Montana's Clark Fork River Rises to Major Flood Levels; Man Rescued from Floodwaters in Missoula

Sean Breslin
Published: May 11, 2018

A western Montana river officially reached major flood stage Thursday for just the sixth time since records began, and the water is now expected to rise to the second-highest level on record as snowmelt and rainfall create problems for residents in Missoula.

Evacuation orders were issued Tuesday for about 60 houses in the Orchard Homes neighborhood of Missoula, according to KPAX.com. At least three more homes were ordered to evacuate Thursday night as the Clark Fork River threatened additional residences, Montana Public Radio reported.

Officials told the Associated Press that despite the urgency of the flooding situation, many of those who were ordered to leave their homes have refused. On Thursday night, rescue crews pulled a man from the water after he attempted to reach a transient camp on a partially flooded island via inflatable raft, the AP also said. The man was rescued by boat, and he was not injured, the report added.

Authorities also confirmed to the Missoulian that a mobile home was washed off its foundation and destroyed downstream overnight Thursday, and a full-size propane tank and a shed were carried away. The report did not say if there was anyone inside the trailer when it washed away.

"These waters are really dangerous ... we’re worried about propane tanks that get dislodged and obviously the large trees and tree trunks that are heading downstream," Missoula County Sheriff's Department spokesman Mel Holtz told the Missoulian. "People need to stay out of the water."

(MORE: Prime Season for Flash Floods Is Beginning)

With rain in the forecast Friday, officials were aware that the weather could cause even more problems for the swollen river, which is now in major flood stage above the town of more than 70,000 for the first time since 1981. The river is expected to crest Saturday above 14 feet, a level it hasn't reached in 110 years, according to the National Weather Service.

"I think a concerning aspect of this is the duration at which the river is going to be above moderate flood stage," NWS meteorologist Alex Lukinbeal told the AP. "The river has a long time to do damage."

Along the waterway, as many as 1,300 homes were notified to prepare for possible evacuations, and those who could leave were being urged to evacuate and not wait for the evacuations to become mandatory, Missoula County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Brenda Bassett told the AP.

"I’m scared to death I’m going to lose our home and all of our memories," Missoula resident Mary Sackett, 61, told officials during a Monday night gathering of residents and city leaders. "What happens if all of a sudden, the dike breaks in the middle of the night and I wake up to five feet of water in my house? I’m not going to be able to get myself out."

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There are also concerns about a series of old holding ponds where contaminated water sits at the site of the Smurfit-Stone Mill, located 11 miles northwest of Missoula. These unlined ponds hold treated and untreated wastewater, and local residents are afraid contaminants will flow downstream if Clark Fork River flooding affects the structural integrity of the earthen berms that hold back the wastewater, KPAX.com reported.

"Certainly one of those risks are what happens if the berms fail and 53 years of industrial waste is washed downstream?" asked Missoula County Environmental Health Specialist Travis Ross in the KPAX report. "What effect does it have on the ecosystem? What effect does it have on human health?"

Katie Condon ferries her 13-year-old basset hound, Fran, for a respite from the floodwaters surrounding her home at the north end of Tower Street on the outskirts of Missoula, Montana, Monday, May 7, 2018.
(Kurt Wilson/The Missoulian via AP)

To the east, at least one school was closed indefinitely in Helena as floodwaters surrounded an elementary school, the Independent Record reported. No injuries have been reported from the flooding so far, and officials in Lewis and Clark County have distributed nearly 40,000 sandbags to residents as they prepare for the floods, the AP also reported.

"If you live anywhere near a stream or waterway in western Montana you need to be prepared to leave your home," Missoula County Disaster and Emergency Services deputy coordinator Ken Parks told the AP. "This is going to come earlier than we expected. We’re trying to get out ahead of this thing and get the message out that this could be a very dangerous situation."

South of Missoula, an emergency was declared for Ravalli County as officials prepare for flooding, NBC Montana reported.

"No matter what we’re going to have a lot of water coming out of the mountains," Parks told the AP. "We really can’t win."


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