BILLINGS, Mont. – More rain is on tap this week for Montana communities besieged with flooding that has isolated a town near the Wyoming border, claimed at least one life and left another person missing, state and local authorities said Monday.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer declared a statewide emergency as broad areas of southeastern Montana remained underwater.
Rural communities in southeastern Montana, including the Crow Reservation, were hardest hit, authorities said.
In Carbon County, 84-year-old Betty Kebschull was killed after she fell into a flooding ditch.
Kebschull was swept a short distance downstream from her house near Boyd, where authorities found her body Saturday, Deputy Coroner Ben Mahoney said. A Monday autopsy confirmed she drowned.
In Yellowstone County, authorities were searching for a man reported missing after a roadway apparently washed out from underneath a backhoe he was operating near Pryor Creek.
Rescue crews later Monday went into the water to search the cab of the backhoe thinking that the man — 47-year-old Clint Stovall — may have been trapped, but didn't find him. Crews also searched downstream of the site, Sheriff Mike Linder said.
Authorities planned to resume searching Tuesday morning.
Montana Disaster and Emergency Services Division chief Ed Tinsley said Schweitzer's emergency declaration would free up state agencies to devote resources to the flood response.
"We've got 21 jurisdictions — county, tribal and city — experiencing some type of flooding across the state," Tinsley said. "Citizens need to be aware and never drive a road that has water moving over it."
Flooding and other problems also were reported in Cascade, Fergus and Judith Basin counties in the central part of the state and Valley and Custer counties to the east.
A 50-mile stretch of Interstate 90 remained closed Monday, leaving about 2,000 residents of Lodge Grass — part of the Crow Reservation — and surrounding areas largely cut off from the outside.
The mountains outside Lodge Grass received 8.4 inches of rain over a four-day period ending Sunday. Other parts of the state received from almost 2 inches to more than 6 inches of rain.
Some residents risked driving through the high water on Monday to travel south to Sheridan, Wyo., to stock up on supplies. Among them was Big Horn County Commissioner John Pretty On Top.
"The street that gets us out on the interstate was just a big river. We were able to get across it with pickups," Pretty On Top said. "I was just at Walmart (in Sheridan) and a lot of our people were there grocery-ing up. And some people from higher ground are getting groceries for the relatives down below."
Big Horn County Emergency Services Coordinator Ed Auker said the flooding was concentrated in the town's business district and extended for several blocks.
"We've got water everywhere," Auker said. "It took out the major infrastructure, which in Lodge Grass consists of the grocery store. They are pretty isolated until the water goes down."
Auker said authorities were using boats to reach rural areas and had evacuated an unspecified number of residents.
Tribal leaders declared the reservation a disaster area, and said the towns of Wyola, Crow Agency, St. Xavier and Pryor also suffered flooding.
Residents of the reservation were warned not to travel except for emergencies, and shelters were set up in Billings, about 40 miles away.
After a shelter at a church in Billings filled, authorities opened another shelter in a residence hall at Montana State University-Billings. As many as 240 people from the towns of Hardin and Crow Agency were expected to arrive at the university beginning Monday, said Yellowstone County emergency chief Duane Winslow.
Several weather systems that could bring more rain were expected to pass through Montana over the next week, said National Weather Service meteorologist Keith Meier in Billings.
With the ground already saturated, any significant rainfall was likely to produce more flooding.
"We're stuck in this broken-record weather pattern," Meier said. "Everybody's concern now is to buy some time to let this water drain out of there and get things back to normal" before the rain returns.
A flood warning was in effect for eastern and southern Yellowstone county through Tuesday night. Flood watches were issued for 13 southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming counties.
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