Lt. Gov. Cooney tours Missoula flooding as forecasters predict 100-year record

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, center, crosses a levee to tour a portion of the Orchard Homes neighborhood on Thursday with Missoula County officials. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Standing atop a soggy levee, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney watched the muddy waters of the Clark Fork River swirl into a low-lying neighborhood.

Several cars sat submerged and a crew of men, standing to their shins in water, piled sandbags against a door. Even so, water coursed down a nearby street, pooling in yards at a pace faster than the pumps could displace it.

“This is pretty major,” Cooney said. “It’s one of the most major flood scenes I’ve seen so far this season in Montana.”

Cooney joined the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a brief tour of the flood zone on Thursday, stopping at a sandbag station run by volunteers before visiting the Orchard Homes neighborhood, one of the hardest hit by the rising waters.

By this time tomorrow, the floodwaters are expected to rise another 12 inches.

“Water levels are expected to rise about a foot over the next 24 hours,” said Sheriff T.J. McDermott. “It will be a critical time for our team to assess if, when and where additional evacuation orders may become necessary.”

Residents work to brace a home against the rising floodwaters. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Deputies have already placed 60 homes under evacuation orders, though an additional 820 homes remain under an evacuation warning. The river Thursday morning had reached 12.8 feet on the flood gauge above Missoula – up from 11 feet on Monday when evacuations began.

The National Weather Service was forecasting the river to reach 13.5 feet this week, though by mid-afternoon, it projected the river would top 14 feet and tweeted, “if achieved, this would be the highest level in the past 100 years.”

“The massive snowpack we’ve built over this winter is melting out, and we’ve got rain coming in, so all that’s combining to create this event we haven’t seen in 40 years,” said Ray Nickless, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. “This will be a pretty historical flood.”

Cooler temperatures are expected to lower the river back to the moderate flood stage later this week, though its rise and fall will likely continue through May. Depending on next week’s forecast, the race against the river could start all over again.

“As we go into the future, the snow is still so deep in the headwaters of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot regions, I don’t expect us to be below the flood stage here in Missoula for the next month,” Nickless said. “It’s a prolonged event we’re going to be dealing with here. Hopefully we don’t get any huge rain events as we go through the rest of the month.”

Jess Jordan, the Clark Fork flood lead with the Army Corps of Engineers, left, and Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott, right, keep a watch on the rising waters before weighing additional evacuation orders. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Emergency responders in Missoula have likened the flood response to the fire season, which also looms in the months ahead. Crews are growing tired, working long hours, though volunteers and community support have helped ease the discomfort.

A Type III incident management team has been established to help, and the Army Corps of Engineers continues to keep a watch on area levees.

“We’ve done a reconnaissance throughout the basin, including the urban core here in Missoula,” said Jess Jordan, the Clark Fork flood lead with the Army Corps of Engineers. “We’re not seeing anything right now, from a levee standpoint, that would jump out as a concern.”

But the river has crept to within a few feet of cresting the levee in areas of the city, and county officials do have concerns over the integrity of the earthen berms separating the river from the old Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. property and its contaminated sediment ponds west of the valley.

An inspection of those berms was scheduled Thursday.

“The local authorities are working very closely with the state, making sure we’re getting all the resources that we can at this time to come in and help as much as possible,” Cooney said. “We want to make sure we’re taking full advantage of that so we can deal with this – deal with it during the flood and after the water starts to recede, and then we can see what needs to be done then.”