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By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, Wyo. (Reuters) -Emergency crews scrambled on Tuesday to reopen roads and restore utilities in rural communities of Montana and Wyoming cut off by historic floods in the first natural disaster to force a summertime closure of Yellowstone National Park in 30 years.
Major sections of the park's northern half are expected to remain closed for the rest of the season, dealing an economic blow to adjacent gateway communities counting on a rebound in Yellowstone tourism for the park's 150th anniversary following two years of COVID-19 restrictions.
Montana Governor Greg Gianforte declared a statewide disaster, with rescue and relief efforts focused in three counties after days of record rainfall that triggered epic flooding, mudslides and rockfalls in the greater Yellowstone region.
The upheaval followed one of the region's wettest springs in many years and coincided with a sudden spike in summer temperatures that has hastened runoff of melting snow in the park's higher elevations from late-winter storms.
Record flooding and rockslides prompted park officials to shut down all five entrances to Yellowstone to inbound traffic on Tuesday, marking the park's first disaster-related closing in summer since wildfires roared through the area in 1988.
By Wednesday, all of Yellowstone's visitors, at least 10,000 people, had been safely evacuated, except for a dozen back-country campers still making their way out on their own, Superintendent Cam Sholly said in an online news briefing.
Sholly said the park's harder-hit northern tier would likely remain closed to visitors through the season. But the southern end of Yellowstone, encompassing Old Faithful Geyser and many of the park's other famous geothermal features, could reopen on a limited basis in a week or less, depending on how extensive the damage there turns out to be, he said.
Sholly said the park would probably explore a timed-entry or reservation system to prevent overcrowding of the park's southern loop when it reopens.
No deaths or injuries from the flooding have been reported, but startling video footage showed an entire riverfront house being swept off its foundation and into the raging torrent of the Yellowstone River north of the park on Monday. Sholly said the house, whose six park-employed residents had evacuated hours before, floated down the river for 5 miles.
At the request of local law enforcement agencies, the Montana National Guard sent helicopters to assist in search and rescue efforts in the small towns of Roscoe and Cooke City.
Gianforte said severe floods were "destroying homes, washing away roads and bridges, and leaving Montanans without power and water services.”
The only road out of Gardiner, home to some 900 people, many of them Yellowstone staff, was partially cleared Tuesday, after multiple rockslides and washouts had isolated the community, where Sholly said thousands of park visitors had been stranded. Residents and visitors were allowed out, while only delivery and emergency traffic was allowed in.
Floodwaters along the Yellowstone River were nearly a meter higher than their previous record highs measured more than a century ago, according to the National Weather Service.
Officials were still seeking to assess the condition of roads and bridges that wind through Yellowstone park and around Yellowstone Lake, the largest alpine lake in North America.
The winding North Entrance Road between Gardiner and park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming, was carved away in multiple places by surging floodwaters - washouts that will likely take months to fully repair.
Closing half of Yellowstone for the season will be a seismic shockwave for its devoted visitors and the gateway communities catering to them.
"This is going to be a pretty big hit," said Bill Berg, a commissioner of Park County, Montana.
The world’s first national park and one of the most popular outdoor destinations in the U.S., Yellowstone hosts 4 million visitors each year. Its $159 million annual budget helps maintain more than 1,500 buildings and 450 miles of road.
During peak summer season, up to 750 Park Service employees work in Yellowstone, along with 3,500 concessions workers who staff the park’s nine hotels and other guest facilities such as restaurants and gift shops.
Mike Darby, owner of the historic Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming, at Yellowstone’s East Gate, said two years of pandemic constraints followed by record high gasoline prices and spiraling inflation "have just been the perfect storm — and now we have this devastation in the park."
Darby said he expects local residents will band together to help each other and visitors navigate an uncertain season, much as they did during the 1988 fire.
“People love Yellowstone, and no matter what happens, it’s not going anywhere,” he said. "It’s always going to that special place for so many."
(Reporting by Ruffin Prevost in Cody, Wyo.; Editing Steve Gorman, Aurora Ellis and Gerry Doyle)