June 28-30 Rodeo Still a Go,

Barring More High Waters

Feature photo by Tia Troy. Main Street Augusta Sunday night, May 26, 2019 (left). Main Street Augusta Wednesday afternoon, May 29, 2019 (right).

Updates: Last updated June 3, 2019 at 8 a.m.
Rodeo Status: Barring any more potential flooding, the famed Augusta Rodeo is still on scheduled and slated for June 28-30. Stay tuned, as residents continue to clean up — and dry up — from the latest flooding onslaught.

Clean-Up Days:
In the meantime, the Augusta Chamber of Commerce will host two clean-up days on June 6 and June 8. Currently, volunteers are compiling a list of private and public locations that need attention. Local businesses will provide lunch and beverages both days.

See more resources at the end of our story:

Over Memorial Day weekend, Augusta, Montana and its surrounding area flooded. Again. Augusta, which sits at the base of the glorious Rocky Mountain Front, is an unincorporated town in Lewis and Clark County. It’s surrounded by ideal farmland and rangeland, and it’s a key access point for some of Montana’s most iconic public lands.

On the night of Sunday, May 26, Augusta’s Main Street transformed into a river and nearby farms and ranches became lakes. To a lot of folks, the weekend seemed like 2018 all over again when a “100-year flood” swept through the tiny cowboy town. Here’s the good news: the water has subsided, the cleanup process is underway, and the historic Augusta rodeo is still scheduled for the last weekend in June. The folks in town want everyone to know that Augusta is open for business.

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Last year, residents described Augusta’s 2018 flooding as some of the worst they have had in decades. It was right up there with the floods of 1964 and 1975. Elk Creek ran through Main Street. Bridges blew out. The neighboring lands lay deep in disarray. And the rodeo grounds were underwater, which delayed the one-and-only, famous Augusta Rodeo.

“We’ve had flooding in the past but they’ve always been earlier in the month like the first week of June,” Ben Arps told Prairie Populist last year. Arps, born and raised in Augusta, has been the rodeo chairman for 30 years. Never has he delayed the event.

2018 vs. 2019

This year, Augusta residents hope that the rodeo will go on as planned. That’s one of the many differences between last year’s flood and this year’s flood. Last year, the waters rose in late June, rather than late May when most people expect high rivers and creeks. Also, some properties fared better this year than last, while others fared worse. That change is likely due to 2018 flood that shifted the creek and altered the floodplain.

Another difference between the two events is that many locals felt better prepared this year. They were ready with sandbags and knew how to place them effectively. Many business owners and homeowners acquired sump pumps, which minimized the water damage in basements and crawl spaces.

“Last year, my basement flooded, I lost the furnace and the water heater,” Susan Ford, the owner of Allen’s Manix Store, told KXLH news earlier this week. “But this year because he now had a big trash pump, it kept the water at only 2 ½ inches, which is phenomenal.”

While the 2018 and 2019 floods differ, they also share many similarities. During both years, farmers faced a one-two punch from the weather: a brutal winter followed by a destructive flood. Augusta and the surrounding area experienced heavy snowpack in 2018. Brutal temperatures in February of 2019 impacted ranchers’ calving season.

The Elk Creek Overflow Bridge. June, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Montana Department of Transportation July, 2018 Newsletter.

Both floods destroyed private and public lands. The high water damaged fences and barns, and many residents couldn’t drink from their wells until the water subsided and they could test them for contamination. Also, the Augusta area lost key bridges during both flood events.

In 2018, public and private bridges built after the ‘75 foods washed out. The Montana Department of Transportation also replaced a damaged bridge on Highway 21 that spans an overflow channel of Elk Creek. As a quick fix, the department exchanged the bridge for three large culverts, which did hold up in this year’s flood.

This year, people are still assessing the damage to the county and private upstream bridges. Two of the bridges awaiting assessment are slated for replacement this summer. The new completed bridges sit in Billings, awaiting transport. Hopefully, the water hasn’t changed course too dramatically — otherwise the replacements may not fit anymore.

Once again, a portion of Highway 21 between Augusta and Simms closed because another bridge incurred damage. Hogan Slough Bridge is less than a mile away from the one destroyed last year. The highway did reopen to through traffic on Friday the 31st.

Washed out road next to the Hogan Slough Bridge. May, 2019. Photo courtesy of the Montana Department of Transportation.

“We are waiting for the water to go down.” said Christie McOmber of the Department of Transportation. “It is still too fast and too high to get data. Engineers will go up (on Friday, May 31) and assess what damage is there and then get the repair done as soon as possible.”

“Montana Strong”

One of the most striking similarities between this year and last year’s floods was the way locals came together to respond to catastrophe.

“Overall, I think people are appreciative of being in this place,” said Augusta resident Tia Troy. “It’s a town made up of residents who support each other and care for each other and take care of this place.”

Troy, who was born in Augusta and now owns Lightning Bug Public Relations, a business in town, spoke candidly. She detailed how the water ripped through private land and overflowed creek beds while the rain continued to pour.

