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Communities along the Yellowstone River are digging out from mud and debris

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden has approved a major flood disaster declaration for parts of Montana near Yellowstone National Park. Communities along a 200-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River are digging out from under mountains of mud and debris, and some worry that damage will rob them of a summer tourist season. Yellowstone Public Radio's Kayla Desroches reports.

KAYLA DESROCHES, BYLINE: Red Lodge sits at the foot of the towering Beartooth mountain range. A popular scenic highway route to Yellowstone starts here. Snowmelt from the mountains feeds Rock Creek, which flows through town. This week, though, it swelled up and gushed down main street.

AMY HYFIELD: They've done a lot of work to pile up a lot of rocks and things there so they can try and get that water back into the regular channel.

DESROCHES: Fire Rescue spokesperson Amy Hyfield stands back from a jagged ledge of pavement suspended over rushing water, showing where the creek has now been rerouted. Officials say around 300 homes in and around Red Lodge were damaged by flooding. Detailed damage assessments aren't in yet, but the creek, swollen with rain and snowmelt, filled basements and cut off water and sewer lines.

(CROSSTALK)

DESROCHES: Scores of people came to the high school gym Tuesday night for information about disaster response.

TOM KUNTZ: Right now Red Lodge should not be open for business.

DESROCHES: Local incident commander Tom Kuntz said Red Lodge should not open for business and that people should not come from Billings because there's no place for them to go. Billings is the city nearby where a lot of visitors to Yellowstone National Park start their trips. State figures show they spend about $68 million a year in the Red Lodge area. Jenn Capp's company manages 35 rental homes here.

JENN CAPP: It's going to be a rough ride.

DESROCHES: Capp says the company lost four houses to the flood. Their reservations for the next week canceled. Yellowstone National Park says some entrances could reopen as soon as Monday, but not the ones near Red Lodge. Park officials say the north end of the park probably won't reopen this summer.

CAPP: We're all actively discussing as a team how to tackle this.

DESROCHES: Randi Kapor works the front desk at The Yodeler, the longest-running motel in Red Lodge.

RANDI KAPOR: It caught water. The entire downstairs flooded. So we lost 10 rooms and an apartment.

DESROCHES: Kapor says she's been helping the owners dig through wreckage.

KAPOR: The downstairs is totaled. We'll have to totally gut it out - walls, carpet, everything.

DESROCHES: Yodeler owner Tulsa Dean says the business makes 60% of its income from June through September. That's about $270,000. She says insurance won't cover flood damage, and she's not sure the business will last the summer if they don't receive federal assistance. In a briefing for Montana's lieutenant governor, Red Lodge Fire Chief Tom Kuntz said the flood came at a very bad time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUNTZ: We're a tourist community. That's where we make our money, and that's the lifeblood of, you know, a lot of Montana this time of year. But it's especially true in Red Lodge. You know, most of our business happens in July and August.

DESROCHES: After the community meeting, Kuntz said warm weather and more rain are in the forecast, so things might not be over yet.

KUNTZ: We may see increased erosion in places because there's already erosion. So just because it doesn't get as high as it did before doesn't mean we aren't going to see, you know, increasing damage.

DESROCHES: Authorities say it might take years for Red Lodge to recover. Some businesses worry they won't survive the summer.

For NPR News, I'm Kayla Desroches in Billings. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.