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Montana State film professor publishes paper on lessons learned from 2022 Yellowstone flood

About this time last year, Montana State University professor Hugo Sindelar was hiking to snowy mountain peaks with his camera gear, attempting to film rain driving into blankets of snow.

That shot would be key to helping illustrate how, in June 2022, heavy rains rapidly melted mountain snowpacks, causing rivers to swell above their banks, resulting in historic flooding in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding communities.

Sindelar, an assistant professor in the School of Film and Photography in the College of Arts and Architecture, also filmed interviews with 18 people affected by the catastrophic flooding in the Yellowstone region. His research and inquiries about the floods have produced multiple academic endeavors. He is in the final production stages of a documentary titled "One in Five Hundred," and his companion article about his research and what he learned while creating the film has been published by the Natural Hazards Center, a division of the National Science Foundation.

In that article, titled "Lessons from the 2022 Yellowstone Floods: The Power of Documentary Film Interviews," Sindelar relays what he learned from stakeholders about the flood's impact and how preparedness and responses can be improved for future natural disasters.

"The paper makes it easier to relate actionable guidance and lessons learned," Sindelar said. "You don't have the ability to delve into the details in the film."

The 500-year flood event - so called because the likelihood of a flood of that magnitude happening in a given year is 0.2%, or one in 500 - destroyed roads, demolished homes and toppled a longstanding bridge on the Yellowstone River. The flood's effects were greatest in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park and nearby Montana communities, including Cooke City, Red Lodge and Gardiner, which sits on the banks of the Yellowstone River, the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48.

Normal summertime flows on the Yellowstone range from about 2,000 to 8,000 cubic feet per second. The river generally hits peak runoff in mid-June. So far this year, flows measured at the Corwin Springs gauge near Gardiner have peaked at about 16,000 cfs, and prior to 2022, the previous record flow was about 34,000 cfs. But in 2022, the Yellowstone River swelled to 54,000 cfs. Along with the damage to infrastructure, the region suffered serious economic impact. The flood forced Yellowstone National Park to close entirely for a week, and the park entrances near Gardiner and Cooke City were closed to vehicles until the fall.

Cooke City, Gardiner and Red Lodge are known as gateway communities, and their economies are tied directly to Yellowstone National Park and the influx of money from park visitors. A hotel manager in Cooke City told Sindelar that, after the flood, revenues from tourism dropped more than 60% compared to a typical summer, causing small businesses to struggle to break even.

"Every business in this town has just a few months to either make it or not make it because you make your money in the summertime," the hotel manager told Sindelar.

An often-overlooked impact of natural disasters is the toll they take on residents' mental health, which, Sindelar notes in his paper, was seldom mentioned in media reports about the Yellowstone flood.

At the base of the Beartooth Mountains in Red Lodge, nearby Rock Creek changed course during the 2022 flood and flowed through town, destroying or damaging many businesses and homes. A local pastor told Sindelar he witnessed the trauma people suffered from losing their belongings or nearly losing their lives to the rushing water.

"And when trauma hits your brain, you don't think straight, and so you're not able to make sense of things ... So, what was normally the beautiful, typical, regular sound of Rock Creek flowing through our city very quickly became traumatizing for us," the pastor told Sindelar.

Red Lodge has since fortified a retaining wall to help keep Rock Creek from flooding the town. Sindelar's paper suggests other potential improvements, including adding more water gauges to high mountain streams to enable earlier flood warnings; improving communications, both about imminent risks and about towns reopening in the aftermath of disasters to minimize economic impacts; and taking climate change into consideration while planning for potential disasters in areas where rain-on-snow events are likely to occur in the future.

Sindelar presented these and other actionable items at FEMA's annual Emergency Management Higher Education Symposium in Maryland earlier this month.

His documentary, which students collaborated on, is expected to be submitted to film festivals in the fall. He also started a podcast focused on Yellowstone called Bison Jam. The first season revolves around the 2022 flood, and new episodes are being released every other Thursday.

"I think it is really important to share with a larger audience the effect the flooding had on Montana communities," Sindelar said.

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