“The force of the water is hard to imagine,” she said. “You can’t really describe it unless you see it.”

Often, in times of stress and fear, true human nature emerges. In Augusta, people didn’t skip a beat. Together, the town prepared for the impending flood. Reportedly, 60 people showed up at the Fire Department on Sunday morning to fill sandbags. Rather than barbecue over the holiday weekend, folks of all ages and walks of life spent the day filling, tying and laying sandbags around town.

Troy’s family owns the local trading post, Allen’s Manix Store, on Main Street, ground zero for the action. She watched as people placed sandbags in front of other businesses and homes in addition to their own.

“It was really interesting to see how many people helped. There were people that don’t necessarily have any skin in the game. People don’t necessarily have to help other businesses,” Troy said. “Everyone was just moving from business to business and residence to residence and making sure people were ready.”

The community received an outpouring of help. The Augusta Chamber of Commerce provided the sand for the sandbags. The Salvation Army donated water. The Public Health Department and local nurse distributed water-testing kits, and the Lewis and Clark Conservation District offered to pay for the first round of water tests. Susan Good Geise, Lewis and Clark County commissioner, said Sen. Steve Daines called her to check in and offer his help and support.

Moments like this are what make communities “Montana strong.”

Moving Forward

Two, out-of-the-ordinary, back-to-back floods raise some important questions. Why did these floods happen? How can a “100-year flood” be followed by equally destructive floods? Could anything have been done to prevent them? Why did they lose so many bridges? And of course, what can people do to move forward?

It seems like America asks a lot from our rural communities. And folks in these towns always, without question, step up. They’re everyday super heroes.

To help alleviate the stress, in the short term, residents are taking action — which hard-working, reliable farmers, ranchers and cowboys do at the drop of a Stetson.

For one, stay vigilant and respect all “Closed Road” signs. There is still a flood watch in parts of Central Montana and across the Rocky Mountain Front, and situations can change quickly.

As stated earlier, Hogan Slough Bridge just east of Augusta did suffer damage. As of Friday, May 31, Highway 21 is open to through traffic, which is good news for Augusta residents, who rely on the route to Great Falls to access commerce, health care, family and entertainment.

A map of the Montana Department of Transportation’s Highway 21 Bridges Plan. They intend to upgrade or replace 11 bridges from Augusta to Simms. Photo courtesy of Montana Department of Transportation.

It’s important to note that both the Hogan Slough Bridge and the Elk Creek Overflow Bridge are part of a larger Montana Department of Transportation plan to replace and upgrade 11 bridges along Highway 21 between Augusta and Simms. The department first identified this project in 2012 because many of the bridges, built in the 1930s, are not up to code and modern standards, explained Christie McOmber of the Department of Transportation. The department aims to begin work on most of the bridges in 2020. Workers will widen, replace or upgrade them. The MDT plans to pay for the upgrades with a combination of federal funds and state gas tax fund. Such important infrastructure projects could prevent future closures due to flooding.

In the meantime, the Augusta Chamber of Commerce will host two clean-up days on June 6 and June 8.

In the long term, plans are underway to address some of the larger concerns. Susan Good Geise — a Lewis and Clark County Commissioner and a resident of Augusta — spoke to Prairie Populist about the flood and the aftermath. Her home in town fared better this year than last, but her husband’s barn outside of town got hit hard again. He just laid down a new gravel floor after last year’s flood swept away the old floor, and it all washed away.

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“When the flood came through this time, the new gravel was gone in a heartbeat. All that work and all that money, just gone,” Geise said. “It’s very very tough for these (ranchers).”

Geise empathized with folks in town who are alarmed, mistified and frustrated, and she is interested in finding a way to avoid another traumatic flood.

“I’m looking at this as an opportunity to make some long term solutions, and I mean long- term,” she said.

Another Augusta resident suggested to Geise that they form a group to assess the Smith Creek and Elk Creek landscape, and brainstorm strategies to mitigate the effects of flooding. Augusta is home to a lot of knowledgeable, skilled folks, said Geise. They could leverage their expertise, look at what other towns have done, list resources available at the county, state, and federal level — and ultimately find solutions.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we can put our own Augusta flavor on it,” she said. “The challenge is enormous … I feel a little bit excited to get a chance to maybe help convene this group.”

One possible solution that Geise suggests is the possible formation of an Emergency Committee. Merely one voice on the county commission, she said her suggestion is hers alone.  The committee could gather local fire chiefs, ambulance workers, public health department employees and public works employees. Ideally, they would work together to create and implement emergency response strategies. In an unincorporated town, where leadership often arises naturally from the grassroots, such a grass-roots emergency committee could provide a supplemental way to organize.

Augustans have proven again and again that they’re willing and capable of helping each other and rising to any occasion. While Augusta’s flood plains may have shifted, their well-documented resilience remains alive and well.

“They inspire me every day,” Geise told us last year after the flood.

-Amanda Garant

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