Missoula County expects to issue a disaster declaration to help with the costs of the recent flooding.
Once the declaration is made, which is the next formal step after the county declared the flooding to be an emergency situation, the state can begin to bear some of the costs. Chief Operating Official Chris Lounsbury said the county has spent about $189,000 so far, which is the equivalent of two mills.
“We will do the disaster declaration … then the state begins to have a financial obligation once the county has spent the two mills,” Lounsbury told the Missoula County Commission on Wednesday.
The county could dip into its financial reserves to cover the cost, or it could impose the two-mill levy on taxpayers. Lounsbury recommended against levying the mills due to restrictions on when and where that money has to be spent. He added that if the federal government gets involved, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can cover the expenditures if the county provides in-kind matches.
The costs are expected to mount as the county braces for another round of rising rivers. The Clark Fork is expected to once again reach the major flood stage on Friday, and crest on Saturday at 13.34 feet. The main stem of the Bitterroot River also will steadily increase, and a flood warning has been issued for the area where it flows into the Clark Fork.
“Our forecast has it going to about 12 feet there, and the flood stage is 11,” Trent Smith with the National Weather Service in Missoula said on Wednesday afternoon. “We have some very slow-moving storms coming up the Bitterroot as we speak, but the water they’re adding to the system will just slightly bring the water up. About 90 percent (of the water) is still snowmelt, with 10 percent of it rain.”
On May 12, evacuation warning notices were sent to about 2,205 residences along the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers, telling people to be ready to move to higher ground in case of additional flooding.
The Clark Fork River crested at 13.8 feet last Saturday, before steadily dropping earlier this week. Flood incident managers are warning people to continue stacking sandbags and be ready to evacuate if they’ve been issued warnings.
“There’s still a lot of snow up there, so it’s likely this is not the last crest we’ll see,” said Marty Whitmore, who also is with the National Weather Service.
Incident spokesman Mel Holtz said the snow is melting at a slower rate than was predicted, and noted that the modeling and numbers can change on a regular basis. He said while some people are starting to talk about the “recovery” or mop-up phase of the floods, they’re still very much focused on the response to the anticipated rising waters.
“Be prepared. The river levels are coming up today and into the weekend,” Holtz said.
So far, 1,700 volunteers have helped load 1,750 tons of sand into more than 87,000 sandbags, and Missoula Public Works has another 100,000 sandbags ready to be loaded and distributed.
Holtz and Capt. Anthony Rio with the sheriff’s department also warned against recreating in the river. Although Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks closed a section of the Clark Fork between the Reserve Street and Kona bridges, the state agency didn’t shut down the stretch that includes Brennan’s Wave west of the Higgins Street Bridge.
On Wednesday, the lower water levels allowed the waves to return, and people were kayaking and surfing on them.
“We spoke with (FWP) about that ... but apparently it’s a really touchy subject to be able to close the river,” Rio said. “We don’t recommend folks go out there.”
If someone were to get in trouble, the person probably would end up in the closed section of the Clark Fork due to the response time, Rio added.
Parts of two mobile homes and a propane tank near Schmidt Lane have washed downstream since the waters began to rise May 8, and 60 residences in the Orchard Homes area northwest of Third and Reserve streets were given evacuation orders. The stretch of the Clark Ford River was closed to recreation on May 14 after downed power lines fell into the river and the water was filled with hazardous debris. The lines weren’t live, and Northwestern Energy was able to reroute the power to customers.
Late Tuesday afternoon, an unoccupied trailer home on Schmidt Lane that was being moved caught on fire after Fire Department crews that were cutting into the home to secure a chain ignited some insulation. A sheriff’s deputy used an empty Folgers coffee can to douse the flames with river water.
“We were kind of joking around that the fire department kind of started the fire and one of our deputies put it out,” Rio said, laughing. “”It was a reversal of the roles and kind of comical. We needed to laugh after so much seriousness going on and there was no real danger. It was nice to get it secured.”
Holtz said they also pulled a couple of cars and vehicles out of harm’s way, as well as a boat and propane tank in the Schmidt Lane area. Discussions are beginning on who will be responsible for removing the debris and sandbags left on the river shores once the water recedes, as well as how to deal with the impacts — think mosquitoes — from the standing water in yards and fields, Rio added.
Road blocks will remain in place through the weekend in areas under evacuation orders, and Rio said they hope to allow people to return home as soon as possible.
A river closure remains in place on the Blackfoot River from the Weigh Station Fishing Access Site to the confluence of the Clark Fork River. The Montana Department of Transportation is performing bridge work, and the higher flows bring the river levels too high to safely allow for floaters to pass underneath.