GARDINER, Mont. – Yellowstone National Park officials assessed widespread damage Tuesday as the park remained closed amid dangerous floods, mudslides and rockslides that have eroded roads, ripped apart bridges and forced evacuations this week.
The water started to slowly recede Tuesday and one key highway reopened, but the record-level floods left all five entrances to the park closed through at least Wednesday, officials said. And, officials said during an update on Tuesday, the water levels could still change at any time.
“The water is still raging,” said Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, who added that more wet weather was forecast this weekend, which could cause additional flooding.
The park, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, has seen multiple road and bridge failures, power outages and mudslides, causing the evacuations of more than 10,000 visitors from the park.
“I’ve never seen this, not in my lifetime,” said Austin King, a firefighter and EMT in Gardiner, a town just outside Yellowstone’s busy northern entrance.
There were no reports of injuries or deaths as of Tuesday afternoon, but floodwaters swept away a number of homes, bridges and other structures. The northern part of the park suffered the worst damage.
The full scope of the damage was not known Tuesday, leaving it unclear when roads might reopen or when residents in neighboring communities might be able to return.
The northern loop of Yellowstone National Park was cleared of visitors and park officials were working to evacuate visitors in the southern area of the park Tuesday. Park staff were searching for five back-country groups to ensure they were safely evacuated.
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Highways reopen as floodwaters recede
The Yellowstone River reached highs of almost 14 feet on Monday, far higher than the record 11.5 feet set more than a century ago, according the the National Weather Service.
Although the water was still “extremely” high, a route out of Gardiner, a town of about 900 people, reopened Tuesday afternoon, according to county Commissioner Bill Berg and Sholly.
Visitors could drive out using U.S. Highway 89 and East River Road, but only residents and service vehicles were allowed to drive back inside. While some residents questioned if they could wait a few days before leaving town, Berg and Sholly were adamant: “Get out of Gardiner.”
“We are working with the county and state of Montana to provide necessary support to residents, who are currently without water and power in some areas,” Yellowstone officials said Monday.
A smaller highway into the previously isolated Cooke City also reopened to local traffic and emergency services Tuesday afternoon.
Yellowstone communities left stranded, without power
The flooding left some of Yellowstone’s small gateway communities in southern Montana isolated and without power, leading to evacuations by boat and helicopter.
Floodwaters isolated areas including Silvergate, which is east of the park, and led to evacuations in Livingston. As Stillwater River in south-central Montana flooded, 68 people were stranded at a campground as crews rescued campers by raft.
Officials in Park County, which encompasses those cities, issued shelter-in-place orders Monday and warned flooding had made drinking water unsafe in many communities. Residents hauled bottled water home from stores and worried about a possible food shortage.
Many in Gardiner have used only bottled water to brush their teeth, wash dishes and prepare food due to a break in the area’s main water service line. The community was under an advisory to boil water before consumption as of Tuesday afternoon.
The county said water and air rescues were underway amid evacuations Monday.
“Extensive flooding throughout Park County has washed out bridges, roads, and left communities and homes isolated,” Park County said in a statement.
A 10-person bunker was among the buildings that slipped from the riverbank into the water. Only a portion of the building’s foundation remained Tuesday.
Parker Manning, who was visiting from Terre Haute, Indiana, watched the flooding from a cabin in Gardiner. He said he saw trees and a mostly intact house floating in rushing waters.
In the south-central Montana town of Joliet, Kristan Apodaca cried as she watched floodwaters overtake her grandmother’s log cabin and the park where her husband proposed.
“I am sixth-generation,” she told the Billings Gazette. “This is our home.”
King, the EMT in Gardiner, said the flooding was “damaging for a lot of people.”
“Some have lost their houses; others can’t go to work,” King said. “People are worried about food shortages already.”
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When will Yellowstone reopen?
Yellowstone officials have prohibited visitors from entering the park at any of its five entrances until at least Wednesday.
Sholly said the park could remain closed as long as a week, and northern entrances may not reopen at all this summer.
Cory Mottice, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Billings, Montana, said reduced rain and cooler temperatures, which could lead to decreased snowmelt, may lessen flooding.
Still, “this is flooding that we’ve just never seen in our lifetimes before,” Mottice said.
Why is Yellowstone flooding?
Record rainfall combined with rapidly melting snowpack caused the deluge of flooding this week. Scientists pointed to climate change as the culprit behind more intense and frequent weather events.
The flooding happened as the summer tourist season was ramping up. June is one of the park’s busiest months.
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What state is Yellowstone National Park in?
The world’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park encompasses nearly 3,500 square miles on top of a volcanic hot spot. The park lies mostly in Wyoming but spreads into Montana and Idaho.
The park allows visitors “to observe wildlife in an intact ecosystem, explore geothermal areas that contain about half the world’s active geysers, and view geologic wonders like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River,” according to the Yellowstone’s website.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Hannah Phillips of The Palm Beach Post reported from Gardiner, Montana.
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