The Yellowstone National Park Flood: How Did It Happen and How Can It Recover?
Founded in 1872, Yellowstone National Park was America’s first national park. Located in eastern Idaho, southwest Montana, and northwest Wyoming, the 2.2-million-acre park celebrated its 150th anniversary this year; however, that isn’t the only historical event it experienced in 2022. In June, the park experienced severe flooding that caused rivers to crest at heights unseen in 100 years.
What Caused Yellowstone to Flood?
Yellowstone’s severe flooding was caused by a combination of heavy rainfall and snow thaw. In mid-June, an atmospheric river caused severe rain in the Pacific Northwest, then moved over Wyoming and Montana, resulting in several inches of rain. These weather phenomena are narrow, long, river-shaped regions in the atmosphere that carry water vapor from the tropics to other locations. The combination of the rainfall with a warm spell sped up the melting of heavy snow, causing severe flooding.
On June 12, in anticipation of potential flooding, the park closed the roads on Dunraven Pass, North Entrance, and Northeast Entrance. This proved to be a wise decision, as on June 13, flood waters rushed through the park, destroying several sections of road along the North Entrance, damaging wastewater infrastructure, causing widespread rockslides and mudslides, and leading to power outages for the majority of the park.
This concerned Yellowstone officials, leading them to close the park and order an evacuation of more than 10,000 visitors on June 13. The park reopened at limited capacity on June 22 and has since returned to regular capacity in the undamaged areas.
Yellowstone Flood Damage: How Bad Was It?
The damage caused by the Yellowstone flood was devastating. The rushing flood waters destroyed large swaths of the park’s roads, bridges, waste systems and powerlines, and even swept away entire buildings. The damage was not limited to the park. Several communities experienced catastrophic damage to their homes and infrastructure. There were power outages, and some could not access clean drinking water. The cities of Gardiner and Cook City, Montana were left virtually isolated due to flooding and road damage.
It’s unknown exactly how long recovery will take and what it will cost, but some early predictions point to a price tag of more than $1 billion.
Will Yellowstone National Park Flood Again?
The June flood was catastrophic, but it likely will not be the last severe flood at Yellowstone. Recent research predicts that flash floods will be much more common in the United States.
Yellowstone isn’t the only national park that has contended with extreme flooding in recent years. In 2006, severe flooding led Mount Rainier National Park in Washington to close for six months after an estimated $36 million in damage. The Insurance Journal reported that floods have caused substantial damage to several other parks and all 400 national parks are at risk of similar flood events.
In discussing the challenges of the rebuild, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly suggested that efforts to restore the park to the same condition as prior to the flood would be inadequate. “I don’t think it’s going to be smart to invest potentially, you know, tens of millions of dollars, or however much it is, into repairing a road that may be subject to seeing a similar flooding event in the future.” Perhaps the infrastructure of the parks may need to be redesigned to combat the changing climate.
Who Will Pay for Yellowstone’s Recovery?
Recovery funds for Yellowstone have come from several different government agencies and even crowdfunding.
On June 23, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced that they would quickly release emergency funding to help repair flood damage in Yellowstone Park and affected areas in Montana and Wyoming. The money will be distributed with $60 million going toward the National Park Service, $3 million to the Montana Department of Transportation (DOT) and $2 million to the Wyoming DOT.
Funding has also been made available for individuals affected by the flood. On July 22, FEMA announced that Yellowstone County was approved for Individual Assistance. The U.S. Small Business Administration approved disaster loans totaling more than $4.5 million. The administration is taking applications for Home Disaster Loans, Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Business Physical Disaster Loans.
These early funding announcements have scratched the surface, but millions more will need to be spent in the coming years. FEMA assistance can help homeowners, but those without flood insurance may take longer to recover.
The Montana Commissioner of Securities and Insurance has reported that very few residents of the affected area had flood insurance. He stated that in his conversations with flood victims, they shared that they had decided against insurance due to cost. It only makes the tragedy worse that in retrospect, flood insurance could have helped these homeowners recover.
Recent research has estimated that 23% of properties in the U.S. have a moderate-to-high risk of flooding despite being outside designated Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA). If your clients are concerned about their flood risk, flood insurance could be an option. There are coverage options from the NFIP and private flood providers, as well.