The Musselshell River, raging 2 feet above its record flood level, forced the evacuation of 30 homes in south Roundup during the small hours of the morning Thursday.
The river spread out of its narrow channel and broadened into a torrent cascading over the edge of Highway 87 at 6,000 cubic feet per second, more than 10 times its usual volume.
Water was running at least 18 inches to 2 feet deep across the highway, cutting off access to the Musselshell County seat.
Businesses and homes were swamped with several feet of water. The river submerged the Busy Bee Café, a local landmark, to a depth of about 8 feet, local residents estimated.
"It came up so fast," said Musselshell County Commissioner Sue Olson.
"When I drove through last night about 11, there was no water on the road," said Darren Helle of Billings, who was returning from Lewistown on Wednesday. "I didn't notice any high water."
Olson was standing on the highway bridge at 2 or 3 a.m. Thursday checking on the river when it began to wash across the roadway.
"We knew it was coming," she said.
Sheriff's officers had warned residents throughout the day Wednesday to watch the river.
The Roundup Fire Department and Musselshell County Sheriff's Office began rousing people Wednesday night and early Thursday with orders to evacuate.
That didn't stop four area teenagers from crossing an area near the fairgrounds and getting stuck due to high water, said Randy Holmes, county disaster and emergency services spokesman.
"They were in an area where they were told not to be and the water got to them," he said. "The local fire department came in and pulled them out."
The department used ropes and flotation devices to pull them to safety. No one was injured.
A shelter was set up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Roundup, but first counselor Charles Facemire said no one had come in for help as of midafternoon Thursday.
Cody Bascom, who lives in south Roundup, took Wednesday off work to keep an eye on the river and pack up essentials — pictures, documents and a bagful of clothes. She and four other family members put electrical equipment on higher shelves in the shop and packed other things on top of hay stacked in the barn.
"I can't say we were real surprised," she said Thursday afternoon from a friend's house in the dry part of town. "I don't think anybody knew how bad it was going to get."
They knew it was time to leave about 12:30 a.m. Thursday when water washed up to the steps of the house.
"I think it rose about 8 inches in half an hour," she said.
Bascom said she did not have flood insurance and doesn't know what her losses will be.
"It hasn't really hit me yet," she said. "It probably won't until the cleanup when I find out what was lost and how much irreplaceable was lost."
The flooding closed roads in and out of Roundup, stranding many people on both sides of the water. Highway 87 to Billings is closed, and Holmes said others were impassable, too.
"Pretty much the only thing we have open is (Highway 12) to Forsyth," he said. "That's pretty much the only way to get out."
The normally placid Musselshell crested at 14.75 feet Thursday. Flood stage there is 10 feet. The previous record flood was in 1975, when the river level reached 12.89 feet.
There were rumors that the reason the water came so deep and fast was that the dam at Deadmans Basin Reservoir had been breached. Not so, said Terri Hice, project manager for the basin.
"There has been no breach and no releasing of water over the dam," she said. "Deadmans is safe."
She said the reservoir is 2 inches from being full, but still has room to store more water.
Hice and her family are stranded at their ranch on the south side of the Musselshell between the river and the Bull Mountains. Water was flowing over the county roads in the area, making them impassible.
Normally, the Musselshell is a half-mile from her home. On Thursday she said the water had advanced to a quarter-mile away.
In Joliet, the City Council declared the town a disaster area and approved an emergency mill levy to help pay for damage on Thursday night, one day after Rock Creek spilled over its banks and sent 18 inches of water hurtling down Main Street.
"We didn't expect it and really weren't prepared for it," said Mayor Judie Swan said.
Nearly 300 people from the town of about 600 showed up at the Community Center for a meeting and City Council session to discuss the flood.
Joliet and Carbon County officials said the disaster declaration is a step toward bringing in state and federal dollars to repair some of the damage caused by the floodwaters. Some of those options include money from the Montana Governor's emergency fund but cautioned that federal money won't come unless President Barack Obama declares a disaster for Montana.
They urged residents to make such a recommendation to Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Also at the meeting, Sheriff Tom Rieger said his office and county emergency officials have based a new flood evacuation plan on the county's existing fire evacuation plan.
For the Joliet area, it will begin at Cooney Dam and work its way down to Joliet. He added that next week, they will finalize an evacuation plan that works north from Joliet to Edgar.
Residents will be notified through a recently added emergency telephone notification system that calls each phone in a designated area with a warning.
"This was so close to town, nobody really got a warning," he said.
Officials from several Montana counties and reservations painted a battered picture of the state for Sen. Max Baucus and Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 8 administrator Robin Finegan on Thursday. Meeting by conference call, the group tallied more than 70 damaged roads, several destroyed bridges and more than 200 homes flooded and without insurance.
But the big concern for several communities was not being able to respond to nonflood emergencies because of road closures and failing water pressure.
"We've got 37 roads that are compromised and seven of them are closed, but the problem is that we are also concerned about fire and life safety," said Dave Pippin, Valley County commissioner. "If there's any emergency-type action, we're having a tough time getting out to help people."
Dirt backroads in some counties are so saturated with water, they've liquefied, officials said.
Bum Stiffarm, chief administrative officer of the Fort Belknap Reservation, said 179 homes have been damaged by flooding and many miles of road are rapidly deteriorating. Stiffarm said that during a flyover assessment of flood damage, officials noticed leach ponds at the shuttered Zortman Landusky cyanide gold mine appear to be breached and leaking.
Finegan said FEMA would follow the lead of state officials and tackling Montana's disaster needs, but would commit all the resources it could. With intense flooding and deadly tornados in the Midwest and Gulf South, federal resources are stretched thin.