Outside Yellowstone, flooded towns struggle to recover

  • Lindi O'Brien sorts through personal mementos in the barn of her parent's home Friday that was badly damaged by the severe flooding in Fromberg, Mont. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

FROMBERG, Mont. — With Yellowstone National Park pushing to reopen to tourists more quickly than anticipated after record floods pounded southern Montana, some of those hardest hit in the disaster live far from the famous park’s limelight and are leaning heavily on one another to pull their lives out of the mud.

Park officials said Sunday that they hope to have most of Yellowstone open within two weeks, as they use a $50 million infusion of federal highway money to accelerate road and bridge repairs. There’s still no timetable for restoring connections between the park and neighboring portions of Montana where the recovery is expected to stretch for months.

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In and around the agricultural community of Fromberg, the Clarks Fork River flooded almost 100 homes and badly damaged a major irrigation ditch that serves many farms. The town’s mayor says about a third of the flooded homes are too far gone to be repaired.

Not far from the riverbank, Lindi O’Brien’s trailer home was raised high enough to avoid major damage. But she got water in her barns and sheds, lost some of her poultry and saw her recently deceased parents’ home get swamped with several feet of water.

Elected officials who showed up to tour the damage in Red Lodge and Gardiner — Montana tourist towns that serve as gateways to Yellowstone — haven’t made it to Fromberg to see its devastation. O’Brien said the lack of attention is no surprise given the town’s location away from major tourist routes.

She’s not resentful but resigned to the idea that if Fromberg is going to recover, its roughly 400 residents will have to do much of the work themselves.

“We take care of each other,” O’Brien said as she and two longtime friends, Melody Murter and Aileen Rogers, combed through mud-caked items scattered across her property. O’Brien, an art teacher for the local school, had been fixing up her parents’ home with hopes of turning it into a vacation rental. Now she’s not sure it’s salvageable.

“When you get tired and get pooped, it’s OK to stop,” O’Brien said to Murter and Rogers, whose clothes, hands and faces were smeared with mud.

A few blocks away, Matt Holmes combed through piles of muck and debris but could find little to save out of the trailer home that he shared with his wife and four children.

Holmes had taken the day off, but said he needed to get back soon to his construction job so he could begin making money again. Whether he can bring in enough to rebuild is unclear. If not, Holmes said he may move the family to Louisiana, where they have relatives.

“I want to stay in Montana. I don’t know if we can,” he said.

Yellowstone will partially reopen at 8 a.m. Wednesday, more than a week after more than 10,000 visitors were forced out of the park when the Yellowstone and other rivers went over their banks after being swelled by melting snow and several inches of rainfall.

Only portions of the park that can be accessed along its “southern loop” of roads will be opened initially and access to the park’s scenic backcountry will be for day hikers only.

Within two weeks officials hope to open the northern loop, after previously declaring that it would likely stay closed through the summer season. The northern loop would give visitors access to popular attractions including Tower Fall and Mammoth Hot Springs. They’d still be bared from the Lamar Valley, which is famous for its prolific wildlife including bears, wolves and bison that can often be seen from the roadside.

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