Uncertainty follows in wake of Yellowstone’s 500-year flooding


(NewsNation) — June is typically one of the busiest months for businesses near Yellowstone National Park. However, the recent historic flooding, triggered by a combination of torrential rain and rapid snowmelt, hit the beloved national icon just as hotels around Yellowstone were filling up with summer tourists.

It was previously unthinkable: what local leaders are calling a 500-year flood event during peak tourism season.

“This bridge is going to collapse. We are not getting home,” Sarah Ondrus said, remembering the catastrophe on NewsNation’s “Rush Hour” Friday.

Ondrus is the owner of Yellowstone and Paradise Raft Company, which rents out cabins and offers rafting, kayaking and horseback riding trips.

The storm has left residents in Yellowstone tourist towns such as Gardiner, Montana, suddenly wondering if they can still make a living now that the park’s popular north entrance is closed indefinitely.

“It has been heartbreaking and so financially stressful because we’re just a family, you know? We’re business owners, but when it boils down to it, we have staff and our kids to support. And with cancellations coming through, we’re hoping for more rescheduling, which, during COVID, actually happened more than what’s happening now.” Ondrus said.

“Right now, people just cancel. They want their money back. And, yeah, it’s really hard, you know? Where do you go? Is it two weeks? Or is it throughout the summer? Is it throughout the year?” Ondrus asked.

As visitors leave the tourist town to head toward the park’s interior, they drive on a five-mile road that winds along the Gardner River. That road was the city’s economic lifeline. Now there are large sections of it ripped out from when the small river became a torrent.

“We went to the road and it was flooded over to where you couldn’t drive and so we just went back and stayed with these people for a night. The next day, the road was gone,” said Jacob Showers, who was one of the 60 people rescued by helicopter.

Not all parts of Montana are beyond repair. West Yellowstone Mayor Travis Watt said his region is actually ready for tourists.

“Here in West Yellowstone, we don’t have the same impacts that they do on the north side in Gardiner, Cooke City or Red Lodge. So we’re doing OK over here,” Watt said on NewsNation’s “Rush Hour” Friday. “The park is closed, so we’re pretty quiet here in town, but we expect that to change mid-next week.”

Yet, while the park’s southern part, which features Old Faithful, could reopen as soon as next week, business owners still fear the worst.

So this is 110% our livelihood. We’re getting into cancellations from our hospitality side and cancellations from our outfit side. So we really hope that funding from the government, which seems like they are stepping up, will help carry our local families and ourselves through until the road to Mammoth, or at least the park, is accessible,” Ondrus said.

The states of Wyoming and Montana are declaring emergencies in hopes of receiving federal aid, which would help speed up the repair of the roads. But most homeowners have been wrecked by the damages.

Furthermore, only 3% of residents in and around Yellowstone National Park have federal flood insurance. The national average is 12 percent.

Scientist warn that as climate change continues, where there’s rain, it can flood. This means the damage may not be over, as the forecast calls for warmer temperatures and rain this weekend, which could send water gushing through the region again.

Additionally, while a disaster declaration has been called, it has also caused political controversy in Montana.

While the legislation has to be signed by the states, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte was on vacation in Italy. He left Saturday and returned this Friday morning. Nonetheless, the optics of vacationing while his state was ravaged by historic flooding has upset residents.

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