Gov. Greg Gianforte asks Biden for major disaster declaration

By: - June 15, 2022 5:47 pm

Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks at the Montana capitol in Helena on Tuesday, January 4

An estimated $29 million will be required to fix the damage to transportation infrastructure caused by historic flooding in south-central Montana over the last four days, according to a letter from the Governor’s Office citing an initial assessment of broken bridges and roads.

The letter is a request to President Joe Biden for an expedited presidential major disaster declaration due to the devastating flooding across parts of Montana.

“A combination of factors came together in June 2022 to produce devastating flooding across portions of the state of Montana. Snowpack across most of the Montana river basin began melting much later and faster than normal. Most basin snowpack typically peaks sometime in mid to late April, but this year snowpack peaked in late April and in some cases mid-May,” the letter states.

The letter also touched on the economic impact to the towns that are going to lose out of lucrative tourism business this summer due to the closing of the northern half of Yellowstone National Park. Carbon County brings in $68 million from tourism and sees 500,000 to 600,000 visitors annually and Park County benefits from more than $200 million in tourism annually, according to the letter.

“High percentages of the workforce in these areas are in the hospitality and recreation sector. Housing stock and availability in the affected communities is already limited. Damage to residential areas will exacerbate this issue. The subsequent economic losses to these communities will be significant and long-lasting,” the letter reads.

Governor returning soon

Gov. Greg Gianforte and the first lady are ending a “long-scheduled personal trip” abroad early to return to Montana as the state digs into recovering from historic flooding that decimated multiple south-central towns, his office said Wednesday in a news release.

“Before flooding began in south-central Montana, Governor Gianforte left the country late last week on a long-scheduled personal trip with the first lady. He is returning early and as quickly as possible,” said the press release from the Governor’s Office.

Lee Newspapers reported Tuesday that the governor was out of the country.

On Monday, the state activated the State Emergency Coordination Council to Level 3, and on Tuesday, the Governor’s Office declared a state of emergency for Carbon, Park and Stillwater counties.

“The governor and state’s top priority currently remains evacuation in areas of danger, ensuring shelter for displaced residents, and safely restoring water and power. The governor is committed to bringing every resource to bear to support impacted communities in their response, recovery, and rebuilding,” the news release read.

The letter said southwest and south-central Montana received 400% to 600% of normal precipitation for the second week of June. And northwest Montana received 200% to 300% above normal during the same period.

“In many cases, the combination of rainfall and snow water equivalent generated during this short period of time equated to 5-10 inches of runoff over roughly a 24-hour period. This would equate to somewhere between a 1 in 100-year event (1% recurrence frequency) and a 1 in 500-year event (.2% recurrence interval),” the letter read.

While much of the attention Monday and Tuesday was on the flooded Yellowstone River that impacted towns from Gardiner to Red Lodge, moderate to major flooding has occurred in basins statewide, according to the letter.

In northwest Montana, the Flathead, Yaak, Bitterroot, Clark Fork, Whitefish and Swan rivers experienced flooding.

On Wednesday, Flathead County declared a state of emergency, including a pre-evacuation notice in place for low-lying areas across Flathead County and official evacuation notices for Leisure Road in Kalispell and Blankenship Road from Blankenship Bridge to the North Fork Road.

“Due to the wide range of areas affected within the county, limited staff resources, and the quickly evolving situation, emergency personnel are unable to check the conditions of all roads, particularly in remote access areas. Individuals should remain diligent in assessing road conditions and should not drive into limited access areas if there is road damage,” a letter announcing the state of emergency read.

The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at Columbia Falls High School for individuals impacted by evacuation orders.

“We are continually assessing the situation and issuing evacuations as conditions worsen,” said Brian Heino, Flathead County sheriff, in the release. “We urge individuals to monitor water levels near them and avoid low-lying areas if at all possible. The safety of our community is our top priority.”

In southwest and south-central Montana, the Gallatin, Missouri, Yellowstone, Stillwater, Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone and Boulder rivers, along with Rock Creek and numerous other small creeks, all flooded.

“On Tuesday, we began working with FEMA to pursue an expedited presidential major disaster declaration and secure direct federal assistance for Montana communities. Today, we submitted our formal request to President Biden,” Gianforte said in the release. “With the support of a presidential major disaster declaration, we can help our communities with their response, recovery, and rebuilding, getting them back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

The request, which was signed by Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, outlines the conditions that triggered the disaster, what direct federal assistance is needed, and the known impacts of the disaster on Montana communities.

In the request, the Governor’s Office said it anticipates it will need help from a variety of federal organizations:

  • Environmental Protection Agency: Assessments on damage to public water and wastewater infrastructure; technical assistance on any impacts to oil or gas infrastructure or hazardous spills.
  • U.S. Department of Energy: Assistance restoring power to affected communities.
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Flood fighting support and operations; Assessments of water treatment facilities and critical infrastructure; equipment.
  • U.S. Department of Transportation: Technical assistance and assessments of damaged federal roadways.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Assistance with damaged health care facilities and evacuation of patients from at-risk facilities.
  • U.S. Geological Survey: Assistance with data collection and incident impacts.

On Tuesday, all three members of Montana’s Congressional¬† delegation — Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester and Rep. Matt Rosendale — also sent a joint message to Biden urging the declaration.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.