This gateway town to Yellowstone National Park has become a dead end as severe flooding ravaged one of America’s most beloved natural attractions and washed away roads, bridges and homes.
The unprecedented flood closed the entire park and forced the evacuation of 10,000 visitors. And towns like Red Lodge that lead to Yellowstone’s northern entrances and rely on passing tourists could suffer through late summer.
Officials said the southern part of the park, which includes Old Faithful, could reopen as early as this week. But the north end, which includes Tower Fall and the bears and wolves of Lamar Valley, could remain closed for months after miles of a main road inside Yellowstone were washed out.
Red Lodge faces a double disaster: it will have to clean up the damage caused by the flood and figure out how to survive without the summer activities that normally sustain it for the rest of the year.
“Winters are harsh at Red Lodge,” Chris Prindiville said as he hosed down mud from the sidewalk outside his closed cafe, which had no fresh water or gas for its stoves. “You have to make your money in the summer so you can make it when the bills keep coming in and the visitors have stopped.”
At least 88 people have been rescued by the Montana National Guard in recent days from campgrounds and small towns, and hundreds of homes have been damaged by muddy water. A large house that housed six park workers in the town of Gardiner was ripped from its foundation and floated five miles downstream before sinking. No deaths or serious injuries were reported.
Red Lodge was under a boil water advisory, and trucks were bringing drinking water to half the town that didn’t have it. Portable toilets were strategically placed for those unable to flush the toilet at home.
The Yodeler motel, once home to Finnish coal miners, faced its first closure since it began operating in 1964. Owner Mac Dean said he would have to empty the lower level, where 13 rooms were flooded with water at chest height.
“Rock Creek seemed to run its own course,” he said. “He just broke the bank and he went straight down Main Street and he hit us.”
Yellowstone was the first national park and remains a jewel in the crown of the park system, a popular summer playground that attracts adventurous backpackers camping in grizzly country; casual hikers passing steaming geothermal features; nature lovers watching elk, bison, bears and wolves from the safety of their cars; and amateur photographers and artists trying to capture the pink and golden hues of the cliffs of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and its thundering waterfall.
All 4 million visitors a year must pass through the small towns that line the park’s five entrances.
The flood – triggered by torrential rains and rapid snowmelt – hit just as hotels around Yellowstone filled with summer tourists. June is usually one of Yellowstone’s busiest months. President Biden has declared a disaster in Montana, ordering the availability of federal aid.
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The season had started well for Cara McGary, who guides groups through the Lamar Valley to see wildlife. She’s seen more than 20 grizzly bears on some days this year.
Now, with the road from Gardiner north of Yellowstone washed out, the wildlife is still there, but out of reach for McGary and his guiding service, In Our
Nature, is suddenly in trouble.
“The summer we’ve been preparing for is not at all like the summer we’re going to have,” she said. “It’s an 80% to 100% loss of business during peak season.”
Companies such as Gardiner-based Flying Pig Adventures, which guides rafting trips on the Yellowstone River, were already struggling with COVID-19, which temporarily closed Yellowstone two years ago, reducing tourist visits to the park. in June 2020 by about a third before they rebound. for the rest of this summer.
“We’re definitely a resilient company – we have a very strong team,” said co-owner Patrick Sipp. “But it’s devastating. You hate to see stuff like that in the community. We just hope we can get back there soon enough.
Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, a Republican, was criticized for being out of the country during the disaster.
Spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said in a statement Wednesday that the governor had left the previous week for a long-planned trip with his wife and is “coming back early and as quickly as possible.” The statement did not specify where the governor was.
In his absence, Montana Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras signed a disaster emergency declaration on Tuesday.