It has become a rite of May on the Clark Fork River in Missoula.
Shovels were flying and sandbags were piling up at Fort Missoula as the river reached and exceeded minor flood stage level early Wednesday.
“We usually save our sandbags from year to year, but they were so rotten with that last big flood (in 2018), we didn’t get to save them, so we’ll rebag them,” Gina Brown said.
Brown’s mother-in-law, Helen Brown, lives next to the Sha-Ron Fishing Access at East Missoula, and even with an army of sandbaggers in action the floods of 2018 reached her basement. The river peaked that year at 13.82 feet on May 11.
This time Helen Brown sounded the warning after the river climbed above minor flood level of 7.5 feet late Tuesday. By noon Wednesday it was up to 8.42 feet on the way to an anticipated 10.61 feet later in the week — high but still below the moderate flood level of 11.0 feet.
Family and employees of Brown’s Towing in West Riverside were at the county’s self-serve sandbag station across from Heritage Hall at the fort, filling bags and stacking them onto a company flatbed.
It was a busy place. North Tower Street in Orchard Homes, Missoula’s most flood-prone residential area, was blocked off to all but local traffic at South Third Street West, and neighbors were bagging up for more.
“Those guys were saying they have to do it every year now since they took the dam away,” Gina Brown said, referring to the removal of Milltown Dam in 2008.
This week’s rise is no surprise, Adriane Beck, Missoula County’s director of emergency management, said.
“I hope that nobody was caught off guard by it,” she said. “We’ve tried to communicate that with the rainfall predicted and the snowmelt, we expected flooding."
Recent torrential rainfall starting in earnest with a May 15 record .69 inches last Friday. That broke the old mark of .60 set in 1981. Another .32 inches was recorded at the airport in a 24-hour period starting early Monday. Then it really got wet. A slow-moving front that moved in Tuesday afternoon had dumped more than an inch of rain by the next morning.
May and June are typically Missoula’s wettest months, each accumulating just over 2 inches of precipitation each, Corby Dickerson of the National Weather Service said. By mid-Wednesday the total for May 2020 was at 2.5 inches, with more storms rolling down the Bitterroot. The annual 30-year average for Missoula is 14.13 inches.
The National Weather Service forecasts periods of showers through Saturday and a mostly sunny Sunday, with highs approaching 70, and a slight chance of showers on Memorial Day.
Unlike in 2018, when there was what Beck called “a remarkable snow pack,” the basins of western Montana are close to normal now.
“The snow pack is not an overwhelming concern” for flooding, she said. “Rain is the big predictor.
“Right now we’re hopeful that we don’t see the levels we saw in 2018, but you always say that with a caveat of caution. Mother Nature will do what she’s going to do. If we do get a tremendous amount of rain, that will change things.”
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