GARDINER, Mont. (AP) – Most of Yellowstone National Park is expected to reopen within the next two weeks — much sooner than originally expected after record flooding ravaged the Yellowstone region last week, shutting down major roads, federal officials said Sunday.
Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said the world-famous park will be able to receive fewer visitors for the time being, and it will take more time to restore road links to some communities in southern Montana.
Park officials said Sunday they will use $50 million in state highway money to accelerate repairs to roads and bridges. There is still no timetable for repairs to routes between the park and areas in Montana, where repairs are expected to take months.
Yellowstone will partially reopen at 8 a.m. Wednesday, more than a week after more than 10,000 visitors were forced to leave the park when the Yellowstone and other rivers overflowed their banks after being swollen by melting snow and several inches of rain.
Only areas of the park accessible via the “south loop” of roads will open initially, and access to the park’s scenic hinterland is for day hikers only.
Within two weeks, officials plan to open the northern loop as well, having previously stated it would likely remain closed throughout the summer season. The north loop is said to give visitors access to popular attractions, including Tower Fall and Mammoth Hot Springs. They would still be excluded from the Lamar Valley, which is famous for its prolific wildlife including bears, wolves and bison which can often be seen from the roadside.
“That would get 75 to 80% of the park back to work,” National Park Service Director Charles “Chuck” Sams said Sunday during a visit to Yellowstone to gauge the effects of the flooding.
It will take much longer – possibly years – to fully restore two heavily damaged stretches of road connecting the park to Gardiner to the north and Cooke City to the northeast.
While touring damaged areas on Sunday, park officials showed reporters one of six stretches of road near Gardiner where the raging floods wiped out most of the roadway.
Muddy water is now flowing through where the road surface had been just a week ago. Trunks of huge trees litter the surrounding canyon.
Park inspector Cam Sholly said there was no chance of an immediate solution and that 20,000 tons of material were being brought in to build a temporary, alternate route along an old road that runs above the canyon. That would allow workers who work at the park’s headquarters in Mammoth to go to their homes in Gardiner, Sholly said. The temporary route can also be used by commercial tour companies licensed to conduct tours.
“We’ve done a lot more than we thought a week ago,” said Sholly. “It will be a summer of adjustments.”
Meanwhile, some of the disaster’s hardest hit — far from the spotlight of the famed park — lean heavily on each other to pull their lives out of the mud.
In and around Fromberg’s farming community, the Clarks Fork River has flooded nearly 100 homes and severely damaged a large irrigation ditch that serves many farms. The city’s mayor says about a third of flooded homes are too far away to be repaired.
Not far from the riverbank, Lindi O’Brien’s trailer had been lifted high enough to avoid major damage. But she got water in her barns and barns, lost some of her poultry and saw her recently deceased parents’ house flooded with several feet of water.
Elected officials who showed up to inspect the damage in Red Lodge and Gardiner — Montana’s tourist towns that serve as gateways to Yellowstone — haven’t reached Fromberg to see the devastation. O’Brien said the lack of attention is not a surprise given the city’s location away from major tourist routes.
She is not resentful, but has resigned herself to the idea that if Fromberg is to recover, the 400 or so residents will have to do much of the work themselves.
“We take care of each other,” O’Brien said as she and two old friends, Melody Murter and Aileen Rogers, searched the muddy artifacts scattered around her property. O’Brien, an art teacher for the local school, had refurbished her parents’ house in hopes of turning it into a vacation home. Now she’s not sure if it can be saved.
“If you get tired and get pooped, it’s okay to stop,” O’Brien told Murter and Rogers, whose clothes, hands, and faces were smeared with mud.
A few blocks away, Matt Holmes combed through piles of mud and rubble, but could find little to salvage from the trailer he shared with his wife and four children.
Holmes had taken the day off, but said he needed to get back to work in construction soon so he could start earning money again. Whether he can bring in enough to rebuild is unclear. If not, Holmes said he might move the family to Louisiana, where they have relatives.
“I want to stay in Montana. I don’t know if we can,” he said.