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Published May 23, 2011, 10:02 AM

Officials contend with rising rivers in Montana

BILLINGS, Mont. — Flood waters swallowed swaths of Montana farmland and other low lying areas on Sunday as authorities contended for a second day with rising creeks and rivers in the eastern region of the state.

BILLINGS, Mont. — Flood waters swallowed swaths of Montana farmland and other low lying areas on Sunday as authorities contended for a second day with rising creeks and rivers in the eastern region of the state.

The deluge prompted officials to close a roughly 70-mile stretch of Interstate 90 between Hardin, an agricultural town, and the community of Ranchester, Wyo. Portions of I-90, the main east-west route through the state, were submerged. Many other roads in other rural areas also were closed, and bridges and roadways had been damaged.

The storm that dumped nearly 6 inches of rain on parts of eastern Montana since Thursday had begun to move out of the area, but snowmelt runoff was working its way through streams and into larger rivers that flow through more populated areas, continuing to put residents on edge.

“That's where our attention has turned now and probably for the next couple of days,” said Keith Meier, a meteorologist in Billings. “Some of those larger rivers have reached flood stage.”

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service blanketed much of eastern Montana with flood warnings, and warn motorists to be alert for flash floods Sunday. Officials said there have been no reports of injuries.

He said the Yellowstone River at Miles City is expected to crest about 3 feet above flood stage on Monday, the same time frame predicted for many other streams and rivers in the region. The Bighorn River, Little Bighorn River and Tongue River were all approaching or above flood stage, he said.

Streets in the community of Lodge Grass, near the Wyoming state line, were covered by 4 feet of water that also flooded the town's only grocery store and post office, as well as eight homes, the Billings Gazette reported.

At least one cattle rescue operation was under way Sunday along the Yellowstone River, though officials said potential ranch and farm losses won't be known for some time. Some ranches have flood waters up to the ranch buildings.

“The events are still ongoing right now,” said Victor Proton, a Glasgow-based meteorologist. “The ranchers will be cut off from their cattle and equipment.”

Meanwhile, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission on Sunday closed boating on popular sections of Belt Creek and the Smith River in central Montana due to logs and other debris being swept downstream by high flows.

Meier said most of the larger cities along larger rivers have built flood protection measures over the years. However, a neighborhood in Billings had a voluntary evacuation Saturday due to flooding.

State officials have been predicting flooding for more than a week, but that's based on mountain snowpack in the western part of the state that's nearly double average levels.

Meier said the current flooding in the eastern part of the state is due to rain, and that the snowpack for western Montana remains largely intact. It has even deepened another 2 to 4 inches with the latest weather.

“It should have been melting at this point but we've been adding to it,” he said. “So we're going in the wrong direction.”

The slow-moving storm that lingered and caused the current flooding, Meier said, isn't unusual during the spring.

“This time of year we're real susceptible to these weather patterns with these slow-moving systems that produce a lot of rainfall,” he said. “It's typical of these late spring storms. They have a mind of their own, like an uninvited guest that sticks around longer than you'd like them to.”

He said a similar pattern could take shape during the Memorial Day weekend.

Proton said the last major flooding in the region was in 1997, but was limited to larger rivers, while this year's flooding is more wide spread.

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