Hell and high water 

Scenes from the Missoula flood

Page 4 of 4

Maybe it's because the water is noticeably lower. Tower is passable in sneakers almost to the last row of houses. The trench through Randy Newman's side yard is running at a trickle. Sump pumps still roar, and a few sinkholes have formed, but there's nothing sandbags can do here now. Tower has instead become a staging area for relief to other flooding neighborhoods.

"We're feeding Clinton, Schmidt Lane, any place that needs it," Donna Lawson says. "We've got the field, and it's easier for the county to just deliver the sand and the bags here. They dumped sand for a few houses in Clinton, but the groundwater's rising fast there. They couldn't fill them fast enough."

I start shoveling. Two large piles of sand still sit out in the field off 3rd Street, and folks are filling reserve bags for anyone who needs them. A construction worker in a cowboy hat and boots complains about the political chatter at the next pile, cracks jokes about Wyoming. He's been there most of the day, he says. As the Boy Scouts, their troop leaders and other volunteers filter toward their cars, he's the only one left.

click to enlarge Residents and volunteers wear waders to prevent contact with water contaminated by bacteria released from inundated septic tanks. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Residents and volunteers wear waders to prevent contact with water contaminated by bacteria released from inundated septic tanks.

I check in with Newman, who heads down Tower with Lawson and two other neighbors. One of the sinkholes is marked with a blockade. Someone dropped a construction ladder in it; only two feet of it stick up over the Clark Fork.

The mood among the neighbors seems lighter. They're talking about having a block party when the flood recedes. Newman didn't know many of the people around here before. Neither did Lawson.

"I'm okay, and Ruthie's okay," Lawson says, indicating the house next to hers. "But a lot of the houses around us weren't. It's been amazing to see this community help itself out, even when the county was slow to."

The water's dropped a lot, I say. Looks like the situation's taking a turn.

"It'd still be nice if it were gone," a man says, passing in the other direction.

A couple arrives with a hamper of laundry, loads a canoe, and heads across the floodwater to a big orange house behind the Army Corps levee. Cars show up, glance at the water level, and drive away. Someone's rigged a sign at the end of Tower: "No wake zone. No life guard on duty." The warning seems like a joke save for the sad face spray-painted next to it.

While the volunteers have thinned, and rivers throughout western Montana are gradually dropping, the forecast doesn't bode well for Tower: Rain and warm weather are expected to drive the river back up later this month. Missoula county commissioners and the Army Corps say they're done building levees. And no one here even wants to think about the clean-up effort yet.

click to enlarge When the water here began receding June 10, sandbags filled by volunteers were taken to other areas still experiencing flooding. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • When the water here began receding June 10, sandbags filled by volunteers were taken to other areas still experiencing flooding.

As I head back down Tower—walking, for the first time, without knee-high boots—a truck rolls up. Droplets of rain have started to fall, and the woman inside leans her head out the window, craning her neck toward the current rushing down what used to be Kehrwald Drive.

"Water's gone down a lot," I say, echoing the optimism I've been hearing from neighbors all afternoon.

"Not enough," the woman answers. "You know the trailer across Kehrwald with the blue car outside? That's mine."

She puts her head on the steering wheel.

"I just want to go home," she says. "When can I go home?"

I've spent three days out here working to make things better. And all I can do is shrug.

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