MT flood strands families

Last Thursday, Janet Ryffel drove across her driveway bridge, nervously watching floodwaters rise.

BY SUSAN KIM | HIGHWOOD, Montana | June 10, 2005

"We can’t drive to the house right now."

—Janet Ryffel

Last Thursday, Janet Ryffel drove across her driveway bridge, nervously watching floodwaters rise. Later that day, her husband called her at work to tell her the bridge was gone.

Since then she gets home by walking across a beam propped over the creek. Her neighbors are in the same predicament.

Starting on June 1, areas in the Highwood and Shonkin mountains of Chouteau, Judith Basin and Cascade counties received more than 12 inches of rain over 72 hours. During this same period, areas along the west side of the continental divide near the Mission Mountains in Lake County reported receiving more than 6 inches of rain in about 36 hours. Now local offiicals are reporting widespread damage to roadways, bridges and other infrastructure. The rising water also caused numerous evacuations from ranches, farms and recreational sites.

Flooding wiped out private bridges of ranch families already struggling to make ends meet, said the Rev. Brent Wepprecht, pastor at the Highwood United Methodist Church. “We had been suffering a drought for six years, and then it rained for two days straight,” he said. “The ground was unable to hold it.”

Washed-out bridges mean that people in mountain communities are isolated, he said. “These bridges have served these communities since the 1950s, since the last great flood.”

Farm families have been finding a way across the creek to get necessities such as groceries, but getting farm supplies, trucks and equipment across is another matter, he said. “After this prolonged drought, farm families have been borrowing money as it is. They operate on a small margin as it is.”

Janet Ryffel and her husband raise cattle. Her husband is also a mail carrier and a bus driver, and Janet has a job in town. “We can’t drive to the house right now,” she said.

And a new bridge will have to be much longer, she said, since the flooded creek washed away so much of the riverbank.

“Our water is heated with propane,” she added. “And there is no way a huge propane truck can deliver through the water. We’re conserving that. Hopefully there will be some bridge somewhere it can get across.”

Her children have had to postpone their 4-H activities, she said. “Normally they would haul their animals to the fair. But we won’t have a bridge by July. Our girls also barrel race their horses, and they can’t get them out.

“Every time you go out, you think twice,” she said, “even when you haul out the garbage.”

Next door, cattle rancher David Ripley is already concerned about haying season. “We can’t get any of our haying equipment through the creek,” he said.

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