Hell and high water 

Scenes from the Missoula flood

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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."

click to enlarge 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."

click to enlarge 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.

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