Published May 24, 2011
BILLINGS, Mont. – Relief teams reached an isolated town on Montana's flooded Crow Indian reservation on Tuesday, as authorities elsewhere in the state recovered the body of a second victim of floodwaters expected to surge even higher in coming days.
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said a man's body was found downstream of where 47-year-old Clint Stovall disappeared Sunday while moving equipment near Pryor Creek. The sheriff said a positive identification was expected Wednesday, but authorities are presuming it is Stovall's body because he is the only one missing in the area.
The recovery came as heavy rain falling on saturated ground swelled rivers and streams over their banks across large swaths of the Northern Plains and Rockies.
Forecasters warned that rain at higher elevations could accelerate the melting of mountain snowpacks and exacerbate low-land flooding.
Montana is at the soggy center of the weather pattern. Flood warnings already have been issued for 35 counties, and National Weather Service meteorologist Keith Meier says a series of storms is expected to further soak the state through the next week. Colorado and Wyoming also could get hit.
"We have another one of these systems coming in from the Pacific, and it looks like it essentially wants to come here to die," Meier said. "It's hard to discern who's got the worst situation. Everybody's got issues."
Limited evacuations were ordered along central Montana's Musselshell River on Tuesday, and officials in Ryegate were scrambling to reinforce a dike that shields the low-lying town of 300 people from the river.
To the south, residents along the Tongue River Valley bordering the Northern Cheyenne Reservation were told to be ready to flee if water overtops an upstream reservoir, Meier said. Communities along central Montana's Shields River could be next in line for flooding, overnight Tuesday.
Joe Lester, another weather service meteorologist based in Billings, said Tuesday night the rain had tapered somewhat, but the overall weather pattern could bring new systems to the area through the weekend.
"Things are still evolving," he said. "There is still rainfall occurring and a lot of rain that needs to get where it needs to go. We're going to have problems for several days."
Lester noted that Billings had already received more than 3 inches of rain Tuesday, setting an all-time daily precipitation record for the city.
The previous record was 2.91 inches set June 8, 1997.
So far, the relief effort has been most intense for the 7,000 people on the Crow reservation. Hundreds of people fled the rural reservation in recent days after the Little Bighorn River rose and inundated several communities.
A nursing home was evacuated, and the Indian Health Service Hospital in Crow Agency was closed except for emergencies after flood waters contaminated public water supplies.
David Peters, a spokesman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said flooding is occurring on the Fort Belknap reservation in northern Montana and on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation near Billings.
A 60-mile stretch of Interstate 90 was closed from Hardin to the Wyoming state line. There was no word on when it might reopen, said Lori Ryan with the Montana Department of Transportation.
That left residents of Lodge Grass near the Wyoming border largely cut off. Emergency vehicles were able to reach the town Tuesday to provide food, water and other essentials, tribal spokesman Jared Stewart said. Some Lodge Grass residents fled south through the floodwaters to reach Sheridan, Wyo.
Up to 2,000 people live in the Lodge Grass area, but tribal officials said they did not know how many were still there.
State and federal officials across the Rockies and Northern Plains warned citizens who live along rivers and streams to be ready for extensive flooding as soon as recent cool weather gives way and mountain snowpack begin to melt in earnest.
Fast-moving water earlier claimed an 84-year-old woman in Carbon County who slipped into an unnamed creek outside her rural home near Boyd.
The Big Hole River was rising in southwestern Montana near Melrose and was expected to flood by Tuesday night. The Missouri, Madison, Gallatin and Dearborn rivers also were all threatening to flood, the weather service said.
In Idaho, state officials were watching two regions particularly closely — agricultural lands in the southeast along the Snake River and the heavily timbered mountains of northern Idaho along the Coeur d'Alene River and Lake Coeur d'Alene.
So far, only agricultural areas have been impacted by high water, said Robert Feeley, a spokesman for the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. Feeley's office has shipped about 150,000 sandbags to northern, southeastern and western Idaho, where communities on the banks of the Weiser River were watching the water warily because there are no dams on the river to control water.
In Utah, where heavy rains over the weekend triggered at least four mudslides across the state, a flood warning has been issued for portions of the Ogden River until Wednesday.
Major flooding has become a growing worry at lower elevations in northern Utah, where snowpack is well above what it was during the massive floods of 1983 that caused $250 million in damage, wiped out crops, homes and businesses and flooded downtown Salt Lake City.
"It's like we've already shot ourselves in the left foot and now we're aiming to the right ... the high elevation snowpack just keeps getting bigger and with the cold weather this week, we won't see major melting until June," said Randy Julander, a supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead called the situation regarding heavy snowpack and the potential for flooding around the state "a grave concern."
Snowpack in the Snowy Range in southeastern Wyoming is the highest in at least four decades, the Wyoming Department of Transportation said Tuesday.
Some roads in South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest were closed, and a North Dakota park and golf course were flooded. Crews were sandbagging at a tourist town and Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a major state highway was closed in two spots.
Associated Press writers Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., John Miller in Boise, Idaho, Matt Volz in Helena, Mont. and Chi-Chi Zhang in Salt Lake City contributed to this story.