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Hell and high water

Scenes from the Missoula flood

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The rain came again a little while ago, pelting the stack of moldering green bags next to me. Volunteers drift in and out of a tent nearby, rigged to shield the bottled water, protein bars, and hotdogs from a sky that refuses to let up. I lift the PVC tube out of my latest sandbag, tie the top, and throw it to the side. My shovel bites grass and dirt as I start on the next one. If we don't get another load of sand soon, there won't be anything left to fill bags.

Water ebbs over Tower Street, just a few yards away. It starts an inch deep and ends in the trees down the road in a torrent. The Clark Fork River is projected to crest at around 13 feet this evening—Thursday, June 9—so there's urgency in this work. I'm nearly two hours in and I have no idea how many bags I've filled. They keep disappearing in the backs of pickups, 50 to 100 at a time. There are about 40 other volunteers scurrying about different tasks. I wonder if they have any idea where these sandbags are going. I sure as hell don't.

The water started coming up on Tower, just off 3rd Street in Missoula's Orchard Homes district, about three weeks ago. Rainstorms and low-elevation snowmelt bloated the Clark Fork and casual chatter around town began to feature words like "hydrograph" and "flood stage." Since the homes in the Tower area are in a floodplain, they naturally became the focus of increasing media attention. Nearly half a dozen homes were evacuated on Kehrwald Drive, which has completely washed out.

The river rose nearly three feet in two days this week. Now, moving water surrounds sheds, trailers, and houses on the west side of Kehrwald. The only way across—for those still allowed—is a rope strung across a calmer stretch.

"I do have some riverfront property, if you're interested," Kathy Galbavy says, joshing with a few volunteers under the snack tent. Her house is on the other end of that rope.

Galbavy's nightmare started about a month ago. She knew the waters were steadily rising, but her husband was sick and—anticipating a repeat of the 1997 flood, which she rode out in the same house—Galbavy had to sandbag on her own. She bought 25 pre-filled sandbags at a supply store down the road. It cost her "an arm and a leg," she says." Totally ridiculous." She spent close to $200 before the sand trucks and volunteers finally arrived on June 8. By then, the immediacy of the threat had passed. "I think we'd already finished sandbagging before the county decided they'd give us sand," she says.

Volunteers from the Missoula Rural Fire Department dig a trench through Randy Newman’s yard on Tower Street. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Volunteers from the Missoula Rural Fire Department dig a trench through Randy Newman’s yard on Tower Street.

"I did get the photos out, and the important paperwork stuff, the TV, the VCR. But with the '97 flood, it wasn't this high, so I didn't bother with the couch. We even left the beds." She and her husband are staying at the KOA now. Their son loaned them his camper.

A truck from the county shows up with another ton or so of sand. The intermittent rain has turned it the consistency of wet concrete, and my shoulders are starting to throb. Lift with my knees, I tell myself, but it isn't working. I think of Kathy, her husband, the abandoned couch. I keep pitching sand.

Just down the street, Amanda Dufner directs volunteers streaming in to help. The call for sandbaggers went viral yesterday, she says, hitting Facebook and Twitter through groups like United Way, Forward Montana, and Imagine Montana. I note about 60 folks at two sandbagging stations. Wednesday night was mostly church groups, Dufner says. Members of the Missoula Rural Fire Department showed up all day today. Several Girl Scouts are tying and stacking bags for me. I've formed a bag-filling team with All Against the Haul coordinator Zack Porter and former Missoula City Councilman Roy Houseman.

"People have been incredible," Dufner says, nodding to the table of snacks donated by Rosauer's, the Good Food Store, and others. "It just shows the true spirit of Missoula."

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