Emergency crews on Tuesday rallied to reopen roads and restore utilities in rural communities in Montana and Wyoming that have been cut off by historic floods in the first natural disaster forcing Yellowstone National Park to close in the summer for 30 years.
Major sections of the park’s north side are expected to close for the rest of the season, with financial damage to neighboring gateway communities counting on the park’s revival of Yellowstone tourism after two years of COVID-19 sanctions.
Montana Governor Greg Zionforte has announced a statewide disaster, focusing on rescue and relief efforts in three counties after record rainfall triggered by legendary floods, mudslides and rockfalls in the Greater Yellowstone area.
The uprising followed one of the region’s wettest springs for many years and coincided with a sudden rise in summer temperatures, accelerating the melting of snow in the park’s highlands from winter storms.
Yellowstone parts may be closed for ‘considerable length’ after flooding
Record levels of flooding and rock slides prompted park officials to close five entrances to Yellowstone inbound traffic on Tuesday, the park’s first disaster-related closure in the summer since a wildfire broke out in the area in 1988.
As of Wednesday, all Yellowstone visitors, at least 10,000 people had been safely evacuated, and dozens of back-country campers were still leaving on their own, Superintendent Cam Sholay told an online news conference.
Sholey said the park’s hardest northern range will be closed to visitors during the season. But at the southern end of the Yellowstone, the Old Faithful Geyser and many other well-known geothermal features of the park, where the damage can be reopened on a limited basis in a week or less, depending on how widespread it is, he said.
Sholey said the park could explore a time-out-entry or reservation system to avoid congestion in the park’s Southern Loop when it reopens.
No deaths or injuries were reported due to the flooding, but shocking video footage showed the entire riverside house washed away from its base and into the raging flow of the Yellowstone River north of the park. Sholey said the house, which was vacated hours earlier by six park-employee residents, was floating in the river for up to 5 miles.
At the request of local law enforcement agencies, the Montana National Guard sent helicopters to assist in search and rescue efforts in the small towns of Roscoe and Cook City.
Extreme levels of flood danger were announced in at least three places.
The only road leading out of Gardiner, where nearly 900 people live, most of them Yellowstone staff, was partially cleared Tuesday after several rocks broke and washouts separated the community, where thousands of park visitors were stranded, Sholey said. Residents and visitors are allowed outside, only delivery and emergency traffic are allowed.
According to the National Weather Service, floodwaters along the Yellowstone River were almost a meter higher than their previous records a century ago.
Authorities are still trying to assess the condition of the roads and bridges that run through Yellowstone Park and around Yellowstone Lake, the largest alpine lake in North America.
Mammoth Hot Springs, Winding North Entrance Road between Gardiner and Park Headquarters in Wyoming was carved in several places by floodwaters – the washouts are likely to take months to fully repair.
The closure of Yellowstone halfway through the season will be an earthquake shock wave for its dedicated visitors and the gateway communities it serves.
The Washington house collapsed as the landslides broke, and the family sued the city
“It’s going to be a big hit,” said Bill Berg, Park County Commissioner in Montana.
Yellowstone is the world’s first national park and one of the most famous public spaces in the US, hosting over 4 million visitors each year. Its $ 159 million annual budget helps maintain more than 1,500 buildings and 450 miles of road.
During high summers, up to 750 Park Service employees work at Yellowstone, along with 3,500 subsidized workers staffed at the park’s nine hotels and other guest facilities such as restaurants and gift shops.
Mike Dorby, owner of the historic Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming, at Yellowstone’s East Gate, said two years of pandemic barriers following record high gasoline prices and spiraling inflation were “just the right hurricane – and now we have this devastation. Park.”
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Darby said he hopes local residents will help each other and help visitors navigate through the uncertain season, as they did during the 1988 fire.
“People love Yellowstone and no matter what happens it will go nowhere,” he said. “It’s always going to be a special place for a lot of people.”