Feature photo of Matt Heimbuck, 12, center, watching as Sterling Stott, 15, and Kyle Hass, 11 rake mud away from the foundation under the American Legion rodeo stands in Augusta, MT on June 6, 2019.

Community bounces back after Mother Nature hits again

Images and story by August Schield

Floods hit Augusta with as familiar a blow as last season. Fields washed out, irrigations ditches rechanneled and businesses flooded. Most residents experienced devastating damage to their property. However, given the unprecedented frequency of experiencing two 100-year floods back-to-back, the tiny community perched at the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness was more prepared than the flood of 2018.

John Erickson, pictured center frame in blue, raises an arm directing two volunteers who are ready to get to work.

Many hands pulled together the logistics for a community-wide clean-up initiative, setting a date for June 6 and June 10. The first morning, local pastor John Erickson directed the 50 volunteers who swarmed into town’s Youth Center to help a local home or business in need. The flood overwhelmed buildings with woody debris, loose gravel and mud piled over 16 inches high in some places. John took care to assure each location was covered, and he assigned everyone a task to carry out.

A few large turkey pans hold dozens of water samples. Some may be potable, but most are likely contaminated with manure or fertilizers swept of fields during the flood.

Sarah Howe-Cobb, public health nurse for the Lewis and Clark County Public Health Department, played a key role the morning of clean-up day. Her duty was to collect water samples from local home and business owners and to later deliver them to Helena for further testing. Flooding in a small town can spell disaster for the water quality, especially for those who get their water from a well, which is more susceptible to contamination from flood debris than a larger community water system. In typical rural Montana spirit, the local conservation district agreed to pay for the first round of water sampling.

At the American Legion rodeo grounds …

Ben Arps of Augusta, MT

Ben Arps is the man in charge of the famed 83rd Augusta Rodeo, still on for June 28-30. He’s a member of the Augusta American Legion, the service organization that traditionally administers the arena and nearby park. The rodeo is the biggest weekend of the year for the scrappy small town located 52 miles west of Great Falls. Instead of scrambling to find an alternative weekend to postpone it, like during last year’s flood season, Ben directed machinery and volunteers to sections of the rodeo grounds that needed the most attention and sprucing up. “When it comes to a flood like this, what else are you gonna do? You gotta keep goin,’” says Ben, resolute and all business. The event draws crowds of cowboys and cowgirls, rodeo fans, families and party-minded youth. It’s as important for local commerce as it is for small-town camaraderie. That weekend is more than just a rodeo; it’s a rendezvous for Rocky Mountain Front communities.

Jerry Stott and his son Cameron clear the gravel rushed in by the flood from underneath the stands.

By Memorial Day, the muddy flood waters of the nearby Elk Creek carried with them heavy loads of suspended sediments. When the water subsided, it left behind a thick cement-like gravel on the wooden foundation of the Augusta rodeo stands. This wet alluvial coating is a catalyst for rotting out the aged foundation — the most substantial threat to the rodeo this year.

Lucky for Augusta, Jerry Stott of Choteau led his Boy Scout Troop 1051 into town for the day to assist with clean up after hearing their neighbors’ call for help. They experienced flooding in Choteau too, but not quite like Augusta. The troop was tasked with the critical job of clearing the gravel from beneath the rodeo stands. Noses to the grindstone, the boys carried out the job with a strong scout’s honor work ethic.

Matt Heimbuck, 12, center, watches as Sterling Stott, 15, and Kyle Hass, 11 rake mud away from the foundation under the American Legion rodeo stands.
Sterling Stott hauls yet another wheelbarrow load of gravel from under the bleachers and to a nearby consolidated pile. This was probably the toughest job of the day.
Brad McBratney of Augusta slowly reverses the small Cat with a shovel laden with unwanted gravel out of the rodeo stands. Lucky for the boy scouts, this Cat narrowly fits between the cross sections and makes their work much easier.

Meanwhile, just north of the rodeo grounds …

The Martin Family. Julie, Kimber 3, Tel 5, Kayden 7, Trig 1. (From left to right).

North of the rodeo grounds, many more volunteers worked hard to remove gravel from the grass and woody debris from surrounding fences. The Martin family was among the 50 volunteers working with the town that day. They were nearly flooded on their ranch just west of town from the swelling Smith Creek and Elk Creek, as most of the nearby roads were damaged and impassible. The family missed the first clean-up day after the flood, but the kids were excited to join Mom for the big community clean up.  

Julie spent her time tending to young Trig and pulling debris from fences while Kayden, her oldest, kept an eye on Kimber and Tel as they aided the clean-up.

Substantial damage occurred where Montana Highway 435 and Elk Creek converge 7 miles west of Augusta. The swollen river, with nowhere else to go, channeled a new path through the soils underneath the road, eventually causing the road to collapse. Luckily, the bridge held strong.  

On the edge of town …

Amy Mills, co-owner of Mills Wilderness Adventures, said her property received some of the more devastating damage from this year’s flood. A month before Elk Creek flooded, she had barely finished repairing a field and horse stable that last year’s flood destroyed. Unforgiving Elk Creek decided to rechannel itself directly through her field and horse stable again this spring.

Amy spent much time, money and energy fixing last year’s mess, but Mother Nature is demanding her to do it all over again. As if Amy and Tucker Mills don’t already have their fill of the untamed forces of nature during their long guiding season.

And on Main Street …

Tia Troy, left, and her mother Susan Ford stand proudly in front of their family-owned business, Allen’s Manix Store. Commonly known as The Trading Post, the store will celebrate its 45th anniversary on June 15.

Even in a strong community, a little organization goes a long way. Having just moved back to Augusta from Wyoming for a slower and more intentional way of life, Augusta native Tia Troy was busier than ever dealing with all the planning a disaster clean-up initiative requires. She played a main role as the community organizer after the flood hit.

A public relations specialist by trade, Tia reached out to community members, assuring that every home and business was accounted for. On clean-up day, she raked gravel from grass in American Legion Park, and spoke with other community members to assure their needs were met. By the end of the day, trailer loads of fallen trees and other debris still needed to be cleared from the rodeo grounds. She took the extra step to sweet talk the attendants at the town dump to stay open a few hours longer so volunteers could finish clearing the debris.

Overall, the smooth community-wide clean-up wouldn’t have been so smooth without her guidance. Tia’s love of her small town keeps alive the all-for-one, one-for-all attitude in Augusta,  no matter what Mother Nature tosses their way.

-Images and story by August Schield

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For our previous coverage on Augusta, check out these stories: