More than 100 Homes Severely Damaged or Destroyed by Last Week’s Historic Flooding

Montana is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to activate its Individual Assistance program

By KEITH SCHUBERT, Daily Montanan

More than 100 homes in Carbon, Stillwater and Park counties were damaged or destroyed by historic and devastating floods last week, according to a letter from the governor’s office on Thursday.

The letter is a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency asking it to activate its Individual Assistance program, which provides funds and services to those eligible after a disaster.

“I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that an effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and local governments … supplementary federal assistance is necessary to augment the efforts and available resources of the state and local governments,” Gov. Greg Gianforte wrote in the letter addressed to Nancy Dragani, regional administrator of FEMA Region VIII.

The request includes activation of all programs under the Individual Assistance program, including the individuals and households program, other needs assistance, disaster case management, crisis counseling and assistance, disaster legal services, disaster unemployment insurance, critical needs assistance and cleaning and removal assistance — all of which are not currently authorized under the presidential major disaster declaration issued on June 16.

Damage surveys by the state estimate that 115 primary residences  — 23 in Carbon County, 53 in Park County and 39 in Stillwater County — experienced major damage or destruction or were completely washed away, according to the letter.

Compounding the issue is housing affordability in the counties.

According to the letter, the cost of a mortgage in Park County is about 37.7% of a household’s income and 33.8% in Carbon County. The Montana average is 28.8% and the national average is 27.2%. For renters in Park County, the cost of rent is about 33.8% of a household’s income; for Carbon County, it’s 33.6%, and for Stillwater, it’s 30.8%.

“The communities surrounding the impacted areas are currently in the beginning months of their tourist seasons. Very few rentals are available and even fewer rentals are affordable,” the letter reads. “Due to the impacts of COVID-19 on the housing market, and a marked increase in inflation over the past year, rental rates and home prices have increased significantly without a proportional increase in the fixed income of those affected.”

Mobile homes were also acutely affected, according to the letter. There are 686 mobile homes in high flood risk census tracks in the affected counties — 441 in Park County, 98 in Stillwater County and 147 in Carbon County.

“Mobile home residents have been shown to be disproportionately impacted by disasters — due to physical characteristics of the home, location, social vulnerabilities of residents and complicated ownership arrangements, which means that they can be excluded from some legal protections (such as eviction notices),” the letter reads.

Many homeowners in the impacted counties were at risk of being underinsured or not having flood insurance at all, according to the letter. According to state Insurance Commissioner Troy Downing’s office, only 18 households had flood insurance policies in Red Lodge, 58 in Carbon County, nine in Livingston, 77 in the unincorporated parts of Park County and two in Columbus.

“Because the survivors of these floods are particularly vulnerable, the size and scope of the devastation in these communities makes it clear that no amount of insurance is adequate to address the immediate or long-term needs of the survivors of this destruction,” the letter states.

Further piling on to the complicated recovery efforts is the counties’ reliance on tourism to Yellowstone National Park. According to the letter, the park generates more than $237 million in spending, creating more than $100 million in labor income throughout the state.

And Carbon and Park counties may be the hardest hit by this factor.

“Not only did they suffer some of the of the greatest damage, but they also have the largest share of jobs tied to travel and tourism in south central Montana,” the letter reads. “It’s hard to understate how important the coming tourism season is for these communities.”

In Montana, around 20% of jobs are tied to travel and tourism. But in Carbon County, the industry accounts for 39% of jobs and 26% of wages. In Park County, it accounts for 31% of jobs and 26% of wages.

Nine major highways have also received significant damages, and many areas remain inaccessible due to the shortage of alternate routes, according to the letter.

To help with highway recovery and rebuilding access to Yellowstone National Park, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration announced $65 million “Quick Release” Emergency Relief Funding on Thursday — $60 million will go to the National Park Service, $3 million will go to the Montana Department of Transportation and $2 million will go to the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

The money is a down payment to help repair flood damage that caused the closure of Yellowstone National Park and impacted roads and bridges in Montana, Wyoming, and the surrounding areas, according to a release from the U.S. DOT.

“Each year Americans look forward to spending time in Yellowstone, and for the nearby communities, their tourism is a vital part of the regional economy,” U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg said in the release. “We’re committed to providing immediate assistance with this emergency relief funding, to get roads and bridges in Yellowstone and the surrounding area that were damaged in this recent wave of flooding fixed as quickly as possible.”

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.

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