From overhead, the muddy waters of the Yellowstone River wind through Livingston and Paradise Valley, in parts stretching beyond its banks.
Almost a week after the massive flooding, residents and business owners in Livingston and the surrounding area take stock of their homes, livelihoods and the potential longterm economic impacts of lost tourism dollars.
For Ashea Mills with Walking Shadow Ecology Tours of Yellowstone, the flight, courtesy of EcoFlight, was the first glimpse of the valley she had since the flooding started. Mills, who is based in Gardiner, was on guiding a trip earlier in the week and had not yet seen her home.
“I think it’s going to be really hard,” Mills said about her return to Gardiner.
Those living throughout Livingston, Gardiner and Paradise Valley were mourning in the face of the flooding, Mills said.
“There’s a lot of grief and a lot of fear in my community right now, and it’s not unfounded. There’s a lot of unknowns,” she said. “How do we as a community come together to support each other?”
As flood waters recede, residents, business owners and nonprofits wait for a clear picture of the impact to form. In the next few weeks as people are able to take care of their immediate needs, more would be known on the scope of the devastation and how many homes were lost, said Brian Guyer, housing department director with HRDC.
“It’s so hard to tell because we were already a community in the midst of a housing crisis,” he said.
In the last week, the two warming centers in Livingston and Bozeman have taken in individuals who were displaced from employee housing or had work arrangements in the park that have fallen through and are now experiencing homelessness, according to Guyer.
Livingston’s first night of flooding, the shelter in town took in a half dozen evacuees. The following night, the American Red Cross began operating an emergency shelter out of the warming center.
“We are finding that the low- and medium-income families are being impacted the most,” Guyer said. “These are people who were living in homes that were closer to floodplains and flood sites.
“It just lays bare a lot of barriers that people who are living in some of those homes experience — transportation issues, food instability issues, housing instability issues — and this sort of event highlighted them.”
As Park County and other impacted areas begin switching from the emergency response to longterm recovery, Guyer said it’ll be important to look at what supports the most vulnerable and the needs of the workforce to mitigate the economic impacts of the flooding.
“If we’re not also including responses to natural disasters caused by climate change, we might be missing the mark,” Guyer said.
The recovery effort will need to be more holistic than just housing supports, Guyer said. Areas like food, transportation and child care will be crucial too.
“The discussions for longterm recovery are going to have to be more robust than just how do we provide housing for our workforce. It’s going to be what other supports outside of housing can we provide to offset those increased housing costs,” he said.
For nonprofits like HRDC, Guyer said, it’s incumbent on them to have discussions on how to mitigate the potential economic fallout following the flood, listen to people’s concerns and point them to potential resources.
“You have a workforce here in Park County that has weathered a pandemic. They are in the midst of a housing crisis and they’re looking down the barrel of a recession and a lost summer of tourism dollars. People are scared, and rightfully so. The park and the river are the lifeblood for a lot of people,” he said.
People in the tourism industry like Kris King, executive director of Explore Livingston, are creating and marketing ways to encourage visitors to keep their travel plans booked and explore the gateway communities surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
As flooded areas begin to dry out, business owners in Livingston and Paradise Valley are focused on helping people in need, including hosting micro-fundraisers to donate some of their own profits.
The next stage, King said, will be to ensure there’s as much visitation and tourism to the area as possible. For example, Explore Livingston will post updated weekly lists of suggested events, businesses and activities for visitors and locals.
“Not having that north entrance open is going to have a massive chilling effect on the amount of tourism traffic we have,” she said.
Activities people would expect to do in the park — hiking, wildlife viewing, fishing and horseback riding — they can do in Park County, King said.
“We’re encouraging people to summer like a local,” she said. “You can probably have a more richly layered experience than if they were just in the park.”
One concern for King is the impacts to nonprofits who depend on donations.
“If that summer income gets turned off, the trickle down for everyone in the community that is going to be impacted by that is really significant,” she said.
Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs, said if people want to help, they should come visit, book a hotel, come for dinner, dance and enjoy a soak. It would be a “local’s summer.”
Following a lost season to COVID and a great labor shortage, Davis said, businesses were looking forward to a more stable summer season.
“And then this happens and there’s, again, there’s that uncertainty. It’s unnerving for a lot of people,” he said. “But we’ll weather it. We’re a close-knit community.
Davis said he wants people to know there is still so much to do outside of the park, whether local or visitor.
As the waters recede, residents will begin tackling the work of longterm recovery and navigating the economic impacts of the flood. For some, there’s also the hope that it will be an opportunity to reimagine a more balanced and sustainable future for the region.
“How do we as conservation minded business people navigate an epic event that literally has cut us off? We are literally cut off from the park. How do we navigate that and help keep people afloat while also seriously sitting down and talking about sustainable tourism? That has to be a part of this conversation,” Mills said.
Mills, who has been a guide for over 25 years, said there will be things she misses with the park’s closure.
“I think about all those babies being born right now and I miss them. Right now is when the pronghorns are dropping fawns and I miss watching wolf puppies grow up and watching those bison calves go from just goofy children to surly teenagers later in the summer,” Mills.
As she returns to Gardiner Saturday afternoon, Mills said she would be holding on to a few bright spots to balance the uncertainty, grief and fear of the last week.
“I’ll be imagining the wildlife getting a break, imagining these animals being able to get to their babies without having to dodge traffic,” she said. “Imagine the quiet.”