Monday’s rising river forced emergency evacuations
By Jason Stuart
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
The Yellowstone River put its full fury and the power of nature on display Monday morning.
The sudden thaw of the river and the buildup of an ice jam sent a wall of water surging through Glendive and Dawson County.
Trees, unfortunate wildlife and all matter of human debris – including washing machines, refrigerators and propane tanks – were swept up in the icy river.
The surging waters inundated several low-lying areas of Glendive and rural Dawson County, forcing a few evacuations, shutting down roads and briefly knocking out power to some areas.
“It was kind of a scare, it rose up so quickly because of the ice jam,” said Ted Jamba, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Glasgow reporting station.
“It happened really fast,” added Mary Jo Gehnert, Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator for Dawson County.
Gehnert said she was notified at 11:30 p.m. Sunday night that the ice had “gone out” upstream in Prairie County. When she checked the river at 7:30 a.m. Monday morning, everything was “still in tact.” But at 8:10 a.m., she got her first call from emergency dispatch.
After that, the situation evolved rapidly.
The Barry Street underpass was shut down by the quick rising flood. A vehicle was actually stranded in the deep water beneath the underpass, and the Glendive Fire Department had to rescue the vehicle’s occupant.
By 9 a.m., DES made the decision to shut down most of Marsh Road. By 10 a.m., the road was completely shut down and the Cottonwood Grove area was evacuated to prevent residents from being trapped.
Gehnert said she suggested the occupants of Green Valley Campground evacuate as well, but campground owner Marvin Tweet said the campground “didn’t get much water” and no campers were forced to leave.
The flood also knocked down three power line poles along the river, according to Gehnert, leaving some parts of Marsh Road without power into Monday night.
According to Gehnert, the rapid rise in water was the result of an ice jam that formed just upstream from Glendive and stretched far back up the river towards Terry.
“The whole time that ice jam sat there, the river just kept to rise, rise, rise behind it,” Gehnert said.
The water began receding almost as rapidly as it rose, as the ice jam broke free and moved down river towards Richland County.
No sandbags were put up anywhere, and Gehnert said by the time DES called a briefing at 11:30 a.m. Monday morning, the danger of a severe flood had largely passed.
“All in all, for the most part, we dodged another bullet and it went well, but there were some scary moments,” Gehnert said.
She thanked all the city and county emergency personnel who responded to help citizens, cordon off affected areas and keep an eye on the situation.
Marsh Road remained closed as of press time Tuesday, as Gehnert said engineers needed to check the road for damage and that there was “some big ice to move off that road.”
The Yellowstone topped out at 57.6 feet in Glendive on Monday, surpassing the reading in the spring 2011 flood, when the river reached 56.38 feet. By 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, the river had dropped back down to 53.09 feet at the Glendive gauging station. The river’s flood stage is 53.5 feet.
According to Jamba, the most immediate danger is over with the passage of the ice jam downstream.
The snowpack in the mountains upstream is significant -- between 125-135 percent of normal -- but Jamba said Glendive “shouldn’t be under any threat” from melting snows, as water from snow melt has time to “spread out” before it reaches Glendive.
Towns closer to the mountains, like Billings and Livingston, may be under significant threat of flooding as the snows melt. Livingston has already seen serious flooding in the past week.
Though Glendive may have “dodged a bullet,” as Gehnert said, she added Monday’s event should make people aware that the Yellowstone remains untamed and dangerous.
“It was very impressive, and I think it’s just a huge reminder that you can never underestimate the power of the river,” Gehnert said.
Reach Jason Stuart at firstname.lastname@example.org.