowstone near Tom Miner Basin … had another bridge compromised in the middle of Paradise Valley,” Berg said.
Muldoon said she is devastated.
“It’s not just the money that I have out. It’s also the sweat equity that I put into this business, and it’s all gone … this is four years of working on this flower farm working on this greenhouse,” she said.
But she knows she is not alone.
“I’m not the only one. There are people whose homes were completely washed away and inundated, and that’s obviously huge,” she said.