Yellowstone National Park, a crown jewel of the American West that attracts more than 4 million visitors annually, is beginning its long road to recovery after unprecedented flooding inundated the area earlier this week, sweeping away homes, destroying roads and bridges, and altering the spectacular landscape for generations to come.
The full scale of the damage is still being assessed, but officials said the park’s south loop could reopen as early as next week with modifications likely in place. An “aggressive plan for recovery” is still being developed for the northern sections of the park.
“We have made tremendous progress in a very short amount of time but have a long way to go,” Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park superintendent, said in a statement.
The flooding started when up to 3 inches of rain and snowmelt combined to create catastrophic conditions in the 150-year-old national park, which spans three states and some 2.2 million acres.
According to the National Weather Service, the combination of up to 5 inches of rain and 2 to 5 inches of snowmelt that occurred between June 10 and 13 caused the severe flooding across the Absaroka and Beartooth mountain ranges, leading to conditions “rarely or never seen before across many area rivers and streams.”
“Yellowstone is a region shaped by our planet’s mighty natural forces,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said in a statement. “This is what makes it so spectacular and unmatched anywhere in the world. This week’s flooding reminds us that we humans are just one small part of this ecosystem.”
Several homes and structures were swept away and about 100 people were airlifted to safety. Businesses in gateway communities have been forced to close this week and reconsider operating through the summer season, which doesn’t officially kick off until June 21.
“It’s not unusual to shut down because of nature,” said Emily Jo Mahan, who runs an outfitting guide business on the park’s west entrance. “But this week, we woke up and a river had turned into a lake.”