BILLINGS – More rain is on tap this week for Montana communities besieged with flood waters that have swamped neighborhoods and rural farmland and isolated a town near the Wyoming border, officials said.
Authorities in Yellowstone County were searching for a man reported missing after a backhoe he was operating along Pryor Creek tipped into the water.
Rescue crews were waiting for water levels to drop to see if the man got stuck in the cab of the backhoe and drowned. Crews also were searching downstream of the site, Sheriff Mike Linder said.
The man’s name has not been released.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer declared a statewide emergency Monday. Disaster and Emergency Services Division chief Ed Tinsley said the declaration would free up state agencies to devote resources to the emergency response.
“We’ve got 21 jurisdictions — county, tribal and city — experiencing some type of flooding across the state,” Tinsley said. “Citizens need to be aware and never drive a road that has water moving over it.”
Rural communities in southeastern Montana, including the Crow Reservation, were hardest hit, authorities said. Flooding and other problems also were reported in Cascade, Fergus and Judith Basin counties in the central part of the state and Valley and Custer counties to the east.
A 70-mile stretch of Interstate 90 remained closed Monday, leaving about 2,000 residents of Lodge Grass — part of the Crow Reservation — and surrounding areas largely cut off from the outside.
The mountains outside Lodge Grass received 8.4 inches of rain over a four-day period ending Sunday. Other parts of the state received from almost 2 inches to more than 6 inches of rain.
Some residents risked driving through the high water on Monday to travel south to Sheridan, Wyo., to stock up on supplies. Among them was Big Horn County Commissioner John Pretty On Top.
“The street that gets us out on the Interstate was just a big river. We were able to get across it with pickups,” Pretty On Top said. “I was just at Walmart (in Sheridan) and a lot of our people were there grocery-ing up. And some people from higher ground are getting groceries for the relatives down below.”
Big Horn County Emergency Services Coordinator Ed Auker said the flooding was concentrated in the town’s business district and extended for several blocks.
“We’ve got water everywhere,” Auker said. “It took out the major infrastructure, which in Lodge Grass consists of the grocery store. They are pretty isolated until the water goes down.”
Auker said authorities were using boats to reach rural areas and had evacuated an unspecified number of residents.
Tribal leaders declared the reservation a disaster area, and said the towns of Wyola, Crow Agency, St. Xavier and Pryor also suffered flooding.
Residents of the reservation were warned not to travel except for emergencies, and shelters were set up in Billings, about 40 miles away.
After a shelter at a church in Billings filled, authorities opened a second shelter in a residence hall at Montana State University-Billings. About 150 people from the towns of Hardin and Crow Agency were expected to arrive at the university Monday.
Several weather systems that could bring more rain were expected to pass through Montana over the next week, said National Weather Service meteorologist Keith Meier in Billings.
With the ground already saturated, any significant rainfall was likely to produce more flooding.
“We’re stuck in this broken-record weather pattern,” Meier said. “Everybody’s concern now is to buy some time to let this water drain out of there and get things back to normal” before the rain returns.
A flood warning was in effect for eastern and southern Yellowstone county through Tuesday night. Flood watches were issued for 13 southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming counties.
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