Flooding rocks the Yellowstone region, leaving many stranded

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RED LODGE, Mont. (AP) — Yellowstone National Park’s signature flow reached unprecedented levels, unleashing floodwaters that tore through surrounding areas, washing away homes, washing out bridges and roads, stranding tourists and residents, and prompting frantic helicopter and raft rescues triggered.

Flooding in parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming from days of rain and a rapidly melting snowpack closed one of the nation’s most famous parks indefinitely, just as a summer tourist season began that drew millions of visitors.

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Instead of marveling at giant elk, grizzlies and bison roaming free, bubbling thermal pools and the regular crackling of Old Faithful Geyser, tourists experienced nature at its most unpredictable as the Yellowstone River flowed in a chocolate brown torrent that was washed away everything in his way.

“It’s just the scariest river ever,” said Kate Gomez of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Tuesday. “Anything that falls into that river is gone. The waves are huge and it’s just mud and silt.”

Although no one was killed or injured, the water did not begin to recede until Tuesday and the full extent of the destruction was not yet known.

Gomez and her husband were among hundreds of tourists who got stuck in Gardiner, Montana, a town of about 800 people at the park’s north entrance. The city was cut off for more than a day until Tuesday afternoon when crews managed to reopen part of a dual carriageway that had been washed away. Officials warned that driving conditions were still dangerous.

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While the flooding can’t be directly attributed to climate change, it came as the Midwest and East Coast sizzled from a heatwave and other parts of the West burned from an early wildfire season amid an ongoing drought that has increased the frequency and intensity of fires, that have wider implications. Smoke from a fire in the Flagstaff, Arizona mountains could be seen in Colorado.

Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said warming of the environment makes extreme weather events more likely than they would have been “without the warming from human activities.”

“Will Yellowstone be doing this again in five or even 50 years? Maybe not, but somewhere there will be something equivalent or even more extreme,” he said. “This time last year we were talking about the heat dome over the Pacific Northwest. These extreme heat events are becoming more common.”

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Heavy rain on melting mountain snow pushed the Yellowstone, Stillwater and Clarks Fork rivers to record levels Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Officials in Yellowstone and several counties in southern Montana were investigating damage from the storms, which also triggered mudslides and rockfalls. Montana Governor Greg Gianforte declared a statewide disaster.

Some of the worst damage occurred in the northern part of the park and in the Gateway communities of Yellowstone in southern Montana. National Park Service photos of northern Yellowstone showed a mudslide, eroded bridges and roads eroded by turbulent waters from the Gardner and Lamar Rivers.

In Red Lodge, Montana, a town of 2,100 people that is a popular trailhead for a scenic, winding route into Yellowstone, a creek that runs through the town burst its banks and flooded the main thoroughfare, causing trout a day later on the street swam under sunny skies.

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Local residents described a harrowing scene in which the water went from a trickle to a torrent in a matter of hours.

The water toppled telephone poles, knocked down fences and cut deep fissures in the ground through a neighborhood containing hundreds of homes. Power was shut off but restored Tuesday, although there was still no running water in the affected neighborhood.

Heidi Hoffman drove out early Monday to buy a sump pump in Billings, but when she returned her basement was full of water.

“We lost all our belongings in the basement,” Hoffman said as the pump pumped out a steady stream of water into their muddy backyard. “Yearbooks, pictures, clothes, furniture. We will clean up for a long time.”

On Monday, Yellowstone officials evacuated the northern portion of the park, where roads may remain impassable for an extended period, Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a statement.

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But the flooding also affected the rest of the park, with park officials warning of even higher flooding and potential problems with water supplies and sewage systems in built-up areas.

The rains hit as hotels filled with summer tourists in recent weeks. The park had more than 4 million visitors last year. The tourist tide doesn’t let up until the fall, and June is typically one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.

It was unclear how many visitors to the area were left stranded or forced to leave Yellowstone, or how many people living outside the park were rescued and evacuated.

Rocky Mountain Rotors owner and chief pilot Mark Taylor said his company had flown about 40 paying Gardiner customers over the past two days, including two women who were “very pregnant”.

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Taylor was speaking as he ferryed a family of four from Texas who wanted to do some sightseeing before heading home.

“I imagine they’ll rent a car and check out some other parts of Montana — somewhere that’s drier,” he said.

In a cabin in Gardiner, Parker Manning of Terre Haute, Indiana, got a direct view of the roaring waters of the Yellowstone River right outside his door.

Whole trees, debris, and even a lone kayaker floated by on the choppy current. In the early evening, he shot video as the water nibbled on the opposite bank, where a large brown house perched precariously.

With a loud crash that could be heard over the rushing of the river, the house fell into the water, was pulled into the current, and floated away downstream.

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In south-central Montana, flooding on the Stillwater River has stranded 68 people at a campground. Stillwater County Emergency Services and Stillwater Mine crews rescued people using a raft from Woodbine Campground on Monday. Some roads in the area are closed due to flooding and residents have been evacuated.

The sheriff’s office said it would assess the damage as the water receded.

The towns of Cooke City and Silvergate, to the east of the park, have also been isolated by flooding.

In Livingston, residents of low-lying neighborhoods were told to leave and the town’s hospital was evacuated as a precaution after its driveway flooded.

Park County officials, which include Gardiner and Cooke City, said extensive flooding across the county had made drinking water unsafe in many areas.

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The Montana National Guard said Monday it sent two helicopters to southern Montana to help with the evacuations.

At least four cottages were washed into the Stillwater River in the hamlet of Nye, Shelley Blazina said, including one that belonged to her.

“It was my sanctuary,” she said Tuesday. “I was in shock yesterday. Today I am only in deep sadness.”

Cory Motice, a weather forecaster with the National Weather Service in Billings, Montana, said rain is not in the immediate forecast and cooler temperatures will reduce snowmelt in the coming days.

“This is a flood we’ve never seen in our entire lives,” Motice said.

The Yellowstone River near Corwin Springs reached 13.88 feet (4.2 meters) Monday, higher than the previous record of 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) set in 1918, according to the National Weather Service .

Yellowstone got 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) of rain Saturday, Sunday and through Monday. The Beartooth Mountains northeast of Yellowstone rose up to 10 centimeters, according to the National Weather Service.

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Brown reported from Billings, Montana. Associated Press writers contributed Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City, RJ Rico in Atlanta, Brian Melley in Los Angeles, Thomas Peipert in Denver, Mead Gruver in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington to this report.

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