Outside Yellowstone, flooded towns struggle to recover

As officials scramble to reopen Yellowstone National Park to tourists after record floods pounded southern Montana, some of those hardest hit in the disaster live far from the famous park’s limelight and are leaning heavily on one another to pull their lives out of the mud.

In and around the agricultural community of Fromberg, the Clarks Fork River flooded almost 100 homes and badly damaged a major irrigation ditch that serves many farms. The town’s mayor says about a third of the flooded homes are too far gone to be repaired.

Not far from the riverbank, Lindi O’Brien’s trailer home was raised high enough to avoid major damage. But she got water in her barns and sheds, lost some of her poultry and saw her recently deceased parents’ home get swamped with several feet of water.

Elected officials who showed up to tour the damage in Red Lodge and Gardiner — Montana tourist towns that serve as gateways to Yellowstone — haven’t made it to Fromberg to see its devastation. O’Brien said the lack of attention is no surprise given the town’s location away from major tourist routes.

She said she’s not resentful but resigned to the idea that if Fromberg is going to recover, its roughly 400 residents will have to do much of the work themselves.

“We take care of each other,” O’Brien said as she and two longtime friends, Melody Murter and Aileen Rogers, combed through mud-caked items scattered across her property. O’Brien, an art teacher for the local school, had been fixing up her parents’ home with hopes of turning it into a vacation rental. Now she’s not sure it’s salvageable.

“When you get tired and get pooped, it’s OK to stop,” O’Brien said to Murter and Rogers, whose clothes, hands and faces were smeared with mud.

Yellowstone will partially reopen at 8 a.m. Wednesday, more than a week after more than 10,000 visitors were forced out of the park when the Yellowstone and other rivers went over their banks after being swelled by melting snow and several inches of rainfall.

But the northern half of the nation’s oldest national park, which is marking its 150th anniversary this year, is expected to remain closed through the summer, if not longer, along with one of the major entrances to the park through Montana. The closure will deprive visitors from seeing Tower Fall and Lamar Valley, one of the best places in the world to see wolves and grizzly bears.

Meanwhile, outside of the population centers that border the park, there’s a maze of damaged roads. A key bridge that leads to the town of Fishtail collapsed, causing traffic to divert through a single-lane county road. There are about 500 people in Fishtail.

Lee Johnson and his wife and daughter run the restaurant Montasia, so named because it’s a fusion of Malaysian and Montana cuisine. He said business has plummeted.

“When we opened for the first time after the flood, it started just dead. And you start to have that sense of dread creep in. Did I do all this, did I sink all this money in, have I started this business and people can’t even get here anymore?” Johnson said.

Johnson and his Malaysian wife Yokie took over the lease on a landmark 124-year-old Fishtail building earlier this year, transferring their restaurant from another part of the state. For Yokie, the business was a dream come true.

“Not being from Montana, I wanted to own something,” she said. Going into business with her family was her biggest goal. Yokie said running the restaurant gives her strength as she battles cancer.

“I’m not sure how much time I have left, so the time I have left I want to be with my family, work with them every day, see them every day,” she said.

Johnson said he is humbled by the chance to support his wife and determined to keep the restaurant open while the flood damage is repaired.

“You hitch your wagon to this community and it’s just a matter of keeping up,” he said.

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