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Some of the forces of nature that helped shape Yellowstone National Park into one of America’s most beloved landscapes unleashed a frightening flood this week as warm rains combined with a rapidly melting snowpack to overwhelm waterways.
Trees were uprooted and washed away, rivers jumped their banks and tore out huge chunks of highway, bridges were destroyed and homes were swept off their foundations downstream.
More than 80 people were rescued from flooded campgrounds and small towns. Remarkably, no one was hurt.
The park evacuated 10,000 visitors and has closed its gates while it assesses damage to bridges, roads, trails and facilities. Residents of hamlets downstream cleaned up the mess from hundreds of swamped homes, pumping and dumping buckets of chunky brown water outside.
Damage came into sharp view from above where a flight by helicopter showed huge sections of roadway inside the park’s north entrance that had been swallowed up by the violent torrent.
The sinuous curve of the road along the Gardner River came to abrupt and jagged endings at several intervals. In one place, the river had changed course and flowed directly beneath where the road had run along a steep canyon hillside.
In Red Lodge, Montana, the waters of Rock Creek jumped their banks, washed over a bridge and slammed into a house that lay on its side as the current continued to push up against it.
Residents of Red Lodge cleared out muddy and flood-soaked toys and clothing. They hung wet garments on fences. A car parked on the street had tipped into a deep channel carved by waters that flooded the homes. A refrigerator and washing machine were on the sidewalk.
In the town of Gardiner, a driveway curved past a small house and appeared to drop off at the edge of the eroded bank of the Yellowstone River that sparkled silver in the sun. Until early Monday evening, it had led to a large house that was home to six park employees and their families. They had evacuated before it toppled into the roiling rapids and was carried 5 miles (8 kilometers) downstream before sinking.
While Gardiner was largely spared from the flooding, its business could dry up if the park stays closed and tourists don’t pass through on their way to Yellowstone.
The Yellowstone River was still raging but it was no time to be on the river — even for whitewater experts. At Flying Pig Adventures, a rafting company along the river, guides Jackson Muller and Christie Davis lounged in a raft in the sun with the owner’s dog, Bonnie. It was on a wooden deck and going nowhere.