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Gardiner, Cooke City flooding: 'It's going to be a rough summer'

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Katy Canetta had set her alarm for 5:30 a.m. and started getting ready for work Monday morning.

Canetta, who works for Yellowstone National Park and lives just outside of Gardiner, went outside to look at the river. Some flooding had been expected.

Despite there being about 25 feet of bank between her apartment and the river, Canetta quickly realized “we only had a few hours before the house was going to go in.”

Canetta and her husband, Mike, quickly woke up the four other families living in the apartment building — all park employees — and evacuated them.

“We told them we needed to evacuate and to grab whatever they could, we knew there was a power line that was going to break,” she said.

Over the afternoon, video footage showed the river bank slowly being eroded by the swift moving water.

Canetta left her home of about six months and went to a temporary shelter set up by the park.

While Canetta and her husband recently moved here from Jackson Hole, some of her neighbors had lived in the apartment building for over two decades and raised families there.

“We didn’t stay until it fell in. It became a spectacle, with people gawking, people laughing and taking selfies,” she said. “We saw the best and worst of humanity over the last few hours.”

By 7 p.m., the bank was fully eroded under about half the building. The river bank had eaten up nearly 90 feet of bank that used to separate the home and the water.

Videos of Canetta’s home teetering on the edge of the river bank circulated on social media. One video showed the building swayed a moment before it tipped off the bank and crashed into the water.

Other videos showed the house, with one floor submerged, floating with the current. The house and its belongings drifted for about 5 miles downstream.

For Canetta, it was unexpected.

“We’re above the 100-year floodplain. We’re not in a floodplain in that house,” she explained. “We’re usually 90 feet from the house to the river bank.”

Gardiner, a town of nearly 900 people and the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, was cut off from the rest of Park County on Monday by historic flooding, mudslides and rain.

Flooding from the Gardner and Yellowstone rivers damaged and closed roadways north and south of town. Yellowstone National Park closed off all its five entrances to inbound traffic and began evacuating tourists, especially those on the northern end near Gardiner.

Thousands of tourists ended up in Gardiner, which was cut off from any main roadway for nearly 36 hours.

Chelsea DeWeese helps manage her family’s business, the Yellowstone River Motel. She said the day started out normal enough — she drove up to Yankee Jim Canyon to check out the flooding they heard was getting bad there.

After realizing the flooding might be unlike anything she expected, she quickly turned back toward town. Then, things happened fast. As DeWeese could hear what sounded like boulders crashing down the river, she helped panicked tourists book rooms and talked with other motel and hotel owners to see who else had vacancies.

DeWeese’s 38 rooms were all booked with over 100 guests and by the afternoon, everywhere else in town was full, too.

Then they heard news that the drinking water was compromised, leaving DeWeese, other business owners and residents to rely on bottled supply from Gardiner Market.

“We were trying to brace for a variety of scenarios,” DeWeese said. “The guests were really well behaved and pleasant and thankful.”

Others in town stepped up. Gardiner Baptist Church opened its doors for a few dozen tourists to spend the night, and Gardiner Community Church organized a hot, free meal.

Residents worried on Monday and into Tuesday that Gardiner would be cut off from major roadways for days, with about 900 residents and several thousand visitors to feed and care for.

Early Tuesday morning, the town started to brainstorm on what to do — helicopter or plane evacuations began to be discussed.

Mark Taylor, owner and pilot with Rocky Mountain Rotors, started flying people out of Gardiner to Bozeman on Monday.

Speaking Tuesday morning while in the air, he and two other helicopters were en route from Belgrade to Gardiner again. He estimated he’d flown about 40 people out so far, focusing on people who need to leave town urgently.

“Mostly it’s people who are in more of an issue than others,” he said. “We had a couple who was pregnant yesterday.”

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But by 11:30 a.m., the town received some good news: Highway 89 S. through Yankee Jim Canyon was passable with a clear route to Livingston and visitors could leave. Supplies could also come in.

“This is great news,” said Bill Berg, a Park County commissioner, “But Gardiner has still been hit pretty hard.”

Gardiner is still under a “do not consume order” after a sewer pipe was compromised and a water main broke on Monday.

Berg said Tuesday that water samples were being sent for testing to see if tap water was potable. Crews were still assessing the sewer system, he said.

Several business owners and residents said most tourists quickly left town after the highway reopened. By Tuesday afternoon, some residents were taking their first breather since the flooding began. Reality started to set in.

Gardiner was just at the start of a promising summer season on Monday. The park usually brings in about 4 million residents per year.

The town was recovering from a fire that destroyed a row of businesses right by the park gate in 2020 and was still dealing with the ongoing effects of the pandemic on tourism.

Gardiner resident Pat Baltzley said this year it was beginning to feel like the town could see “a little bit of the light at the end of the tunnel.”

That changed on Monday.

The flooding caused devastation for many locals and for the town. Some of Gardiner lost power, key infrastructure was damaged and residents have lost their homes and are facing losing their livelihoods.

The road between the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs was heavily damaged by the flooding.

The park is estimating the road from Gardiner to Cooke City will remain closed for the entire season as road repairs are made, and in some cases roads are entirely rebuilt.

“Gardiner is a rough and tumble town, but it lives and dies by its tourism,” Berg said.

Other gateway towns were dealing with the flooding as well. On Tuesday, Brandon Richardson’s phone had been ringing off the hook. Every call was to cancel reservations. On Sunday, his cabins had been fully booked for June — but by Tuesday everything was canceled.

“Cooke City is doing OK, we’re all just really afraid that our summer season is done,” said Richardson, the owner of High Country Cabins in Cooke City.

Richardson said he was grateful no one was harmed during the flooding and more damage wasn’t done, but feared for the small community’s economy with tourism substantially stymied.

“A lot of our small businesses just got staffed up for the summer and that’ll be a tough time to make sure our employees are taken care of,” Richardson said.

Still, Richardson said the immediate concern for Cooke City and Silver Gate residents was access to the town. That road between Gardiner and Cooke City, the northern road that runs through the Park, is crucial for access to the county’s public services like public works, law enforcement and medical services. For now, Cooke City is cut off from the rest of Park County.

Chief Joseph Highway, which runs south through Wyoming is passable, for now.

“That’s our biggest concern right now,” Richardson said. “Most of our deliveries come from Bozeman, if we can get to Cody at least we can feed our families.”

Forecasters are predicting the raging waters will recede mid-week, but some are bracing for worsening conditions by the end of this week. While flooding may not be as bad as Monday, some more flooding events could occur if weather warms up and snow continues to melt.

But residents are focusing on one issue at a time.

Richard Parks — owner and namesake of Parks Fly Shop (its location in Park County, near the park gate, is a coincidence) — wasn’t surprised to see the river high early on Monday morning.

The 78-year-old has seen some wild things since he moved to Gardiner in 1953, including flooding events, the 1988 fires that tore through the park and the fire in town in 2020.

But the incredible rise on Monday was unlike anything Parks has dealt with in the past.

“In some respects it feels like — ‘Who’s got it in for Gardiner?’” Parks said. “It’s going to be a rough summer.”

Like others, Parks on Tuesday afternoon was feeling relieved that the highway reopened, but beginning to think about what a indefinite closure of the northern gate could mean for his business.

Or, in his words — “Now what the hell do we do?”

“One thing I would say is that it would be really nice if … people don’t treat Gardiner like a dead end,” Parks said. “We still have things happen here, and there’s still things to do around here just because you can’t go into Yellowstone through this gate does not mean that Gardiner might not be a town worth visiting.”

Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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