The morning of May 26, the town of Roundup in central Montana became separated from the world. The Musselshell River, normally a lazy brown trickle, had been transformed overnight into a raging monster a half-mile wide that swept away everything in its path.
In the wee hours, the sheriff's department received word from 20 miles upstream that a crest was roaring downriver toward this coal-mining and ranching community of about 2,500 people. Deputies began notifying residents in low-lying areas along the river, and a frantic evacuation began. Most people only had time to dress and drive through several feet of fast-rising water to safety. All their belongings were soon swallowed by silt-laden floodwaters.
At dawn, stunned onlookers stood on a hill above the river, silently taking in the devastation. Brown water flowed everywhere, even over land that had never in recorded history seen river water. The flood had crested at 14.78 feet, smashing the previous record flood of 12.89 feet. The fast-flowing water sliced through an old railroad grade that had given the town a false sense of security. The roof of one local restaurant was barely visible above the muck. Many houses had water lapping at their eaves.
In the aftermath of the massive flash flood, which was caused by an upstream deluge of rain the day before, the community began to pull itself together.
In a way, Roundup had no choice. The town is quartered by two state highways: Highway 87, running north and south; Highway 12, running east and west. Water up to 8 feet deep covered all four routes into town. Hundreds of families were isolated by the river and the badly damaged roads, but trucks couldn't get through to them. Though they wanted to help, neither the Red Cross nor the Salvation Army could reach the town. It was up to locals to take care of themselves and each other.
Years of people trickling out of the area and the loss of Main Street businesses have taken their toll on Roundup's economy, but the community stayed strong. People opened their homes to flood victims. Donations of food, clothing, and money began pouring in. The town Ministerial Association organized churchwomen to cook and serve three meals a day in the basement of the largest church. A tanker truck filled with drinking water rumbled into town to replace contaminated tap water.
Volunteers were eager to begin the process of "mucking out," but floodwaters were persistent, and it was almost two weeks before anyone could even begin assessing the damage. The National Guard was finally called in, and it brought high-riding vehicles that could navigate through the muddy water to reach families that needed emergency supplies or medical care.
The continuing problem was getting rid of all the standing water. Even though pumps ran 24 hours a day, they couldn't keep up. A short string of sunny days finally allowed homeowners to begin cleaning up the soggy messes that were once living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens. Piles of debris rose in front yards, and fences emerged from the water festooned with the belongings of upstream residents.
Then, just as the National Guard departed, a severe thunderstorm struck, bringing howling wind, hail, a small tornado and once more, buckets of rain. Bad news came again to the sheriff's department: That string of sunny days was melting the record snowpack in the mountains to the west -- and the latest storm's runoff had nowhere to go but downhill.
Another crest was barreling down upon the town, albeit slightly more slowly than the first. Residents watched in horror as the water began to rise again, crossing roads and inundating homes that hadn't yet dried out from the first disaster. The new crest measured 14 feet, nearly as high as the record set the week before.
But now, almost two months later, I'm happy to say that Roundup has emerged from the waters bruised and battered but also proud. Hay fields and borrow pits are still flooded by mosquito-infested water, and as many as 40 homes were ruined beyond salvage by water and mold. And everybody, it is true, seems exhausted.
At the same time, everyone seems amazed at how the community rallied to help itself. Summers are short here, and somehow we've learned to cope with whatever the season brings us - being grateful when blessed with good weather, working patiently together when it's bad.
Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a freelance writer in Roundup, Mont., and during the recent flooding, she found herself on the wrong side of the river; it took her two days driving a 950-mile detour to finally make it home.