While all entrances of Yellowstone National Park are temporarily closed because flooding has damaged roads and bridges, the park’s northern portion in particular may remain closed for “a substantial length of time,” park officials said Tuesday.
“Many sections of road in (the northern section) are completely gone and will require substantial time and effort to reconstruct,” a park news release reads. “… It is probable that road sections in northern Yellowstone will not reopen this season due to the time required for repairs.”
Dangerous flooding caused by abundant rain and rapid snowmelt began to hit the park and several counties in southern Montana on Monday, washing out or eroding roads and bridges and inflicting widespread damage on homes and businesses.
The park on Monday closed all five of Yellowstone’s entrances in Montana and Wyoming to inbound traffic – in part to prevent people from being stranded as conditions deteriorated – with no firm date for their reopening.
And park officials told visitors already there to leave – more than 10,000 have left the park since Monday, park Superintendent Cam Sholly said Tuesday.
Though cooler temperatures and drier weather have allowed some parts of swollen rivers to start receding, higher temperatures are expected later this week and into the weekend, which could cause more snow-melt runoff and therefore more flooding, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.
“There will be no inbound visitor traffic at any of the five entrances into the park, including visitors with lodging and camping reservations, until conditions improve and park infrastructure is evaluated,” the park’s release reads.
Quickly deteriorating road conditions in Yellowstone created harrowing evacuation conditions for some visitors, including the parents of CNN supervising producer Tim Carter, who had to exit over a bridge that had been compromised.
“When we were going over it, it was really scary because the water was already violently swirling around the bridge,” Martha Carter said. “We did find out later that it had washed out.”
Meanwhile, some surrounding communities were left without power or safe drinking water as flood conditions made it impossible or unsafe to travel and compromised water supplies.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte declared a statewide disaster Tuesday and announced he would seek an expedited presidential disaster declaration to help cover the cost of recovery.
Since rescue efforts began Monday, the Montana National Guard has evacuated at least a dozen people who were stranded in Roscoe, Fromberg and Cook City, the force said in a news release Tuesday.
The dangerous flooding is just one of several extreme weather events bearing down on communities across the US, including a blistering heat wave affecting more than 100 million people, and severe storms that have knocked out power for hundreds of thousands in the Midwest and Ohio River Valley.
Rapidly rising water levels inundated south Montana homes, businesses and infrastructure Monday, forcing many families to evacuate. But for some, roads and bridges were rendered impassable by the flood, leaving them trapped, at times without clean drinking water or power.
The Montana National Guard deployed four helicopters to assist with evacuations in affected areas on Monday and Tuesday and also sent soldiers to the city of Red Lodge to establish a command center and aid in search and rescue efforts, the force said Tuesday.
A Montana helicopter company flew about 40 people out of Gardiner, the city that acts as a gateway to a northern park entrance and was isolated by flooding, Laura Jones with Rocky Mountain Rotors told CNN.
The road from Livingston into Gardiner was reopened Tuesday to local traffic, goods and services, but “significant damage” remains, Park County Sheriff Brad Bichler said in a news conference.
Substantial rainfall and snow runoff over the weekend in the Beartooth and Absaroka mountain ranges, which span across the Montana-Wyoming border, created a “total water event of at least 4 to 9 inches,” the National Weather Service in Billings said Tuesday.
That amount of runoff is similar to the region receiving 2 to 3 months of June precipitation in only three days, according to CNN Weather calculations. The conditions caused the Yellowstone River, which runs through the park and several of the communities to overrun.
The Yellowstone River gauge at Corwin Springs reached a historic 13.88 feet Monday afternoon, NOAA data shows, but had receded to 9.34 feet by Tuesday night.
Absarokee resident Tracy Planichek and her husband had just reached their long-awaited goal of having a brand new home when the flood threat forced them to evacuate. Now, she told CNN, she is desperately hoping it has avoided the destruction seen in other homes, some of which were swept away.
“(We’ve) never been able to afford a new house,” she said. “It’s sitting at the top of the lane and we’re hoping that by some God miracle that our house will be there.”
In the park, officials had all visitors move out of lodging and campgrounds and leave the park to prevent anyone from being stranded, the National Park Service said in a news release. The park averages between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors in June, Sholly said.
The park has also closed the Yellowstone back country and has been in contact with groups in the area.
“We have contacted or know the whereabouts of every back country user currently in Yellowstone,” Sholly said, noting that one group remained in the northern range. No helicopter evacuations have been necessary, he said.
No known injuries or deaths occurred in the park because of the flooding, Sholly said, and officials do not believe the animals in the park have been significantly affected.
The park’s southern loop “appears to be less impacted than the northern roads” and teams will try to determine when that loop can be reopened. But officials expect even that loop to stay closed at least through Sunday, the park’s release states.