Cleanup underway after Saturday storm pummels Billings

2013-09-08T16:45:00Z 2014-01-02T16:21:25Z Cleanup underway after Saturday storm pummels BillingsStory By ZACH BENOIT photos By larry mayer zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Standing in front of his home on Golden Acres Drive in the still-under-construction Copper Ridge Subdivision on Billings’ West End, Chris Ciccotelli watched as a neighbor used a skid steer to push a large pile of loose mud out of the street.

Around him, about a dozen family members, neighbors and friends shoveled mud from yards, streets and sidewalks.

“The whole entire street was flooded, moving like a river,” Ciccotelli said. “It was the craziest thing.”

The neighborhood was cleaning up after a Saturday evening storm pummeled Billings with 1.31 inches of rain, marble-sized hail and wind gusts nearing 75 mph.

The burst of rain happened so quickly — the 1.31 inches officially recorded at Billings Logan International Airport fell in just 45 minutes and an unofficial total of 2.10 inches fell just west of town, according to the National Weather Service — that neighborhoods across Billings saw flash flooding.

“Most of that was very quickly,” said Marc Singer, an NWS meteorologist in Billings. “The rainfall rates were pretty impressive over a short period of time.”

It sent cascades of water tumbling down the Rimrocks and small rivers and streams flowing through the streets all over town, carrying rocks, gravel and other debris along and leaving muddy, rocky trails behind.

On Golden Acres, that meant the floodwaters picked up piles of loose dirt from open and under-construction areas in the subdivision and mixed into a muddy flow. As the river of mud rushed onto the street, it also made its way up into people’s yards, driveways and, in some cases, their homes.

Candice Thole lives across the street from Ciccotelli on Golden Acres and on Sunday morning had 14 inches of water and about 10 inches of hail in her basement after the flood broke out a basement window.

The water flowed from behind her home, through her yard, into and down the street and then south between Ciccotelli’s and a neighbor’s home.

“It broke out our basement window and just filled it up,” Thole said.

While it started and stopped quickly — the rain began to fall at 9:08 p.m. and mostly wrapped up by 9:53 — local weather experts had suspected for days that a very wet storm could break over the weekend.

Singer said the air in the area contained much more moisture than usual, making the chance for soggy storms higher as well.

“This time of year we really don’t typically see storms like this,” he said. “Earlier in the week there was an unusual amount of moisture on the air. In this case we were seeing almost historical amounts of moisture in the air for this part of the country.”

Even though the rainfall brought 1.27 more inches than the Sept. 7 average, it didn’t break the day’s total precipitation record. The record is 1.53 inches set in 1941.

It’s also worth noting that Saturday’s total was five times the total month-to-date rainfall average.

Outside of the rain and flooding, the storm also brought wide straight-line wind gusts, with an official high of 73 mph, but others nearing 80 possible in the area.

Those winds hammered much of the Billings area, uprooting trees, scattering branches and leaves and snapping power and utility poles.

On Tabriz Drive in the Heights, the winds snapped and tossed around tree branches and even tore off part of one home’s roof.

“Everybody got a pretty good rush of wind there that blew everything all over the place,” Singer said.

The storm also cut power to thousands in Billings, some of whom remained in the dark on Sunday.

Claudia Rapkoch, NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman, said the storm caused power outages for more than 5,000 customers in the area, from the West End to the Heights to Lockwood.

On Sunday morning, crews continued working to restore power to about 1,000 customers who were affected by smaller outages.

“We got the bigger outages repaired overnight but now they’re working through those smaller ones,” Rapkoch said. “Largest single we’re working on now was in Lockwood where some poles went down. They’re without power and our crews are out there but they’re fighting with mud (from the storm).”

Rapkoch said NorthWestern called in crews from the surrounding area, including contract crews, to pitch in.

“We’ve got everybody on it,” she said.

Several neighborhoods in the Alkali Creek area in the Heights spent Sunday digging out from underneath as much as 18 inches of mud after flooding poured in from the Rimrocks overhead.

Clark and Judy Whiteley live on Pinon Drive and bolted home from a Saturday trip to Red Lodge after seeing the storm on a weather report.

By the time they arrived, water and mud had flooded two levels of their home. They spent the night and into Sunday removing the water and then set out large fans in an effort to dry things out a little more.

“I just feel like we’re stuck,” Judy Whiteley said. “We’re in limbo.”

The couple’s backyard is covered by what at first appears to be a solid mass of mud, but, upon closer inspection, is actually about four inches of hail covered with dirt and plant debris.

Outside of the home, Pinon Drive was a mess of muddy driveways — some of them with cars buried in mud to the tops of their tires — and watery, muddy streets.

Right after the storm hit, a City of Billings employee came out with a front-end loader and cleared enough mud from the streets that people could drive through.

To the north, a mudslide tore through the areas around Prickly Pear and Foothill drives.

“We thought it was hail last night in the dark, but it’s mud,” said Kim White, who lives in the neighborhood. “It’s a mudslide that came through the yard. There’s debris everywhere and one of our neighbors, the top of his camper was ripped off. There’s just mud as far as I can see.”

Singer warned that there’s a chance more storms could hit Billings over the next day or two.

While the rains might not be quite as heavy, the ground is so saturated from Saturday that it won’t take much to create more flooding.

“I think we’ve got a couple more days of it but I wouldn’t say it’s going to be crazy like Saturday,” he said. “It’s really wet out there so it’s not going to take much as far as more rainfall to see more of those problems.”

He advised people to stay off roadways in the event of heavy rains.

While many neighborhoods were caked in mud and debris, the people who live there spent much of Sunday helping each other clean up.

On Golden Acres, Ciccotelli and his family, along with some friends and people from around the neighborhood, took up shovels and rakes, scraping out loads of mud.

Casey Marlenee lives up the street and brought out his skid-steer, which he used to clear the street and driveways of people who had as much as two feet of mud up against their homes.

The mud and water didn’t hit his home as hard, but he wanted to help.

“It was basically a river down here,” he said. “It’s cleanup now. That’s my concern. I’m trying to scoop it away from the drains and gutters so the water has someplace to go.”

At the Whiteley’s home, friends let them use fans and other equipment while others spent the day helping them clear out the house and clean up mud.

Thole, the woman who’s basement filled with water and hail, said the response was heartwarming.

“We just have awesome neighbors around here,” she said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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