FLOODING UPDATE: Yellowstone, area towns assess damages as waters move downstream

One day after milk-chocolate flood waters surged through Yellowstone National Park and nearby communities, residents downstream braced for historically high rivers Tuesday.

Just after 10 p.m. Monday, people living in a sizable portion of southeast Livingston were required to evacuate due to the rising Yellowstone River, though the order was lifted just before 9 a.m. Tuesday. About a half-hour after the evacuation notice Monday night, the city’s hospital, Livingston HealthCare, closed as the river’s record-high waters crept into its parking lot.

By 1 a.m. Tuesday, the Yellowstone had reached flood stage at Billings, according to the National Weather Service. The NWS forecast the river to crest at 14.7 feet, just three-tenths of a foot shy of the record established in 1997.

Meanwhile, the world’s first national park and the south-central Montana communities of Red Lodge, Gardiner and Fishtail began to further assess damage from unprecedented flooding on the Yellowstone and Stillwater rivers as well as Rock Creek.

<p>Water fills the streets of Broadway Avenue and floods homes in Red Lodge on Monday morning as flooding devastates the town and surrounding regions.</p>

AMY LYNN NELSON BILLINGS GAZETTE

Water fills the streets of Broadway Avenue and floods homes in Red Lodge on Monday morning as flooding devastates the town and surrounding regions.

Images of damage from the frothing streams continued to emerge Tuesday morning. Celebrating its 150th anniversary during prime tourist season, Yellowstone remained indefinitely closed at all five entrances Tuesday for only the third time in 34 years — most recently in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and also for the infamous 1988 fires.

Residents and tourists in Gardiner at Yellowstone’s North Entrance and Silver Gate and Cooke City just outside the Northeast Entrance were stranded due to roads made impassable by high water and damage that could take weeks or even months to repair, park officials said.

Officials on Monday were evacuating those still inside the park, beginning in its northernmost reaches, where the impacts — including road washouts, bridge failures, rockslides and mudslides — were most severe.

YNP employees at park headquarters in Mammoth, who remained without power Tuesday morning, planned to buy groceries and other essentials in West Yellowstone, which announced late Monday that it would permit temporary camping in town for people impacted by the closure. A generator was providing power to Mammoth’s cell tower, enabling communication to the outside world.

Park employees were to convene at 11 a.m. to assess next steps.

The serpentine road from Mammoth to Gardiner in the Gardner River Canyon was badly damaged, as was the road between Tower Junction and the Northeast Entrance where the Lamar River surged well beyond its record flood level.

As of approximately 9 a.m. Tuesday, the park had not provided an update of the situation on its website or social media pages. At this time, the extent of the damage, as well as how many people may be stranded inside the park, is unclear.

The Yellowstone River crested at just over 49,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Corwin Springs in the upper Paradise Valley on Monday, shattering its previous records of 32,200 set in June 1996 and  matched a year later. The Lamar peaked at 16.7 feet Monday, breaking its 1996 record by more than four feet and rising two feet above the gauge’s upper reach.

Near Corwin Springs, a house for Park Service employees was pried loose from its foundation by the raging waters and spun downstream. U.S. Highway 89 was closed just south of Emigrant, not far from where the iconic Carbella bridge leading to Tom Miner Basin was swept away early Monday in the first sign the Yellowstone meant business.

On the flanks of the Beartooth Mountains to the east, residents of Red Lodge, Fishtail and Nye waited for floodwaters to abate. 

Meteorologists said the unprecedented flooding was caused by a convergence of an unseasonably cool spring that retained snowpack, late-spring snowstorms and multiple days of considerable rainfall at high elevations. Parts of the park received more than an inch of rain over 24 hours Monday, more than tripling the previous single-day mark.

<p>Historic flooding damages roads and bridges and floods homes along the Yellowstone River south of Livingston on Monday.</p>

LARRY MAYER, Billings Gazette

Historic flooding damages roads and bridges and floods homes along the Yellowstone River south of Livingston on Monday.

Most of the flood damage was centered on YNP and the streams flowing north from the Yellowstone Plateau, including the Gallatin River, which was expected to reach flood stage at Logan about 25 miles of Bozeman in the wee hours Tuesday. On Monday, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s office cautioned residents along low-lying stretches of the West Gallatin to be prepared to evacuate.

Also Monday, the Flathead River at Columbia Falls in northwest Montana surpassed flood stage by a half-foot and was expected to rise another two feet Tuesday. 

Yellowstone’s peak flooding was to push downstream to Big Timber, Columbus, Laurel, Billings and eastern Montana by Tuesday afternoon.

A flood warning for the Boulder River south of Big Timber was lifted Tuesday morning.