RAGING RIVERS

Homes, roads, bridges swept away, rescue missions launched, millions in damages
Thursday, June 16, 2022
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The Yellowstone River pours beneath the Yellowstone bridge in Columbus Tuesday. Photo by Jordan Hall.

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68 people and at least 14 dogs were rescued by raft from the Woodbine Campground area Monday. Photo by Justin Sheely

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The Yellowstone River flooded Reed Point Tuesday, prompting evacuations. Photo by David Stamey.

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A cabin in the Beehive area. Photo by Tim Hedin.

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Flooding east of Columbus. Photo by Jordan Hall.

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The Nye Road is gone for a large section leading directly to the Sibanye-Stillwater mine. Photo by Randy and Ramona Welchel.

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The Stillwater River rose to above 20,000 cubic feet per second. That is more than twice the previous record. Photo by Tim Hedin.

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Washed out road and bridge near the Rocking J in the Absarokee area. Photo by Cole Waltner.

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Shipp’s Assisted Living in Absarokee was evacuated Monday. Photo by Tess Shipp.

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A view of valley flooding showing Countryman Creek Road with Columbus in the background. Photo by Orty Bourquin.

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Deborah Drain’s house between Nitche Road and Lover’s Lane in the Absarokee area was one of the homes claimed by the Stillwater River on Monday. Photo by Andy Simpson.

The Stillwater River didn’t merely flood earlier this week.

It raged. And it raged hard – at a rate of 23,900 cubic feet per second (CFS) on Monday, June, 13. That is more than double the previous record and 6.5 times higher than the normal flow for this time of year, which is approximately 3,500 cfs.

Already being referred to as a 100-year flood, the Stillwater pounded through the upper Nye valley early Monday, wiping out bridges, taking out entire sections of roads and claiming entire houses in its path. It also left at least 68 people stranded at a campground and put the Sibanye-Stillwater mine site out of operation until this Friday.

Then the Yellowstone River began to rise, prompting evacuations in Reed Point and at least one power outage.

By Wednesday morning, multiple bridges and roads — mainly in the southern part of the county — were missing or damaged. Officials were waiting for floodwaters to recede before infrastructure damage could be assessed, but it will be several millions of dollars.

An incident management team from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) had arrived Wednesday to help assess damages, figure out what is needed and how to proceed, Stillwater Commission Chairman Tyrel Hamilton and Commissioner Steve Riveland each told the News.

Hamilton also wanted the public to know officials were working as fast as possible and would soon have a digital map available online for road information.

A RESCUE MISSION OF 68 PEOPLE

A section of Nye Road is completely gone, cutting off access to the mine, the Woodbine Campground and the Sioux Charley Trailhead.

An emergency rescue mission was launched early Monday when 68 people and at least 14 dogs at the campground area became stranded when floodwaters destroyed the road. The mine had gotten nearly all of its workers out before the road gave way, with some using private property (with permission) to skirt the widening hole.

The rescue mission of the campers involved people being put in rafts and pulled a quarter mile down what used to be the road up to the campground. SAR crews led the rafts by walking through the waist-deep water. It took approximately 10 trips to get everyone to safety at the hands of the Stillwater County Search and Rescue (SAR), Absarokee fire and the mine’s SAR team, according to Stillwater County SAR.

Air rescues were conducted at West Rosebud and Emerald Lake, but further information on those was not available at press time.

EVACUATIONS AND A CLOSE CALL IN COLUMBUS

On Monday, residents of Shipp’s Assisted Living in Absarokee were evacuated. Also on Monday, approximately 250 evacuation notices were sent to the Stillwater River Valley at around 11:15 a.m.

Reed Point was evacuated Tuesday afternoon when floodwaters from the Yellowstone River found their way into town. The county Road and Bridge Department was able to mitigate that some by using heavy equipment and sand to divert the water away from the town.

In Columbus, the Yellowstone River rose rapidly and shortly before 1 p.m., it was believed that the bridge was going to flood. Floodwaters made it as far as the fenceline between the river and Pratten Street on the west, but thankfully did not run over the bridge itself. At no time did the bridge close.

HOPING A BRIDGE HOLDS

Tim Hedin is the lead guide at Absaroka River Adventures who lives in a cabin in the Beehive area. Hedin watched — and heard — the flood for two days from the cabin.

