POWELL — On June 17 before sunrise, volunteers started arriving in downtown Powell to load their vehicles with supplies prior to heading north in an 11-County convoy. They forged their way to flood-ravaged Red Lodge to show support for residents and volunteers with free food, drinks and a heaping helping of love.
Organized by Danielle Joy Dearcorn, owner of Hickory Street Catering and Bistro, the volunteers built a makeshift kitchen on Broadway Avenue — the town’s main business artery — and offered free hot meals to anyone needing a bite to eat and a cold drink.
“[Helping] is where our heart is,” Dearcorn said while preparing burgers, hotdogs and tacos for lunch. “We wanted to do something to give back. It’s important to us. And we had the resources, so why not?”
They quickly went through a gross of eggs and dozens of pounds of bacon with Dearcorn at the grill before setting up for lunch. The hot meals were a blessing for folks who had been without access to a kitchen or utilities for nearly a week.
“Some came to us in tears,” said Brenda Mattson, who volunteered to cook with her husband, Steve.
The volunteer crew of nine served hundreds of meals on the street, but they didn’t wait to be discovered in the largely unaffected section of the beautiful mountain town. Instead, they sent volunteers into the devastated sections of town looking for folks in need.
“People won’t stop working. They won’t even stop to eat. So we’re taking it to them,” Mattson said.
What the volunteers found in Red Lodge was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. After Rock Creek left its banks during unprecedented flooding, at least one home was washed into the river and many dozens more were flooded with water and thick mud after rain fell for three straight days and warm temperatures quickly melted late-season snow.
The water ripped through the neighborhoods, laying waste to paved streets and ripping out at least three bridges used to cross Rock Creek, which flows just two blocks south of the city’s main street (U.S. Highway 212). Fortunately, the bridge on U.S. Highway 308 was spared in the incident, giving the city quick access to Powell and Cody.
Hundreds of volunteers, many traveling to Red Lodge without contacts in the city, swarmed flooded neighborhoods looking to help exhausted residents in their attempts to save their homes, furnishings and memories.
Dino Zimmerschied, of Jackson, arrived Thursday after seeing news reports about the natural disaster. He tried to approach officials looking for direction, but eventually just started walking the “backstreets” looking for someone who needed help. He didn’t have to go far.
Zimmerschied found another group who had done the same, landing at Pat Ruzich’s house.
“We thought we had it under control and then the bridge went out and diverted the creek. The water broke out a basement window and started filling up my basement. Then I quit. The water won,” Ruzich said.
The water, heavy with sediment, eventually filled the entire basement and flooded the main floor of the house “over the hardwood floors,” said Ruzich’s daughter, Amanda Clardy.
That’s when a group of volunteers from a local company, Link Construction, came to the rescue.
They had worked for three straight days, picking up more volunteers including Zimmerschied and at least two volunteers who were on vacation and — by the time Powell volunteers found them — had decided to stay to help rather than finding a new destination.
Sarah Wormald and Dylan Cordes came across the crew while searching for folks in need. They returned to the makeshift kitchen to grab a hot breakfast for everyone and headed back on foot over broken roads and through the maze of sandbags, debris and mud with a dozen meals and drinks.
Together the crew enjoyed the food, wolfing it down quickly before clearing tons of mud and debris away from the house and making a bucket line from the basement to a nearby front end loader. With every load they found boxes of water-logged family mementos. Mud covered everything, including irreplaceable family photos.
The sheer volume of the work would have been overwhelming without the volunteer crew, Clardy said.
But it wasn’t just random volunteers helping to save Red Lodge. Federal, state and local agencies all came together in the recovery effort.
Leading the organized effort was Ken Parks, Missoula County deputy director of the Western Montana All-hazard management team and nearly 50 representatives from agencies responding to the scene.
The first move was to monitor the weekend weather. There were fears the hot weekend weather and further precipitation would cause more flooding. Luckily, it wasn’t enough to send Rock Creek out of its banks again.
New in town were representatives from the Army Corp of Engineers, who were immediately tackling priority issues. They joined the National Guard, who was in town securing the incident scene and diverting “looky loos” from the area.
Parks said it was encouraging seeing so many people converge on the area to volunteer, but it was a “double-edged sword,” he said.
“Businesses want an influx of people, but that also gums things up [for those trying to work],” he said. “Finding a balance is important.”
Supplies have also been pouring into the city. That too has presented some issues.
One company sent an entire truck of bread, but there was way too much to distribute before going bad, Parks said. The many tall stacks of blankets and clothing streaming into the city are also hard to handle, he said.
“At some point, people sending stuff here will become a problem. So we were working with our public information officers to try and get the message out when enough is enough.”
He said the best thing for the city right now is financial assistance. “Just send cash,” he said, realizing how bad that might sound to someone unfamiliar with their limited storage access and ability to distribute perishable goods.
Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Republican, and Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte were all on the scene Friday, touring the area and speaking with officials leading the recovery efforts. Gianforte announced Friday that Montana had secured a major disaster declaration from President Joe Biden in response to “devastating flooding across portions of the state.”
“Over the last several days, flooding has destroyed homes, washed away roads and bridges, left Montanans without power and water services, and threatened Montanans’ livelihoods,” Gianforte said. “Securing this major disaster declaration will further help our communities respond to the severe flooding, recover and rebuild. The state will continue bringing its resources to bear to support communities impacted by flooding.”
Gianforte thanked the president for his swift approval of requests and Daines, Tester and Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, Republican, for their work to move requests forward with the president. The federal aid that accompanies the declaration supplements state and local resources being used to offset widespread damage.
The Powell volunteers were touched by their reception.
“It’s hard to talk about. You kind of want to cry,” Dearcorn said while quickly putting together an order for 20 volunteers who had been on scene since the flood began.
“We ran out of food by 2:30,” she said. “Even if people didn’t stop by to eat, they stopped by to thank us for being there.”
The group spent a significant amount of its resources in Red Lodge to further support the city’s businesses; it also donated $500 to a family who lost everything when the creek washed away their home.
“I needed a day like this,” said Dearcorn, who also opened her catering services for Big Horn Basin families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. “You see the good in people in the worst situations. They come together.”