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National Guard rescues 87 stranded in historic flooding in Montana

South-central Montana has been inundated with extreme flooding due to rapid snowmelt and heavy rains, causing Gov. Greg Gianforte to declare a statewide disaster Tuesday.

At least 87 people have been rescued as “significant” flooding inundates south-central Montana, wiping out bridges, destroying miles of road and forcing more than 10,000 visitors out of Yellowstone National Park. 

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte declared a statewide disaster Tuesday due to the severe flooding in Carbon, Park and Stillwater counties caused by rapid snowmelt and recent heavy rains, which he said “is destroying homes, washing away roads and bridges, and leaving Montanans without power and water services.”

The severe weather has seen the Yellowstone River swell to historic levels, hitting major flood stage in Billings on Tuesday.

Since Monday, Montana Army National Guard helicopter crews have rescued 87 people and flown more than 41 hours in search and rescue operations, according to a news release.

Image: Yellowstone flooding
A house sits in Rock Creek after floodwaters washed away a road and a bridge in Red Lodge, Mont., on June 15, 2022.David Goldman / AP

The Guard started to receive requests to rescue stranded civilians with aircraft with hoist capability at 2:45 p.m. Monday, and dispatched two helicopters. 

The first rescued two people in Roscoe and two people in Fromberg. The second rescued eight people in Cooke City, the news release said. 

Four aircraft have been positioned in Billings to help with any follow-on missions. 

The Guard received another request Tuesday to aid in search and rescue near East Rosebud Lake.  

The floodwaters threatened to cut off fresh drinking water supplies to Montana’s largest city, Billings, earlier in the week.

Image: Yellowstone flooding
Kirstyn Brown, left, cleans out damaged clothing from her flooded home with the help of her mother, Cheryl Pruitt, right, and her sister-in-law, Randi Pruitt, in Red Lodge, Mont., on June 15, 2022.David Goldman / AP

Residents were asked Wednesday to conserve water because it was down to a 24- to 36-hour supply after the rain and snowmelt raised the Yellowstone River to levels that forced city officials to shut down its water treatment plant.

“None of us planned a 500-year flood event on the Yellowstone when we designed these facilities,” said Debi Meling, the city’s public works director.

By Thursday morning, the water plant was operating at full capacity and residents were allowed to return to normal water use after the Yellowstone receded to below 12 feet, “a level the plant can manage,” city officials said. 

As of Thursday morning, flood warnings for the Yellowstone River in Stillwater and Yellowstone counties were canceled as water levels receded, hitting a flood stage of 13.5 feet at 4:15 a.m. Thursday in Billings, the National Weather Service said.

The river hit a flood stage of 16.5 feet Wednesday, according to the weather service, surpassing the record flood stage reported at Billings of 15 feet in 1997. 

The unprecedented and sudden flooding earlier this week caused Yellowstone National Park to order out more than 10,000 visitors, officials said Tuesday.

Remarkably, no one was reported hurt or killed by the raging waters that pulled homes off their foundations. Dramatic video showed a large waterfront house in Gardiner, Montana, collapse into the Yellowstone River on Monday. 

While the Yellowstone flood is rare, it is the type of event that is becoming more common as the planet warms, experts said.

“We certainly know that climate change is causing more natural disasters, more fires, bigger fires and more floods and bigger floods,” said Robert Manning, a retired University of Vermont professor of environment and natural resources, “These things are going to happen, and they’re going to happen probably a lot more intensely.”

Park officials say the northern half of the park is likely to remain closed all summer, a devastating blow to the local economies that rely on tourism.