Hell and high water 

Scenes from the Missoula flood

Page 3 of 4

Subway is donating sandwiches today. Twenty-some cases of bottled water sit at what volunteers and neighbors are now calling "The Café." Trucks keep showing up to haul sandbags to neighborhoods downstream. One rolls up and Dufner directs church members to load it up and head to her backyard. "We need to get some of these across the river," she says. "We'll have to pitch them over the fence."

Soon I'm standing in the trench next to Randy Newman's garage, sending sandbags down a line of volunteers to the hole in Dufner's fence. "Heavy. Light. Heavy. Heavy"—the guy unloading the bags from the pickup is kind enough to give the rest of us an idea of what's coming. Some of the bags are saturated with rainwater. Any loss in momentum along the line results in grunts, dropped bags, and jokes. Occasionally a bag explodes, dumping sand everywhere. The mosquitoes are almost unbearable.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Several other volunteers are loading sandbags into green metal carts and slogging through the mud to Dufner's driveway. If the water knocks down any more walls on the far side of Kehrwald, she now has a surplus of sandbags close at hand.

Water rushes down an alley and around a basketball hoop reinforced with extra sandbags. "All the folks in those houses have been evacuated," Dufner tells the crowd of volunteers. "Most haven't made it back in weeks." The group stares in fascination; most haven't seen the extent of the flooding over here. It's a stark contrast to the wade-able inches on much of Tower.

"Are you guys freaked out?" someone asks.

"No, we're pretty high up," Dufner answers. "The flooding tore up the pavement on Kehrwald too, so the water's not as high as it would have been."

Stunned silence.

click to enlarge Jason Dufner keeps his eye on a new channel of the Clark Fork carving its way past his home on Kehrwald Drive. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Jason Dufner keeps his eye on a new channel of the Clark Fork carving its way past his home on Kehrwald Drive.

On the way to the sandbagging station, I check in with Randy Newman. He and his girlfriend, Tina Anderson, are busy putting additional latticework on the side of their house. Their hop plants are growing fast with all this water, Anderson says. Newman climbs onto the edge of the deck and balances precariously on his one leg. I hand him a screw and he fixes the lattice in place. "I just had to do some of this mundane yard work today," he says. "Get my mind off all this shit."

Newman suffers from social anxiety, he says. The buzz of volunteers has been tough on him. When the first loads of sand were dumped in front of his house a few days ago, he says, he had to pop a Xanax to keep from shouting at the volunteers. That has no bearing on his appreciation. "We had no idea people were going to come out and give up their time to help people that live miles away," he says. "They had to haul out lights for the people who were working late last night. Doing it for strangers."

As the afternoon wanes, the Army Corps retrieves its excavator and employees with the Missoula County Public Works Department arrive to clean up the excess riprap. No one cheers as the levee equipment pulls out. Most continue their tasks; a few pause to grumble. Next week, the Army Corps and county will agree that the levee's effectiveness was mixed.

click to enlarge Scores of volunteers flocked to Tower Street to fill sandbags. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Lawson offers a couple of sandbaggers a tour of the Kehrwald flooding. The flow appears just as strong as yesterday, despite the new berm. A young boy looks at the rapids separating Newman's backyard from Ivan Yarmolich's trailer. "Woah," he says, "it's like a river back here."

Lawson's reply has such a darkly sober edge it makes me shudder. "We call it Kehrwald Creek, honey."

Still not enough

The weather warms significantly Sunday. The volunteer sandbaggers on Tower Street thin dramatically. A few Boy Scouts and some concerned locals are all that's left. The neighborhood that buzzed with activity a few days ago now looks nearly deserted. Even the sandwiches have stopped coming.

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