Recovery will be a struggle for flooded towns near Yellowstone

Matthew Brown and Brittany Peterson
The Associated Press

FROMBERG, Mont. — 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.

Lindi O’Brien sorts through personal mementos Friday in the barn at her parents’ home, which was badly damaged by the severe flooding in Fromberg, Montana.

‘We take care of each other’: 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.

A river flows through a missing section of a key bridge that leads to the tourist town of Fishtail, Mont. Friday, June 17, 2022. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Park officials said Sunday that they hope to reopen the park’s northern loop within the next two weeks, after saying previously that it would likely stay closed through the summer season. The northern loop would give visitors access to popular attractions including Tower Falls and Mammoth Hot Springs. But they’d still be barred from the Lamar Valley, which is famous for its prolific wildlife including bears, wolves and bison that can often be seen from the roadside.

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.

Yokie Johnson, right, co-owner of the restaurant MontAsia, talks with customers in Fishtail, Montana, on Thursday.

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.

Lee Johnson, center, works in the kitchen of the restaurant, MontAsia, he runs with his wife, Yokie, left, as their daughter, Rose, 15, helps out in Fishtail, Mont., Friday, June 17, 2022. A key bridge that leads to the tourist town collapsed, causing traffic to divert through a single-lane county road. Johnson says the limited access is costing them dearly. "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. (AP Photo/David Goldman)