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Roads with high centers became islands of refuge for cattle in vast areas of northern Montana last weekend as mountains of snow melted into torrential floodwaters. There’s still above-average snowpack that is likely to keep flooding for weeks.

Hi-Line ranchers struggled to feed stranded livestock and farmers saw water standing in fields that won’t be planted in hay or wheat anytime soon. Secondary Highway 529 southwest of Chinook near the Milk River Bridge remained barricaded and closed Monday afternoon, according to the Montana Department of Transportation. The Hi-Line’s main east-west route, U.S. Highway 2 didn’t close over the weekend and was still open Monday afternoon, MDOT said.

This is a spring disaster, following a hard winter with a high-loss calving season, after the most expensive Montana wildfire season ever. The latest summer forecast calls for “above average fire potential in July and August,” according to meteorologists with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. As reported in Monday’s Gazette, the La Nina cycle that has brought cooler, damper weather is receding and is expected to be replaced with a warmer, drier weather pattern.

When large-scale disasters strike, it is the responsibility of government to protect people and property — to do the rescue, mitigation and infrastructure repair that none of us could manage individually.

Last week, Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in the city of Chester, the Fort Belknap Reservation and in seven surrounding counties. Bullock released a statement on April 18 saying “we are doing everything necessary at the state level to protect health and safety and to preserve lives, property and resources.”

Bullock’s order applies to Liberty, Pondera, Hill, Blaine, Valley, Toole and Petroleum counties. He authorized the use of necessary state government services, equipment and supplies. Under the governor’s order, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can use resources for critical infrastructure protection.

Meanwhile, Fort Belknap and Blackfeet tribal authorities requested and received sandbags directly from the Corps and Bureau of Indian Affairs, Ganieany said Monday.

 “The State Emergency Coordination Center in Helena continues to respond to resource and technical assistance requests for local and tribal jurisdictions, and does not have any unmet requests,” the governor’s office told The Gazette Monday.

When flood waters recede, local governments will be able to perform initial damage assessments and request further support needed from the state, the governor’s office noted last week. 

Rural floods don’t usually make the dramatic pictures of wildland fires or urban hurricane relief, but the damage can be enormous. So far the Montanans affected by the floods of 2018 haven’t asked for much state assistance, but the threat is far from over. The state disaster and emergency resources must be ready to deploy quickly as needs change with the deluge of snowmelt in an area prone to extensive flooding.

Let’s hope 2018 doesn’t go down as a record flood year. Let’s be prepared just in case it is one of the worst high-water years.

— The Billings Gazette

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