Published May 24, 2011
BILLINGS, Mont. – Flooding that besieged rural Montana communities claimed at least one life and left another person missing as authorities in at least two more Western states braced for high water and heavy rain in the coming days.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer declared a statewide emergency Monday as broad areas of the state's southeastern counties remained underwater. A number of rural communities in eastern Montana, including those on the Crow Reservation, were hardest hit, authorities said.
A flood warning was in effect for parts of the state's Yellowstone County through Tuesday night, and flood watches were issued for 13 Montana and Wyoming counties.
In Utah, already melting snow combined with thunderstorms could lead to flooding across the northern part of the state following a weekend of mudslides triggered by heavy rains. At least four mudslides shut down roads over the weekend as high temperatures and thunderstorms pounded the Wasatch Front around Salt Lake City.
A flood warning has been issued for portions of the Ogden River until mid-week and a flood watch is in effect for areas around the Wasatch Front until Tuesday as more rains are expected over the next two days, the National Weather Service said.
In Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead on Monday urged residents to prepare for possible high water and said the state had issued about 1 million sandbags. Federal officials said recent storms drove the state's snowpack up to 227 percent of average statewide — almost guaranteeing heavy runoff.
Montana authorities on Monday searched for a man reported missing after a roadway apparently washed out from underneath a backhoe he was operating near a creek. Rescue crews in Yellowstone County went into the water to search the cab of the backhoe thinking that the man — 47-year-old Clint Stovall — may have been trapped. Crews also looked downstream of the site, Sheriff Mike Linder said.
Authorities planned to resume searching Tuesday morning.
An 84-year-old woman was killed Saturday after she fell into a flooding ditch and was swept a short distance downstream from her house near Boyd, southwest of Billings, authorities said. A Monday autopsy confirmed that Betty Kebschull drowned, Deputy Coroner Ben Mahoney said.
Montana Disaster and Emergency Services Division chief Ed Tinsley said Schweitzer's emergency declaration would free up state agencies to devote resources to the flood response.
"We've got 21 jurisdictions — county, tribal and city — experiencing some type of flooding across the state," Tinsley said.
A 50-mile stretch of Interstate 90 in Montana remained closed Monday, leaving about 2,000 residents of Lodge Grass — part of the Crow Reservation — and surrounding areas largely cut off from the outside. The mountains outside Lodge Grass received 8.4 inches of rain over a four-day period ending Sunday. Other parts of the state received from almost 2 inches to more than 6 inches of rain.
Some residents risked driving through the high water on Monday to travel south to Sheridan, Wyo., to stock up on supplies. Among them was Big Horn County Commissioner John Pretty On Top.
"The street that gets us out on the interstate was just a big river. We were able to get across it with pickups," Pretty On Top said. "I was just at Walmart (in Sheridan) and a lot of our people were there grocery-ing up. And some people from higher ground are getting groceries for the relatives down below."
Big Horn County Emergency Services Coordinator Ed Auker said the flooding was concentrated in the town's business district and extended for several blocks.
"We've got water everywhere," Auker said. "It took out the major infrastructure, which in Lodge Grass consists of the grocery store. They are pretty isolated until the water goes down."
Auker said authorities were using boats to reach rural areas and had evacuated an unspecified number of residents.
Tribal leaders declared the Crow Reservation a disaster area, with the towns of Wyola, Crow Agency, St. Xavier and Pryor beset by flooding. Residents of the reservation were warned not to travel except for emergencies. Shelters were set up in Billings, about 40 miles away.
Several weather systems that could bring more rain were expected to pass through Montana over the next week, said National Weather Service meteorologist Keith Meier in Billings.
With the ground already saturated, any significant rainfall was likely to produce more flooding.
Associated Press writers Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Chi Chi Zhang in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.