More than 10,000 visitors were ordered out of Yellowstone as unprecedented flooding gates through the northern half of the nation’s oldest national park, washing out bridges and roads and sweeping an employee bunkhouse miles downstream, officials said Tuesday. Remarkably, no one was reported injured or killed.
The only visitors left in the massive park straddling three states were a dozen campers still making their way out of the backcountry.
The park, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, could remain closed as long as a week, and northern entrances may not reopen this summer, Superintendent Cam Sholly said.
“The water is still raging,” said Sholly, who said more wet weather was forecast this weekend, which could cause additional flooding.
The flooding hit historic levels in the Yellowstone River after days of rain and rapid snowmelt and wrought havoc across parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming, where it washed away cabins, swamped small towns, knocked out power and flooded homes. It hit the park just as a summer tourist season that draws millions of visitors was ramping up.
‘The scariest river ever’
Instead of marveling at the sight of grizzlies and bison, burbling thermal pools and the regular blast of Old Faithful’s geyser, tourists found themselves witnessing nature at its most unpredictable as the Yellowstone River crested in a chocolate brown torrent that washed away anything in its path.
“It’s just the scariest river ever,” Kate Gomez of Santa Fe, NM, said Tuesday. “Anything that falls into that river is gone.”
While no one has been reported killed or injured, waters were only starting to recede Tuesday and the full extent of the destruction wasn’t yet known.
Campers contacted, safe
Sholly said the backpackers who stayed in the park had been contacted. Crews were prepared to evacuate them by helicopter, but that hasn’t been needed yet, he said.
Sholly added he didn’t believe the park had ever shut down from flooding.
Gomez and her husband were among hundreds of tourists stuck in Gardiner, Mont., a town of about 800 residents at the park’s north entrance. The town was cut off for more than a day until Tuesday afternoon, when crews reopened part of a washed away two-lane road.
While the flooding can’t be directly attributed to climate change, it came as the Midwest and East Coast sizzle from a heat wave and other parts of the West burn from an early wildfire season amid a persistent drought that has increased the frequency and intensity of fires that are having broader impacts. Smoke from a fire in the mountains of Flagstaff, Ariz., could be seen in Colorado.
Disaster declared statewide
Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said a warming environment makes extreme weather events more likely than they would have been “without the warming that human activity has caused.”
“Will Yellowstone have a repeat of this in five or even 50 years? Maybe not, but somewhere will have something equivalent or even more extreme,” he said.
Heavy rain on top of 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 in several southern Montana counties were assessing damage from the storms, which also triggered mudslides and rockslides. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte declared a statewide disaster.
Some of the worst damage happened in the northern part of the park and Yellowstone’s gateway communities in southern Montana. National Park Service photos of northern Yellowstone showed a mudslide, washed out bridges and roads undercut by churning floodwaters of the Gardner and Lamar rivers.
In Red Lodge, Mont., a town of 2,100 that’s a popular jumping-off point for a scenic, winding route into the Yellowstone, a creek running through town jumped its banks and swamped the main thoroughfare, leaving trout swimming in the street a day later under sunny skies.
Residents described a harrowing scene where the water went from a trickle to a torrent over just a few hours.
The water topped telephone poles, knocked over fences and carved deep fissures in the ground through a neighborhood of hundreds of houses. The power was knocked out but restored by Tuesday, although there was still no running water in affected neighborhoods.
On Monday, Yellowstone officials evacuated the northern part of the park, where roads may remain impassable for a substantial length of time, Sholly said in a statement. But the flooding affected the rest of the park, too, with park officials warning of yet higher flooding and potential problems with water supplies and wastewater systems at developed areas.
The rains hit just as area hotels have filled up in recent weeks with summer tourists. More than four million visitors were tallied by the park last year. The wave of tourists doesn’t abate until fall, and June is typically one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.