GARDINER, Mont. On a typical day, helicopter pilot Mark Taylor might fly tourists or professional photographers above national parks in the West, scouting for wildlife and offering a birds-eye view of the mountains, geysers and waterfalls.
But when historic flooding hit Yellowstone National Park this week, Taylor sprang into action and helped dozens evacuate from towns that couldn’t be evacuated by road. Park County law enforcement reached out to his Montana-based company, Rocky Mountain Rotors, needing a helicopter, and by the “Montana way of a handshake agreement,” they agreed.
“There’s just no questions asked,” Taylor told USA TODAY in an interview Wednesday. “We just go do the work and provide whatever helicopter services that they need.”
After offering his services, the phones were inundated with travelers and residents eager to quickly vacate the Yellowstone area as floodwaters swept away homes, eroded roads, ripped apart bridges and left some stranded. Entire towns were temporarily isolated without a way out after roads closed or were demolished by rushing water.
The flooding continued to devastate the area Wednesday with rushing water reaching Montana’s largest city. The floodwaters in Billings, which boasts a population of 110,000, flooded farms and ranches and caused the shutdown of the area’s water treatment plant.
‘Nothing that we have ever seen’
Many who were called were in Gardiner, a town of about 900 people just north of Yellowstone. People there were isolated for more than a day before roads reopened. Many were tourists, some with medical issues, who didn’t want to risk waiting for the Montana National Guard, which has rescued at least 87 people, according to the Department of Defense. Over the course of two days, Taylor was hired to pick up about 40 people from the local airport, including a cancer patient, two pregnant women, and a man who recently had a stroke.
As Taylor flew around Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding communities, they watched debris, including huge pieces of houses, timber and even 1000-gallon propane tanks, float downstream as a river ate up massive swaths of land.
“It was obvious that this flood was like nothing that we have ever seen,” he said.
Yellowstone National Park flooding: Waters ‘still raging’; more than 10,000 visitors evacuated: What we know
Almost all the tourists in Yellowstone National Park – more than 10,000 – were evacuated as historic levels of flooding forced the park to close earlier this week. The only tourists remaining Wednesday were the dozen campers making their way out of the back-country.
Officials were working Wednesday to repair damaged infrastructure and prepared for more wet weather over the weekend. The park could remain closed for a week after the floods damaged roads, bridges and homes, Superintendent Cam Sholly said Tuesday. Sholly said additional flooding was possible over the weekend.
No injuries or deaths have been reported amid the devastation. Roads were starting to reopen and some evacuated residents in Park County were allowed back into their homes on Tuesday.
“We’re really, really, really thankful that there wasn’t a river drowning,” Taylor said. “When we’re called out, it’s not always a happy ending and usually lives are lost.”
Residents in Yellowstone communities assess damage
The full impact of the flooding, mudslides and rockslides is not yet known, but the northern part of the park and the smaller communities that border it suffered some of the worst damage.
In Red Lodge, a town of 2,100 that’s a popular jumping-off point for a scenic route into the Yellowstone high country, a creek running through town jumped its banks and swamped the main thoroughfare.
The water toppled telephone poles, knocked over fences and carved deep fissures in the ground through a neighborhood of hundreds of houses. Electricity was restored by Tuesday, but there was still no running water in the area.
Taylor is planning to fly a small group to an area near Red Lodge this week to seal up cabins and get rid of food to prevent bears from entering the properties.
At least 200 homes were flooded into the Red Lodge and the town of Fromberg, including Heidi Hoffman’s. She left early Monday to buy a sump pump, which can be used to pump water out of a home. But by the time she returned, her basement was full of water.
“We lost all our belongings in the basement,” Hoffman said as the pump removed a steady stream of water into her muddy backyard. “Yearbooks, pictures, clothes, furniture. Were going to be cleaning up for a long time. ”
Residents in Park County hauled bottled water home from stores as concerns mounted over a possible food shortage due to blocked routes making deliveries difficult. As the Stillwater River in south-central Montana flooded, 68 people were stranded at a campground as crews rescued campers by raft.
Silver Gate, a community just northeast of the park, is now the only town inaccessible by road, according to Park County officials.
The Yellowstone River reached highs of almost 14 feet on Monday, far higher than the record 11.5 feet set more than a century ago, according to the National Weather Service.
Record rainfall combined with rapidly melting snowpack caused the deluge of flooding this week. Scientists pointed to climate change as the culprit behind more intense and frequent weather events.
The flooding comes as the summer tourist season was ramping up. June is one of the busiest months for the park, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
The world’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park encompasses nearly 3,500 square miles at the top of a volcanic hot spot.
The park, which stretches across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, was previously closed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Sholly said they didn’t believe the park was ever closed for flooding.
What to know if you’re hoping to visit Yellowstone National Park
People planning to visit in the weeks ahead are being advised to stay abreast of road and weather conditions due to the severe damage.
The northern portion of the park, which features popular sites like Tower Fall, Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar Valley, may not reopen for the summer tourist season and is “likely to remain closed for a substantial length of time due to severely damaged, affected infrastructure,” park officials said in a statement.
Some parts of the park may require reservations.
“Due to the northern loop being unavailable for visitors, the park is analyzing how many visitors can safely visit the southern loop once it’s safe to reopen,” the park said Tuesday.
SUMMER VISITORS:What to know if you’re hoping to visit Yellowstone National Park after floods recede
All nine Yellowstone lodges, 12 campgrounds and 293 backcountry campsites are closed through at least Sunday and until further notice. Refunds would be issued if needed for reserved lodging and activities, the park said.
Guests hoping to cancel should expect long hold times as the central reservations line is “experiencing extremely high call volumes,” according to the park’s lodging website.
Businesses in hard-hit Gardiner had just started really recovering from the tourism contraction brought by the coronavirus pandemic, and were hoping for a good year, Bill Berg, a commissioner in nearby Park County, said.
“It’s a Yellowstone town, and it lives and dies by tourism, and this is going to be a pretty big hit,” he said. “They’re looking to try to figure out how to hold things together.”
Contributing: Christine Fernando, Eve Chen, Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
Hannah Phillips of The Palm Beach Post reported from Gardiner, Montana.
Contact Breaking News Reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg