Hell and high water 

Scenes from the Missoula flood

The rain came again a little while ago, pelting the stack of moldering green bags next to me. Volunteers drift in and out of a tent nearby, rigged to shield the bottled water, protein bars, and hotdogs from a sky that refuses to let up. I lift the PVC tube out of my latest sandbag, tie the top, and throw it to the side. My shovel bites grass and dirt as I start on the next one. If we don't get another load of sand soon, there won't be anything left to fill bags.

Water ebbs over Tower Street, just a few yards away. It starts an inch deep and ends in the trees down the road in a torrent. The Clark Fork River is projected to crest at around 13 feet this evening—Thursday, June 9—so there's urgency in this work. I'm nearly two hours in and I have no idea how many bags I've filled. They keep disappearing in the backs of pickups, 50 to 100 at a time. There are about 40 other volunteers scurrying about different tasks. I wonder if they have any idea where these sandbags are going. I sure as hell don't.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The water started coming up on Tower, just off 3rd Street in Missoula's Orchard Homes district, about three weeks ago. Rainstorms and low-elevation snowmelt bloated the Clark Fork and casual chatter around town began to feature words like "hydrograph" and "flood stage." Since the homes in the Tower area are in a floodplain, they naturally became the focus of increasing media attention. Nearly half a dozen homes were evacuated on Kehrwald Drive, which has completely washed out.

The river rose nearly three feet in two days this week. Now, moving water surrounds sheds, trailers, and houses on the west side of Kehrwald. The only way across—for those still allowed—is a rope strung across a calmer stretch.

"I do have some riverfront property, if you're interested," Kathy Galbavy says, joshing with a few volunteers under the snack tent. Her house is on the other end of that rope.

Galbavy's nightmare started about a month ago. She knew the waters were steadily rising, but her husband was sick and—anticipating a repeat of the 1997 flood, which she rode out in the same house—Galbavy had to sandbag on her own. She bought 25 pre-filled sandbags at a supply store down the road. It cost her "an arm and a leg," she says." Totally ridiculous." She spent close to $200 before the sand trucks and volunteers finally arrived on June 8. By then, the immediacy of the threat had passed. "I think we'd already finished sandbagging before the county decided they'd give us sand," she says.

click to enlarge Volunteers from the Missoula Rural Fire Department dig a trench through Randy Newman’s yard on Tower Street. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Volunteers from the Missoula Rural Fire Department dig a trench through Randy Newman’s yard on Tower Street.

"I did get the photos out, and the important paperwork stuff, the TV, the VCR. But with the '97 flood, it wasn't this high, so I didn't bother with the couch. We even left the beds." She and her husband are staying at the KOA now. Their son loaned them his camper.

A truck from the county shows up with another ton or so of sand. The intermittent rain has turned it the consistency of wet concrete, and my shoulders are starting to throb. Lift with my knees, I tell myself, but it isn't working. I think of Kathy, her husband, the abandoned couch. I keep pitching sand.

Just down the street, Amanda Dufner directs volunteers streaming in to help. The call for sandbaggers went viral yesterday, she says, hitting Facebook and Twitter through groups like United Way, Forward Montana, and Imagine Montana. I note about 60 folks at two sandbagging stations. Wednesday night was mostly church groups, Dufner says. Members of the Missoula Rural Fire Department showed up all day today. Several Girl Scouts are tying and stacking bags for me. I've formed a bag-filling team with All Against the Haul coordinator Zack Porter and former Missoula City Councilman Roy Houseman.

"People have been incredible," Dufner says, nodding to the table of snacks donated by Rosauer's, the Good Food Store, and others. "It just shows the true spirit of Missoula."

Dufner's directing much of the volunteer effort today. Her waders are soaked and muddied from repeated trips to threatened homes. Her husband, Jason Dufner, who works with the Missoula Rural Fire Department, looks about the same. They're sitting pretty on Kehrwald, though; they have a high foundation, they sandbagged early, their two dogs are happy in the side yard. They get to their house through the backyard now, through a hole in the neighbor's fence that opens onto a slick patch of mud. But only two mailboxes are left standing up the street from their driveway. Others in this small riverside community aren't as lucky. "It just got fast and deep," Jason says. "The road started to wash out and it got ugly quick."

As floodwaters rise, Greg Larson ferries sandbags down Nancy Lou Drive on his ATV. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • As floodwaters rise, Greg Larson ferries sandbags down Nancy Lou Drive on his ATV.

A massive truck backs up past the sandbag station, towing a hulking excavator on a flatbed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is starting work on a temporary levee to divert the flow away from Kehrwald. High-powered work lights show up. A dump truck filled with riprap follows close behind. The neighbors look ecstatic.

But the day's developments have brought frustration as well. Randy Newman looks down in disgust at a cigarette butt floating in a puddle in his driveway, right next to the crowd of sandbaggers. "You want to see what some guy with a Bobcat did?" he asks. He spins his wheelchair around and heads into his backyard past a hastily dug channel draining groundwater from the far side of Tower. A deep set of Bobcat treads cuts across his lawn, past his picnic table and garden to where his yard slopes into the mess of Kehrwald. Someone was hauling sandbags through here. "Guy pulled a cookie right there," Newman says, pointing to a ripped up patch of grass. "I laid into the guy, told him it wasn't cool to go digging up my lawn with his Bobcat. I appreciate the help, I do. But you gotta be polite about it. Ask my permission, you know?"

Ivan Yarmolich walks up and gazes across Kehrwald. His trailer sits on the other side, his car parked next to it. He's surrounded by water and has to use the rope upstream to get home. The flood's not without its lighter moments, he says, showing Newman a cell phone photo of a local kid riding a raft down Kehrwald. "Crazy little guy."

click to enlarge Melissa Vantine wades toward her home to help volunteers with sandbagging. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Newman partly credits himself for the Army Corps' presence here tonight. Some guy in a uniform showed up on Tower this morning, he says. Turns out it was Colonel Anthony Wright. "I pulled him aside and said, 'Hey, that uniform mean you're going to help us out?' He told me, 'I'm heading back to my office to fill out the paperwork.' And here they are." The speedy response has impressed a lot of folks. They're heartened to see such a fast reaction after waiting weeks for help from Missoula County.

"I just want to thank you all for coming out tonight," a man says as we dig into the last shovelfuls of sand on Newman's boulevard. "My house wasn't sandbagged before. Now it is."

The sandbaggers rest their shovels, clap, and cheer. I look down Tower, where the water still ripples across the pavement. It's crested at 12.7 feet—below the forecast, but barely. The sound of the excavator mixes with the hum of a sump pump across the street. Nothing seems to have changed.

"They just made it worse."

On Friday I return to Tower Street, ready for another round with the shovel. The residents I met the day before look troubled, frustrated. Apparently there are questions buzzing about the Army Corps' emergency levee. Donna Lawson tells me the flow down Kehrwald changed direction and got worse. Amanda Dufner updates me; the new current knocked down a bunch of sandbags outside Kathy Galbavy's house. Now the yard's flooded. "We need anyone with waders to help us get sandbags across the river," Dufner tells the third straight shift of volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. "The current's pretty strong, though, so I'm not sure how we'll do it."

Left to right, Sarah Millar, Pam Houldin, and J. D. deliver sandbags to Orchard Homes residents. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Left to right, Sarah Millar, Pam Houldin, and J. D. deliver sandbags to Orchard Homes residents.

If my waders didn't have a hole in them, I'd head home to pick them up. The Missoula City-County Health Department has already warned volunteers that the floodwaters are filthy, that anyone with fresh cuts should check their tetanus booster status. Locals have told me that because of the rising groundwater, much of what we're wading in contains sewage.

Instead, I settle into a groove at a new sandbagging station in a field just off 3rd Street. The sun's out, it's warming up, and the locals sound hopeful that the water's receding. The hydrograph above Missoula says the Clark Fork's already dropped several tenths of an inch since cresting Thursday. Looking down Tower, though, you can't really tell.

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.

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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