Montana Cities Face Flooding

Flood waters in Montana are rising and heading toward population centers. Deep snowpack melting in the northern Rocky Mountains is the main cause. Some communities are under several feet of water. Others are bracing for rising rivers, and a handful of towns are in cleanup mode. Federal emergency management officials are on the ground Tuesday, and the governor is mobilizing the state's national guard troops.

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The State of Montana is the latest victim in this springtime filled with floods. Some communities are under several feet of water from rain and melting snow. Other communities are bracing for rivers to rise, and some are already in cleanup mode.

Montana Public Radio's Emily Ritter has been talking with people throughout the state.

EMILY RITTER: Roundup, Montana has been hit hard. Much of the community is under six feet of water. It's a town of about 2,000 people in the center of the state. Billings is the closest city. But for the last week, people living in Roundup haven't been able to get to Billings. Many roads in and out of town are closed.

EVERETT REAVES: We do feel isolated, actually.

RITTER: Everett Reaves owns the Keg Bar in Roundup.

REAVES: You know, you don't think about, well, going to Billings, which is the biggest city around here. You know, on a day to day, you don't really think about it until you can't go. And then it's - then you start to feel isolated.

RITTER: His bar is in upper Roundup, so he's not flooded. Reaves jokes business has been great for him because people don't have anywhere else to go right now.

Montana National Guardsmen are in Roundup and the nearby Crow Reservation, providing unarmed security and public safety. The Musselshell River runs through Roundup, and bar owner Reaves says it's been more than two feet above flood stage for the last week.

REAVES: We've been in like, what, seven- or eight-year drought. And the river has been - and sometimes, you could actually step across it or jump across it. That's how low the river was. So, yeah, to see it come up like this has caught a lot of people off guard.

RHONDA MARTENS: I'm going to try and save what I can.

RITTER: More than 300 miles west of Roundup, Rhonda Martens is moving her most valuable possessions out of her Missoula home. The rising Clark Fork River could be at her doorstep within days.

MARTENS: Load up what I can, and I have a trailer coming, so just got to try and pick and choose what's important and what's not.

RITTER: Martens says even though her property is next to a river, she can't quite wrap her mind around the possibility of a flooded home.

MARTENS: You don't expect it. You just can't prepare for something like this. You just don't foresee this much water happening here.

RITTER: Folks living along rivers and in floodplains expect high water each spring during runoff, but the tough part about this spring is record levels of mountain snowpack really hasn't started melting yet. Add up to a foot of rain in some parts of the state to the already saturated ground, and National Weather Service hydrologist Gina Loss says you'll run out of places to put the water.

GINA LOSS: And not only are these two events occurring, but we have a lot of snow and a lot of rain. So as those collide, those combine, it's just more water than our water system is used to dealing with. And so we've got water that - it just can't stay in the banks. There's just far too much for that to happen.

RITTER: State officials warn the May floods could just be the beginning of June flooding. Monique Lay has been with the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services office for 20 years.

MONIQUE LAY: We've had flooding in prior years, and I was here for the '97 floods, which wasn't historic here. But this is hitting every corner in the state and everything in between.

RITTER: The National Weather Service says as much as two feet of water will be pouring out of the mountain snowpack in the next few weeks. Now, water managers are looking wearily downstream toward the Dakotas and Iowa if the swollen Missouri River makes its way east.

For NPR News, I'm Emilie Ritter in Helena, Montana.

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