Helena Valley residents, many frustrated after extensive flooding in the area, questioned county officials Monday evening on flood mitigation plans and what might be done in the future.
A couple of cooler days have pushed Ten Mile Creek’s flows down by nearly a fifth since peaking last week. But warm temperatures and the thunderstorms in the forecast later this week could push floodwaters up again, Megan Synder with the National Weather service told residents at Thursday’s public forum at Liberty Baptist Church.
In southern Lewis and Clark County, about 10 inches of water has melted from the mountains, but another 10-15 inches remains, she said. In the northern part of the county, remaining snowmelt is closer to 20 inches.
From Wednesday and Friday this week, thunderstorms could drop half an inch of rain in the Helena area and up to an inch in the northern part of the county and the mountains. Local rainfall due to an intense thunderstorm could be up to half an inch in an hour, Syner said.
The dubious forecast was little comfort for families who have seen their homes flooded, and the palpable frustration was clear as county officials addressed them Monday, explaining what can and cannot be done to mitigate floodwater.
“Counties can only do what we’re specifically allowed to do by state statute -- we’re not as powerful as people might think,” said Commission Chair Susan Good Geise.
The county’s emergency declaration allows a 2 mill levy, but state law restricts that funding to protection of public infrastructure, she said. The county’s decision last week to halt distribution of free sandbags was unpopular, she acknowledged, but the cost was draining county resources. She said money would be spent prudently, particularly given the forecast.
Officials estimated more than 124,000 sandbags have been distributed to date at a cost of about $1 per bag.
Kathy Moore with Lewis and Clark Public Health cautioned about potential contamination of floodwater. Working in floodwater can be hazardous, and it can contaminate wells and saturate drain fields.
The county launched a webpage with information about the flood at www.lccountymt.gov/cdp/flood-information.html and a hotline at 447-1607.
Reese Martin, disaster and emergency services coordinator, indicated that it is a possibility FEMA could become involved in disaster relief, although that remains uncertain. The county is offering FEMA forms for residents to get a “head start” on damage estimation, he said.
On the law enforcement side, Sheriff Leo Dutton said officials continue to deal with people speeding through floodwaters and have cited a number of people for driving around closure signage.
“We know you’re angry, it’s been frustrating, but hopefully we go through an education part and we can write them tickets … but if you have an issue let us know and we can try to get into your neighborhood,” he said. “We can’t control where water goes, but we can react to it, that’s the hard part, there’s no offense right now.”
When the floor opened for questions, officials attempted to stay on the current flood and response, but several attendees pushed the conversation to county planning and mitigation measures and what has and has not been done. Many felt that mitigation measures had come too slowly following major floods in 1981 and 2011.
“We talk about all of the things being done today, which again we appreciate. My pressing question is what is our plan for the future?” one resident asked. “What is the county going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Eric Griffin, the county public works director, responded, detailing several mitigation measures but emphasizing that the county is limited largely to working within rights of way.
“There’s nothing I don’t believe we can do to absolutely guarantee this isn’t going to happen. If something like this happens again like in 1981, it’s all off, we can’t deal with a 500-year flood,” he said. “The possibility is that this will be in this community forever.”
Mitigation plans are expensive and take years to implement, Griffin and Geise said, but attendees continued to voice frustration. Sandbagging efforts need to be coordinated so water is not simply pushed into neighbors' areas, they said.
“We’re drowning,” one man voiced from the crowd.
Mitigation is not as simple as placing pipe and doing work as officials would prefer, with a number of permits, jurisdictions and private property, Griffin said, detailing needed easements for projects such as the holding pond at the trap club and mitigations for Rossiter Elementary School.
“I’m not making excuses, but there are a lot of moving parts in what we’re trying to do, and we are working on this,” he said.
Geise agreed, saying that the problem is not easy to solve and the county is bound by federal and state regulations. Implementing the full mitigation plan would cost $11 million and the county “does not have that kind of money,” she said.
Officials encouraged area residents to attend a meeting of the Helena Valley Flood Committee as one way of getting involved in mapping future plans.
The National Weather Service has declared a flood warning in Lewis and Clark County until 11:15 p.m. Thursday evening, while the Jefferson County flood warning was set to expire at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
Flood advisories in Broadwater, Meagher and Gallatin counties were also set to expire Monday night.
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin