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As waters from record flooding in Yellowstone National Park receded Thursday, surrounding communities were assessing the damage and bracing for the possible economic consequences ahead.
In Billings, Montana, officials restarted its water plant Thursday after asking residents to conserve water because it was down to a limited supply when the Yellowstone River hit record high levels and triggered the closure of the plant.
The city of 110,000 stopped watering parks and boulevards, and its fire department filled its trucks with river water. Normal operations resumed Thursday after the river level began to drop.
Floodwaters, meanwhile, continued to move downstream and were expected to reach Miles City in eastern Montana Friday morning. Local authorities said low-lying areas along the river could be flooded but there was no immediate risk to the city of more than 8,000 people.
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The unprecedented and sudden flooding earlier this week drove all but a dozen of the more than 10,000 visitors out of the nation’s oldest park.
No one was reported hurt or killed by raging waters that pulled homes off their foundations and pushed a river off course and may require damaged roads to be rebuilt a safer distance away.
The Montana National Guard had, as of Wednesday, rescued 87 people from small towns and a campsite affected by the floods. It said its soldiers were manning road checkpoints near Red Lodge, Montana, a gateway town to the park’s northern end, and had set up a command center there to help coordinate search and rescue operations.
Yellowstone officials are hopeful that next week they can reopen the southern half of the park, which includes Old Faithful geyser. Park officials say the northern half of the park, however, is likely to remain closed all summer, a devastating blow to the local economies at the height of tourist season.
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The rains hit just as hotels around Yellowstone filled up in recent weeks with summer tourists. More than 4 million visitors were tallied by the park last year. The wave of tourists doesn’t abate until fall, and June is typically one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.
It’s a blow not unlike how COVID-19 temporarily shut down Yellowstone two years ago, reducing the park’s June 2020 tourist visits by about one-third before they rebounded over the rest of that summer.
Shuttering the northern part of the park will keep visitors from features that include Tower Fall, Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar Valley, which is known for viewing wildlife such as bears and wolves.
Meantime, as the waters recede, parks officials are turning their attention to the massive effort of rebuilding many miles of ruined roads and, possibly, hundreds of washed-out bridges, many of them built for backcountry hikers.
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Montana’s Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras signed an emergency disaster declaration on Tuesday and said she was meeting with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and state disaster and emergency services personnel in Red Lodge on Thursday.
The Associated Press writers contributed to this report.