“Sunday evening when I went to bed everything exploded. By far the worst anyone has ever seen. The Stillwater record high ever was 12,000 cfs. This was almost double that,” Hedin told the News. “The rocks moving and crashing was scary. Wading across the channel that surrounded the cabin in the dark and rain was scary. But watching the debris smash the bridge and hoping the bridge would survive was the craziest part. Hours of hearing the bridge getting smashed and knowing if it collapsed we would really be trapped was unnerving.”

“WE KNEW WE WERE GOING TO LOSE THE HOUSE”

Deborah Drain and her husband watched their house in the Absarokee area be taken by the Stillwater River.

They knew there could be trouble because the river was running very high.

“We had read the river was expected to crest between 3 and 4 a.m. By 3:30 a.m., the river was roaring and cutting into our yard. It had over topped the riprap and taken out the large cottonwood trees along our bank.

We thought it might still be ok as it was about the time the river was predicted to crest, and if that were true and elevation dropped we would be ok. We were anxiously waiting for daylight so that we could see just how bad the situation was. By 5 a.m. we knew that there was going to be major trouble if the flow continued and took out upstream riprap. We did not know at the time that the east channel of the Rosebud was plugged with debris and the entire river was flowing in front of our house. We packed some essentials, computers, and our pets into the car and left for a bit. We got back at approximately 6 a.m. and knew we were going to lose the house as upstream riprap was gone and the river was flowing straight toward the house.

Paul Vorhees was at our neighbors and he and his wife came down to see what was what. They helped us grab a few more things and we left the house. It was too dangerous to remain. The river was up against the foundation and the house was starting to creek and crack. We continued watching the house from a safe location and watched as the river continued to get higher and higher. Just about the same time peak runoff occurred, we watched the back part of the house go into the river.

A bit later a large tree came downstream blocking river flow and diverting it from the south side of the house, which was a good thing. Then the tree moved and was wedged against the house diverting flow directly against the south side of the house. It did not take much longer and the south side of the house buckled.

The house is a total loss, part of the north side is still intact, mainly the garage. Most of a 40-acre area is flooded (includes neighbors property). When it’s safe enough, we will boat over to the house to assess if anything is salvageable. Watching the house break apart and enter the river was surreal. There was absolutely nothing we could do, except watch, accept what happened, and do our best to deal with it. It’s too early in the process to determine what comes next. We have to wait for the flooding to subside to assess true damage to the property. We have lost most of our processions and associated memories. We are grieving for what we lost. We loved the house and location. But our pets and we evacuated safely. We have wonderful family, friends, and neighbors who have opened their homes and are providing amazing support to us. It was a day we will never forget.” ADVISORIES, DECLARATIONS

A Notice of Boil Advisory has also been issued for all those who use wells and are in flood areas due to possible floodwater contamination. All residents and businesses affected in the flood areas should boil well water before using due to possible floodwater contamination, or use bottled drinking water. Drinking water is being supplied in the affected areas by county Disaster and Emergency Services (DES).

Gov. Gianforte has also declared a statewide disaster due to severe flooding in Stillwater, Carbon and Park counties, directing state and federal sources to assist. Gianforte is pursuing an expedited presidential disaster declaration. Stillwater County commissioners have also passed a Disaster Declaration. These allow state and federal agencies and funding.

A Stillwater County Emergency Services team has been managing the disaster since Monday.

The pavilion at the fairgrounds in Columbus is open to anyone who is displaced. For those wishing to make donations, please call DES at (406)322-8015.

AS OF WEDNESDAY

The Pine Crest/ Yellowstone Subdivision were without power when a tree fell in the Yellowstone River Tuesday night and took out a power line, according to Stillwater County Public Information Officer Tammie Mullikin. Falling trees are of concern as the ground is so saturated that even large trees can easily come down. As of 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night, Beartooth Electric was on scene and working to restore power. Power was still out on Wednesday morning.

Temperatures in the 80s and 90s in the next few days are expected to push both rivers up again, but the National Weather Service is hopeful that for the Stillwater at least, it will not rise about 6 feet.

However, water is being released from Mystic Lake Dam in a “controlled manner” to reduce any possible adverse affects of a full dam. Because the water levels in the Stillwater and Rosebud rivers have dropped, local authorities are not anticipating any local impact on the current flooding situation.

All campgrounds and fishing accesses in the county remained closed at this time.