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Yellowstone-area floods strand visitors and residents, prompt evacuations

High water levels in the Lamar River eroding the Northeast Entrance Road.
National Park Service
High water levels in the Lamar River eroding the Northeast Entrance Road.

Yellowstone National Park remains closed after record-breaking floods hit Monday. Thousands of visitors and residents found themselves stranded as nearby communities saw evacuations and historic damage.

Heavy rain falling on snowpack in area mountain ranges is swelling rivers to "unprecedented" levels, the National Weather Service says. It issued flood warnings for area rivers through Tuesday evening.

The Park Service closed the northern entrances to the park Monday morning, then expanded the closure to all the parks' entrances two hours later. A statement on the park website Tuesday says entrances will remain closed until at least Wednesday. Officials are still trying to evacuate backcountry park visitors.

Video from a National Park Service helicopter taken Monday afternoon shows large swaths of the road near the park's northern entrance destroyed and water rushing just underneath bridges.

"It is likely that the northern [road] loop will be closed for a substantial amount of time," Park Superintendent Cam Sholly wrote in a statement Monday.

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Montana's National Guard deployed two helicopters to help with rescues near the towns of Roscoe and Cooke City. They've flown at least two missions, and rescued 12 people from a flooded area Monday night.

Gardiner, a town just outside the park's busy north entrance, was cut off from road access for around 24 hours after flood waters washed out sections of U.S. Highway 89. The two-lane road was reopened to local traffic Tuesday midday with speed limits of 35 mph and warnings from authorities to leave immediately as they anticipate more flooding over the weekend.

Parker Manning, a visitor stranded in Gardiner on Monday sent NPR's Kirk Siegler photos of a large house falling into the Yellowstone river, which runs alongside the town of about 800 residents.

"Everybody's a little bit stressed," said Manning. "But we just realize we have to make the best of a bad situation, there's nothing we can do about it."

Rebecca Demery and her husband own Gardiner's only grocery store which has been largely cleared out. Delivery trucks should be able to get back into town today but access to Gardiner will generally be limited for a long time. Coming out of the pandemic, businesses in gateway towns had been hoping for a big summer.

"I think at this point we're just trying to take it hour by hour," Rebecca said, "because there's nothing really that any of us can do to change it. But it's going to be a very different year than expected I think."

About 50 miles downstream, in Livingston, Mont. the 25-bed hospital was evacuated Monday night and its main campus remains closed Tuesday afternoon. Residents near the Yellowstone River were issued mandatory evacuation orders, while shelters opened in the nearby town of Bozeman. The orders were lifted Tuesday morning.

About a hundred miles to the east, the small town of Red Lodge has seen substantial flooding and evacuations, Yellowstone Public Radio reports.

A home near Gardiner falls in to the Yellowstone River.
/ Parker Manning
/
Parker Manning
A home near Gardiner falls in to the Yellowstone River.

The town's fire chief said in a Facebook Live video early Monday morning that waters wiped out roads along the nearby creeks and implored residents to stay away from the area.

"We saw the sidewalk just north of the Red Box Car [restaurant] fall into the creek suddenly," he said in the video. "Fortunately, no one was in the area of the sidewalk."

Some Red Lodge residents were evacuated to a church before its basement flooded, forcing them to relocate to the county fairgrounds.

"We were not prepared for this by any means whatsoever, and we still don't know what's going to happen next," Red Lodge Community Church Pastor Pam Peterson told YPR. "So that causes more anxiety."

Areas downstream from Red Lodge were warned of flash flood risk, especially in areas that saw approximately 30,000 acres burned by wildfires last year.

Washed-out bridge at Rescue Creek.
/ National Park Service
/
National Park Service
Washed-out bridge at Rescue Creek.

The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning for the areas around Red Lodge through Tuesday evening, leading to "major flooding" in the communities of Belfry and Edgar. It notes that a decrease in rainfall will slow the rivers' rise through Wednesday.

"The river will remain above flood stage for most of its reach today but will begin falling below flood stage from south to north tonight through early tomorrow," the NWS stated Tuesday.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.