ELENA, Mont. (AP) – A torrent of rain combined with a rapidly melting snow cover caused a deluge of flooding that forced the evacuation of parts of Yellowstone National Park, cutting off electricity and forcing park officials to close all indefinite admissions, just as the summer tourist season was increasing.
Although numerous homes and other structures were destroyed, there were no immediate reports of injuries. Yellowstone officials said they were evaluating damage from the storms, which swept bridges, caused mudslides and left small towns isolated, forcing evacuation by boat and helicopter.
It is unclear how many visitors were stranded or forced to leave the park and how many people living outside the park were rescued and evacuated.
Some of the worst damage has occurred in the northern part of the park and in the Yellowstone access communities in southern Montana. Photos from the North Yellowstone National Park Service showed a mudslide, faded bridges, and flood-cut roads from the Gardner and Lamar Rivers.
The floods disrupted road access to Gardiner, Montana, a town of about 900 people near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Gardner Rivers, just outside Yellowstone’s busy north entrance. Cooke City was also sealed off from the floods and evacuations for residents in Livingston were also evacuated.
Park County officials, which includes those cities, said on Facebook Monday night that extensive floods across the county had made drinking water unsafe in many areas. Evacuations and rescue were underway, and officials urged people who were in a safe place to stay overnight.
The Montana National Guard said on Monday it had sent two helicopters to southern Montana to help with the evacuations.
Cory Mottice, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Billings, Montana, said rain is not in the immediate forecast and cooler temperatures will reduce snowmelt in the coming days.
“This is a flood that we have never seen in our life,” Mottice said.
Scientists say climate change is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme events such as storms, droughts, floods and fires, although individual weather events usually cannot be directly linked to climate change without in-depth study.
The Yellowstone River in Corwin Springs reached a 13.88-foot (4.2-meter) ridge on Monday, higher than the previous record of 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) set in 1918, according to the National Weather Service.
In a cabin in Gardiner, Parker Manning got a close-up view of the rising water and the river bank sinking into the floods of the Yellowstone River just outside his door.
“We started seeing whole trees floating down the river, debris,” Manning, who is from Terra Haute, Indiana, told The Associated Press. “I saw a single crazy kayaker coming down, which was a little crazy.”
On Monday night, Manning observed the rushing waters below the river’s opposite bank, causing a house to fall into the Yellowstone River and float away mostly intact.
Floodwaters flooded a road in Red Lodge, a Montana town of 2,100 that is a popular starting point for a scenic, winding drive into the Yellowstone Plateau. Twenty-five miles (40 kilometers) northeast, in Joliet, Kristan Apodaca dried her tears as she stood across the street from a washed out bridge, The Billings Gazette reported..
The log cabin that belonged to her grandmother, who died in March, flooded, as did the park where Apodaca’s husband had proposed.
“I’m sixth generation. This is our home, “she said.” That bridge I literally drove yesterday. My mom drove it at 3am before she faded.
On Monday, Yellowstone officials evacuated the northern part of the park, where roads may remain impassable for an extended period of time, park superintendent Cam Sholly said in a statement.
But the floods also affected the rest of the park, with park officials warning of even higher floods and potential problems with water supply and wastewater systems in developed areas.
The rains hit during the peak tourist season: June, at the start of an annual surge of more than 3 million visitors that doesn’t abate until the fall, is one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.
Yellowstone received 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) of rain Saturday, Sunday, and through Monday. The Beartooth Mountains northeast of Yellowstone have gotten up to 4 inches (10 centimeters), according to the National Weather Service.
In south-central Montana, floods from the Stillwater River blocked 68 people on a campground. Stillwater County Emergency Services agencies and Stillwater Mine crews rescued people from Woodbine’s campground on a raft Monday. Some streets in the area have been closed due to flooding and residents have been evacuated.
“We will evaluate the loss of homes and facilities when the waters recede,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
The flood occurred as other parts of the United States burned in a hot, dry climate. More than 100 million Americans have been warned to stay indoors as a heat wave hits states stretching across parts of the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and east to Carolina.
Elsewhere in the West, crews from California to New Mexico are battling the fires in hot, dry and windy weather.
Associated Press authors Thomas Peipert in Denver, Mead Gruver in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington contributed to this report.