Unprecedented flooding swamps Montana, displaces communities, strands pastors
Heavy rains, melting snow pack and roaring rivers fueled a disaster that the people of Montana have never seen before.
As retired United Church of Christ national staffer and Montana resident Ann Hanson said, “The Yellowstone River is a raging machine right now.”
Unprecedented flooding forced the evacuation of 10,000 tourists from Yellowstone National Park on Monday, June 13, as the river wiped out bridges and roads and swept an employee bunkhouse downstream. The park is expected to remain closed for several days.
Church is evacuation center
In the nearby town of Red Lodge on Sunday, June 12, floods forced many people to leave their homes for higher ground. The Rev. Pam Peterson was one of them. She heard and then watched as Rock Creek roared into town.
“I was standing in the road when the 19th Street Bridge blew,” said Peterson, referring to the moment Rock Creek rerouted itself and surged right through the center of town. “I was a block away when it blew, and I watched firefighters run back toward us and tell us to get out. We ran into the house, grabbed our to-go bags and went to the church.”
Peterson pastors Red Lodge Community Church, UCC, which opened as an evacuation center on Sunday night.
“It all happened so fast,” she said. “Around here they are calling it the 500-year flood. Red Lodge was established in the 1800’s and there are no records of this ever happening before.”
Peterson said she and the few folks who sheltered at the church stayed up all night, but were able to leave the building on Monday.
“We are hanging in there,” she said on June 15. “We are so relieved that at this point there has been no loss of life. We (Red Lodge Community Church) have displaced people. I don’t know how many yet – a lot folks are staying with friends.
“We are in cleanup mode. The government is working hard and fast to restore the infrastructure.” That infrastructure includes as many as six or seven bridges around the state, along with power and water in some places.
Quilts vs. floodwaters
Luckily she said, thanks to some “miraculous” baby quilts, they were able to mitigate the damage to the church building.
“A small group of women from the church have been making these quilts for years and years,” she said. When many of the quilters grew too old to continue, they had to suspend the ministry for two years. A few months ago, since they had a lot of pre-cut pieces of fabric in storage, some current church ladies got together to finish the quilts that hadn’t been started yet.
“We used those baby quilts to pack around the doors to keep the waters from rushing in, and it worked,” Peterson said, noting that the water came up more than three feet outside the door. “We had zero damage to our preschool. Those quilts kept the waters out of the room.”
Early Monday morning, the preschool teacher’s husband, Nate – a river rafter – helped the pastor rescue her dogs, Buddy and Bonnie, left stranded in her house Sunday night by the rising waters.
“The only damage in my home is my basement,” Peterson said. “There is nothing that can’t be easily replaced or lived without.”
Red Lodge is just one of several communities in Montana that was flooded out. Rock Creek feeds into the Yellowstone River, which hit historic levels Monday, along with the Stillwater and Clarks Fork rivers. The East Rosebud River also feeds Yellowstone, and that flooded Rosebud.
Peterson said the Yellowstone River stranded one of her colleagues, the Rev. Meg Hatch, on Monday. Rushing waters washed out a bridge in the town of Absarokee, keeping the pastor of Community Congregational Church UCC landlocked at home, along with her husband and daughter.
“It just feels kind of surreal,” said Hatch on Wednesday. “We are up high, so we’re just fine, but I have all of these parishioners, neighbors and friends who have lost houses. We don’t know yet what all the effects are going to be. Right now, I’m just trying to be in touch with all of my people.
“We are in Nye, just over a mountain ridge from Yellowstone Park. We live near the Stillwater Mine and the road between my house and the mine is completely washed out. There will be long-term ripple effects. Don’t know how long the mine will be closed and it’s the livelihood of so many people in our community.
“The good thing is the community is incredibly generous and our church started and houses the food bank for the area. And our food bank is in great shape, we are ready to go. We are keeping hand-written lists right now. In another week, we’ll be doing a lot of deliveries.”
On Wednesday, Hatch said they heard of a way to get to town, on an unpaved road that was limited to only essential travel.
Food, rest, care, showers
Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference Minister Marc Stewart has been in touch with both pastors and said Conference folks are “standing by ready to assist as called upon with disaster relief.”
“We hold our pastors and congregations in prayerful concern, especially in Red Lodge,” Stewart said. “Many congregation members and friends are affected by the flooding, and, even so, this will be a church that will continue its ministry of caring for the wider community and assisting with recovery. Churches throughout the Conference have been messaging their care to assist.”
The Rev. Barbara Miner, a UCC minister living in Billings, was called in to assist in Red Lodge as a Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer.
“I reported for duty at the Red Lodge Red Cross shelter this morning,” she posted on Facebook on Tuesday. “By noon we had approximately 100 people who had joined us, adults, children and dogs, many airlifted from Rosebud by the National Guard. Most were visitors to Montana from all over the country, exhausted, worried, hungry and bewildered. Everyone was grateful and visibly restored by food, care, rest and showers. Everyone worked together brilliantly.
“Many Red Lodge residents who are no longer in their homes and without power and water have come to the Red Cross shelter offering to help. … Community members have brought food and supplies. Participating in this work today has helped restore my faith in people. I am very impressed.”
Hanson, who also lives in Billings, and said she’s safe from the floods because of the area’s higher elevation. “I’m thankful for all those who are on the ground being helpful.”
Peterson said there’s still a lot going on all across Montana, so right now she isn’t sure yet whether the church will be meeting in person on Sunday, June 19.
“We are now watching another 20-foot snow base on the mountain. With it being so hot, that will melt this week. They hope to have the riverbed routed back into its normal spot before then.
“Rock Creek is still ripping. It’s like Niagara Falls most of the time anyway. The sound of the river now makes me sick to my stomach. It’s so traumatizing just having to hear it.
“That will be my work for the next few days – to encourage people to get a few blocks away, so they don’t have to hear it – just to give themselves some downtime away from the noise.”
Support from Disaster Ministries
Lesli Remaly, the UCC’s national minister for disaster response and recovery, has been briefed by Stewart and is ready to help.
“Disaster Ministries is ready to support the Conference through the response phase with emergency funds, kits, emotional-spiritual care, in coordination with our partners of the Montana Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster. For the long term we will work with local leaders as they establish recovery for individuals who may not be able to navigate this process alone through rebuilding efforts, funds, emotional and spiritual care and volunteers.”
“The recovery and cleanup are going well,” Peterson said. “We have a long way to go, and are so grateful for everyone and their support.”
People wishing to support the effort can donate to the USA Emergency Fund — online, by using the drop-down menu at support.ucc.org/, or by other methods listed here.
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