Heavy rains and rapid snowmelt caused rivers to swallow bridges, sweep away entire sections of roadway and forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 visitors. The sudden closure has fueled concerns from business owners and employees in surrounding communities who rely on Yellowstone visitors as a key source of revenue.
The park’s northern region, which bore the brunt of the flood damage, is expected to be closed for a “substantial length of time” which will likely go through the end of the season, the park said in a release Tuesday.
But while the southern loop reopening may provide relief to some tourism industry workers, those bordering the northern entrance are still left to wait.
In the city of Gardiner, which acts as a gateway into Yellowstone’s northern entrance, hotel owners are already feeling the impact.
“There’s nobody here,” Keri Huesing, owner of Yellowstone Gateway Inn, told CNN. “We were booked solid for a year.”
Now, she says, all but one of her visitors were gone following the flooding and one neighboring hotel has shut down completely and sent its employees home.
“It’s a Yellowstone town, and it lives and dies by tourism,” Park County Commissioner Bill Berg said of Gardiner.
In Cody, which lies east of the park, tourism industry workers were eager for answers from Sholly on the southern loop reopening, the Casper Star Tribune reported. Sholly hopes gateway communities and park staff can determine how to sustain local businesses without attracting more visitors than the park can host, the paper reported.
The dangerous flooding fueled by heavy rainfall and snowmelt began to inundate the park and several surrounding communities Monday, overtaking essential roadways and bridges, and making it dangerous or impossible for some people to evacuate.
As some communities became completely surrounded by water, at times without power or drinking water, search and rescue teams worked to evacuate residents. Since Monday, the Montana National Guard has carried out 87 rescues by helicopter, according to a post on its Facebook account.
Park temporarily closed as locals try to recover
The battering floodwaters wiped away entire segments of paved road near the northern entrance, downed trees and triggered multiple mudslides.
Communities surrounding Yellowstone are also reeling from the catastrophic damage. Quickly moving waters compromised several roads and bridges, submerged cars, and even swept away homes as the underlying foundations became completely worn away.
In Montana’s Park County, which includes Gardiner, at least two homes collapsed into the swelling river and multiple homes and businesses were flooded, Greg Coleman, the county’s disaster emergency services manager, told CNN. Gardiner was completely isolated by water Monday and into Tuesday as flooding rendered roads and bridges impassable.
Aerial video of the damage captured by CNN shows one Montana home hanging precariously over the edge of a severely eroded embankment. Photos of the aftermath in the city of Red Lodge, Montana on Tuesday, show several streets piled with rocks and debris as water still runs over the sidewalks.
Region braces for potential of more flooding
The record flooding was caused by a combination of heavy rainfall and snowmelt from high elevations over the weekend in the Beartooth and Absaroka mountain ranges, which stretch across the Montana-Wyoming state line.
The level of runoff is comparable to the region receiving two to three times a normal June’s precipitation in only three days, according to CNN meteorologists.
The flooding continued to move east Wednesday along the Yellowstone River, leading to reports of major flooding in Billings, which is about a 175-mile drive east of Gardiner. By Tuesday afternoon, the river had surged well above its previous record of 15 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
The flooding prompted city officials to shut down the city water plant late Tuesday night, according to a post on the City of Billings Public Works Facebook account.
“These record levels make the event a 500-year flood,” officials said in the post.
But even as water levels began to recede in areas on Tuesday and Wednesday, park officials and local residents are bracing for the possibility of more flooding in the coming days.
“Main forecast concerns are on hot high temperatures Friday and Saturday. Focus then turns to chances for showers and thunderstorms along with some river rises as snowpack in the high elevations melts,” the NWS is forecasting.
Billings will approach record-breaking temperatures in the upper 90s Friday and Saturday, while the higher elevations will be in the 60s and 70s. Temperatures will be warm enough to melt the remaining snowpack and lead to additional river rises over the weekend, according to CNN meteorologist Judson Jones. Then more rain, possibly even severe storms, are forecast for Sunday, he said.
The climate crisis is already driving more annual precipitation and runoff from melting snowpack in the Greater Yellowstone Area, and the trend will continue in the coming years, the report said.
CNN’s Nick Watt, Julia Jones, Sara Smart, Maegan Vazquez, Paradise Afshahar, Claudia Dominguez, Judson Jones and Rachel Ramirez contributed to this report.