A Blog by Gail Cushman
The Stillwater River Flood of 2022
As you know, I have been back and forth from Idaho to Montana and in June this year, I was in Montana during the five-hundred floods. I met several people who faced this flooding catastrophe bravely and told their stories. This is one story, and I plan to continue recounting others. The events are real, but I took poetic license to tell the stories. I have changed the names for privacy’s sake.
The phone rang and Melba answered it on the first ring. “It’s a little high and it’s still raining, but I’m okay,” she said into the phone to her son. She opened her front door and stepped outside. It was pouring so hard she could barely see the creek beside her house. Her dog Henry looked at the blackened sky and cowered back toward the door.
Montana usually receives about thirteen inches of rain a year in this area, but this year the rain fall already stood at ten inches, three of which had been received yesterday. It had been a dry early winter, followed by a cool spring and mountain snowfall, and by mid-June the snowpack was over one hundred percent. The farmers and ranchers would be smiling. It was going to be a wet spring, the first one in several years.
Melba pulled on an old sweater and sat down on the ancient rocker on the front porch. Despite the rain, the temperature was okay, cool, but a sweater would suffice.
“Mom, you have to leave,” Mark, her son, said into the phone for the second time. “Take what you need and drive to Billings to stay with Roni. Don’t wait, go now. The weatherman says rain all night, and who knows how high the East Rosebud will get. And you and Roni with the kids can all go to the new Top Gun movie. It’s supposed to be good, and the kids are dying to see it.” She shook her head as if he could see her. Not hearing anything, he pursued, “Has the creek passed the fence yet?”
She frowned and answered, in a not too friendly voice, “I’m not leaving. It’s not close to the house, it’s not even to the rose beds. It’ll stop. It always has. The flowers are enjoying all this rain, but, truthfully, they look at little drenched right now.”
“Mom, be reasonable,” Mark said. “Don’t be so stubborn, just be safe. Drive into Billings and spend the night with Roni, you know, just in case. It’s only noon, and you’ll be there before 2:00 p.m., it’s less than an hour. Take Henry, too.”
She argued with her son for a few more minutes before he finally clicked off. He was such a worry wart. She had lived on the East Rosebud since her husband had passed away, nearly sixteen years. At seventy-eight, she had lived much of her life in this valley, and watched the seasons come and go. The creek was her creek, her friend, and she enjoyed its gurgling and splashing every day. It normally spanned about ten yards, but today it had swollen to about fifteen yards, was still rising, high, which was not too unusual. She still loved it.
She sat on the porch for another hour, watching the normally clear creek turn muddy. Mark was right, it was higher than usual, and some of the scrub Juneberries along the creekbanks had disappeared from view, as well as the clump of aspens. Yesterday they had waved at her from the creek, but now they were gone.
Maybe Mark was right, she should think about leaving. But surely the water would subside during the night. She was still four feet above the water level and twenty yards beyond the water line. Tomorrow was soon enough.
Before Melba went to bed, she called Mark again, “I’ve been thinking, if the water rises another foot, I’ll drive in for a couple days, so tell Roni to get ready for Tom Cruise. We’ll all go to the show tomorrow.”
The electricity had been flickering all evening, so her TV and lights were useless, and she called it quits about 9:00. “To heck with it, no TV, no lights, I’ll go to bed now.” She heard a tree fall in the distance and listened to the groans of the river before getting up and taking another Tylenol. She looked outside and saw water. The rose bushes were gone, and part of the fence was straining from the entrapped debris of tree limbs and logs in the rising water.
She called Mark. “Mark, the water’s getting worse, and I might need to leave early, so I’ll leave at about sunrise, but not until then. The rain seems to be letting up which is good.” She brushed her teeth, slipped into her nightgown, and crawled in bed, covering herself to her chin.
It was 2:30 when she heard the first sound. Rumbles. Low sounds echoed above the roar of the river. What in the world? Rocks? Or trees? Boulders, she was sure of it. She heard the low rumble and almost felt the ground shake. It sounded like a dump truck unloading big rocks, but not just one, several trucks and the drumbeat of that low sound didn’t stop. For the first time in her seventy-eight years, she felt a shiver run through her being. Her feet hit the floor and she ran to the front door, Henry close at her heels and she could see nothing but dark and rain and hear the sound of rushing water close, very close.
Stay tuned to hear more of Melba and Henry.
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If you would like to contribute to help these victims of this natural disaster, you can send a check to Flood Relief, Immanuel Lutheran Church, PO Box 343, Absarokee, Montana 59001