Decades of Devastation. The Five Worst Floods in Montana History
Montanans are thankful that we don't live in a part of the country that experiences a lot of natural disasters. Sure, we have forest fires. And while they can be devastating, they typically don't impact heavily populated areas. We don't have hurricanes or tsunamis, nor are we in tornado alley. We've only experienced one deadly earthquake in modern history, the shaker that formed Quake Lake in 1959.
Flooding isn't common, but when it happens... it can be bad.
Some of the western parts of Montana are classified as a Pacific Coastal climate, while most of the state falls into the "semi-arid" descriptor. Note the "arid" part. Dry climates typically don't experience a lot of severe flooding, but every few decades a perfect weather combination collides, resulting in severe flooding (like we've seen this spring in south-central Montana). According to the National Weather Service, here are the most significant flood events in recorded Montana history.
Orville and Wilbur Wright received national attention in 1908 for their amazing flying machine, but in Big Sky Country the headline of the year was the massive flood of 1908. A cool, wet spring brought record rainfall around the state with Gallatin, Park, Sweet Grass, Carbon, and western Cascade counties receiving 8 to 12 inches of rain in May. The showers continued into June with 4 to 12 inches of rain falling in Western Montana. Most of the rivers and streams in Southwestern Montana flooded for several days in early June with the railroads experiencing miles of washed-out tracks and trestles.
Heavy precipitation in May of 1948, followed by abnormally warm temperatures resulted in significant flooding across the state. The Clark's Fork River near Plains marked its highest levels ever at a whopping 134,000 cubic feet per second. Estimated losses west of the Divide were noted at nearly $3,000,000 and heavy flooding also occurred along the Missouri and Sun River basins.
June 1964 was exceptionally wet in the Treasure State. Heavy spring snow, followed by heavy rain resulted in what was called "one of the most devastating floods of Northern Rocky Mountain history." The Marias River near Shelby hit a whopping 241,000 cubic feet per second after 10 inches of rain fell in just 36 hours in multiple locations in Glacier National Park.
The Oldsmobile Cutlass was the number one selling car in America in the late 70s and while it was a great year for General Motors, it was not a great year for flooding in Montana. Record snowfall in May (15 - 32 inches of central Montana and northern Wyoming) led to record high water on the Yellowstone River. Miles City recorded 102,000 cubic feet per second and the federal government declared disasters in nineteen counties in Montana and Wyoming. Flood damage to buildings, cropland, and infrastructure topped $33 million.
The National Weather Service writes, "through a series of events, flooding eventually hit all corners of the state at some time during winter, spring or summer" in 2011. Ice jams kicked off the floods in winter/early spring and things got progressively worse from there. Perhaps you recall the flooding near Roundup, one of the areas hardest hit by the floods of 2011 which saw the Musselshell River flooding its banks in the area.
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