A sandbagging brigade from the city of Laurel and CHS Refinery saved the city's water plant from the rising Yellowstone River on Wednesday.
Kurt Markegard, Laurel's public works director, said the crew built an emergency berm about 5 feet tall and 200 feet long to hold back the water along the north bank of the river. The water plant is on the east side of the bridge south of Laurel.
"Everything will be fine," Markegard said. "We're pumping right now."
A two-person shift will remain at the plant to monitor the berm and to pump water seeping through back into the river, he said.
Things weren't so fine Wednesday morning when Markegard went to check for flooding damage at the plant and at Riverside Park, which has a boat ramp and buildings along the south bank of the river. The river was rising and was about 2 feet from going over the north bank.
Markegard contacted the nearby refinery for help and called Duane Winslow, the county's disaster and emergency services coordinator.
The city began working on the berm by the water plant almost two weeks ago, in preparation for mountain runoff, but rains prevented any substantial work from being completed, Markegard said.
The city's 16-person crew worked most of the day to save the plant, he said.
The refinery supplied 50 people, including contract workers, to help fill and place sandbags, said CHS Refinery Manager Pat Kimmet. The refinery also bought sandbags and supplied portable concrete barriers.
"We always work really well with the city," Kimmet said. Refinery operations have not been affected by the rising river, he said, "but we do depend on the city of Laurel for water."
The rising water also prompted Laurel to close Riverside Park.
"The south bank is eroding. We're not trying to save the south bank," Markegard said. He called the boat ramp "non-existent at this time. It's all underwater."
The city gave organizations that use park buildings time Wednesday morning to remove items before closing the park.
Laurel also faced threats from two upstream canals where the river had begun flowing in. Markegard said both ditch companies took emergency steps to divert the water.
The Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office said at 10:30 p.m. that the refinery advised it could lose a headgate overnight, which would result in more flooding.
The Laurel mayor also declared an emergency for the city in conjunction with a county emergency declared Tuesday. Markegard said the city council is expected to affirm the declaration next week.
Elsewhere in Yellowstone County, floods seemed to be retreating as skies stayed mostly dry, giving residents a reprieve after a record 3-inch deluge hit Billings on Tuesday.
Winslow said Pryor Creek had receded a little after rising a couple of feet on Tuesday night. No additional damage from Pryor Creek was reported.
Yellowstone County officials said Wednesday afternoon that they're looking at options to pay for damage from floods caused by heavy rains over the last two weeks.
Commissioner Jim Reno said commissioners are likely to implement a 2-mill emergency levy, worth about $500,000, to help cover the extra costs of repairing the damage across the county.
"I don't think it's a question of if (we'll do it), but of when," he said.
Winslow said that since the county and the state of Montana have declared a state of emergency due to the flooding, it opens up new sources, including the possibility of federal dollars.
"It's sad when you're considered for FEMA, but that's the way we may be heading," Reno said.
While a dollar estimate on flood damage wasn't available, Winslow said "it's a lot."
Tim Miller, the county's public works director, said there are 35 to 45 areas that will need repairs once the flooding ends, including about a half-dozen in need of major repairs.
"But so far we've been lucky and all the bridges have stayed in place," he said.
Officials have sold about 10,000 sandbags to residents at 35 cents each to help keep waters at bay. Winslow said bags are available at the county's shop at 3321 King Ave. E., and can be filled there or from a large sand pile across from Newman Elementary.
Another 30,000 bags have been ordered and are expected to arrive Friday. The Worden Fire Department also picked up 1,000 bags and has sand available at the fire station for residents in that area.
Officials also said the Yellowstone River near Billings was expected to top its flood stage by midnight and that lowland flooding could occur. With current rises, the river will top its flood stage of 13 feet and could hit 14 feet, Winslow said.
"It sounds like tonight should be the worst part of that," he said.
By 7 p.m., lowland areas around Coulson Park and Norm Schoenthal Island were already flooded. People who live near the river from Stillwater County to Yellowstone County are advised to move any property or livestock away from the river.
Around the same time flooding in Coulson began, a handful of people who live in the Island Park Road area along the river's south side began leaving their homes, Sheriff's Sgt. Ken Thompson said.
No mandatory evacuations were ordered, but Thompson said deputies recommended to people living in the area that they leave their homes for the night.
"There's a little concern because the river is rising," he said. "The houses on the north side of that intersection, most of the people had already left when we got there."
Winslow cautioned that the river could see much worse flooding later this spring due to the melting of record snowpack and moisture levels in nearby mountains, which feed the river.
"Just keep in mind we've got a big water event that's coming," he said. "This is not a joke."
Rain and floodwater from the Musselshell River have delayed indefinitely the opening of The Charles M. Bair Family Art Museum in Martinsdale, which had been scheduled for Friday.
Corby Skinner, spokesman for the museum, said the museum and barn are dry, but the parking area is wet and muddy and the Bair home was partially flooded, too.
Community efforts to divert water were unsuccessful. A backhoe from a Hutterite colony sank in the mud, he said.
Staff members and area residents moved furniture from the lower level of the Bair home to the second floor Wednesday morning to get it out of the water.
None of the Western art, which is located in the new museum on the grounds of the Bair home, was damaged because water did not get into the museum.
Petroleum County commissioners declared a state of emergency Thursday due to widespread flooding. A press release from Sheriff William Cassell said McDonald, Box Elder and Flatwillow creeks, as well as the Musselshell River, "are all well out of their banks."
The river near Mosby was at 13.82 feet, nearly 6 feet above its flood stage.