From Billings Gazette, Caster Star-Tribune
It will take months, if not years, for Yellowstone National Park to recover from the cataclysmic flooding that’s ravaged the region this week, according to the park’s top official .
The damage will keep the northern half of Yellowstone National Park closed to tourists for the rest of the summer, Superintendent Cam Sholly told reporters Tuesday. The area includes the iconic Lamar Valley, Tower Falls and Mammoth Hot Springs.
The southern loop of Yellowstone National Park may reopen to visitors in a week or less, he added, using some type of reservation system or timed entry to control entry. Travel from Jackson, Wyoming, was already going to be hampered by road construction. Entrances that would be reopened for the southern loop include the East, South and West gates near Cody, Jackson and West Yellowstone, respectively.
“Trying to put normal visitation into one loop in Yellowstone is a disaster waiting to happen,” Sholly said.
Yellowstone County flooding
The southern loop includes Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Mammoth Hot Springs, the park’s headquarters and location of a historic hotel, cannot be reopened until the water and sewer systems have been assessed.
“We will not know exactly what the timelines are, what the costs are or any of that information until we get teams on the ground that can actually assess what happened and what it’s going to take to repair it,” Sholly said.
All visitors have been removed from Yellowstone except for a dozen backcountry campers who have been in contact with the Park Service and are making their way out. He estimated park staff urged about 15,000 people to leave Yellowstone on Monday.
Before anything else happens, park crews have to wait for flood waters to recede enough to assess the damage and develop a plan for repairs. Assessment of the damage could be complicated because a foot of snow still remains in the Beartooth and Absaroka mountains that may send more snowmelt downstream this weekend.
“We’ve kept our teams out of harm’s way,” Sholly said, although six park workers did lose their housing when a building outside the park was washed away by the Yellowstone River.
No deaths or injuries have been reported as a result of the record-setting flooding, although one park visitor did die from a cardiac arrest in an incident unrelated to the high water, Sholly said. The historic flooding is unfolding amidst the 150th anniversary of the park’s founding.
Meanwhile, park, state and county officials are scrambling to figure out what bridges and highways near the park may need repairs.
The park’s Montana border towns of Gardiner, Silver Gate and Cooke City were temporary islands, along with nearby residential areas in Cinnabar and Tom Miner basins due to roadway damage and lost bridges.
“It’s kind of hurry up and wait to see what the national park does and what kind of federal assistance comes in,” said Patrick Sipp, manager of Flying Pig Adventures and Whitewater in Gardiner, a rafting business. “Hopefully, the Highway 89 repairs come in quickly.”
The Park Service closed all five entrances as a precautionary measure on Monday to assess the damage to its network of roads and bridges. Six washouts of the road between the community of Gardiner, at the park’s North Entrance, and park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming – only 5 miles south – could be counted in a helicopter video the Park Service posted online. Whether that road will even be rebuilt is doubtful, Sholly said. Also badly damaged is the highway connecting Mammoth to Cooke City, cutting off the only route in the park that is open year-round.
Highway 89 is the main route to Gardiner from the north and the community of Livingston. The North Entrance is the second-most popular in the park.
“Many bridges and roads are no longer operational,” the Park County Office of Emergency Management reported on its website. On Monday, the Yellowstone River was flowing atop the highway in a narrow stretch known as Yankee Jim Canyon.
The river posted a record-high flow of 50,000 cubic feet per second on Monday at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Corwin Springs gauge downstream from Gardiner before dropping to 27,800 cfs by Tuesday.
Two years ago, Sipp said his company was running rafting trips down the Yellowstone River at that water level.
“I’m an optimist,” he added. “If 89 opens up, we’ll have some semblance of a season.”
With little notice or fanfare, the Montana Department of Transportation and the Park County Sheriff’s Office opened Highway 89 at Yankee Jim Canyon late Tuesday morning. The route was open only to delivery and service vehicles, residents and outbound visitors. Whether it will remain open to residents is uncertain, Park County Commissioner Bill Berg said.
The communities next to the park are heavily dependent on Yellowstone to drive the summer tourism season, which for two years was hampered by the pandemic and COVID-19 precautions.
On Sunday, Kara Schlabach had the busiest day of the year so far at the Cooke City coffee shop she co-owns, near the park’s Northeast Entrance. Then flooding hit on Monday and the streets are bare of tourists needed to keep her small business alive.
“It brought tears to my eyes because it’s a ghost town,” Schlabach said. “It’s really devastating.”
On Monday, Schlabach witnessed a Florida family of eight being plucked by a helicopter using a short haul line to lift them from a flooded rental after high waters stranded them. A different helicopter landed on the town’s main street, since the landing pad was underwater, to evacuate a man suffering from hypothermia after he waded floodwaters to self-rescue.
Meanwhile, Pahaska Tepee Resort – located outside Cody, just 2 miles from Yellowstone’s East Entrance – is shuttered through at least Thursday.
The resort boasts cabins, a restaurant, gift shop and outdoor activities. Pahaska was booked at about 90% capacity at the beginning of the week, said Angela Coe, who runs the resort.
But rainfall over the weekend caused the North Fork Shoshone River to swell so much, it got into the lodge’s water system, Coe said. Staff shut off the system Monday to prevent it from getting into the resort’s tap, and sent all guests home.
The river has since receded. Coe said Pahaska Tepee is sending water samples to the Wyoming Department of Health in Cheyenne. The water needs to test safe two days in a row before the lodge can open up again, she said.
If all goes well, the resort will reopen Friday.
Coe said she doesn’t expect Cody’s tourism business to recover until the park’s southern region reopens, too.
“It’s gonna be a ripple effect,” Coe said.
For now, the park’s future remains a big question mark. Prospective vacationers aren’t waiting for answers, Coe said.
The phones at Pahaska Tepee have been ringing nonstop with cancellations.
“People are wanting to cancel in July and August,” she said.
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