With flood waters receding, county officials across Montana are discovering road repairs costing millions more than what was reported to the Federal Emergency Management Agency two weeks earlier.
Officials originally placed a $6.4 million price tag on damage to local roads in 31 Montana counties and four Indian reservations hit by flooding east of the continental divide. State officials used the report to secure a disaster declaration, which President Barack Obama issued last Friday.
The estimate only includes local roads. State-owned roads, because they receive federal funding, are not FEMA eligible, though damage to state-owned roads is expected to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
Heavy rains and flooding since the FEMA estimate has blown the local government damage costs out of the water. It was expected that costs would rise for several weeks as rain and runoff continued. Yellowstone County made the list with $54,000 in estimated road repairs, but was one of the lowest ranked. The big bills were on the Hi-Line and in central Montana.
"We were at $720,000 when we submitted our report. We had about 42 roads damaged at that date," said Rich Seiler, disaster and emergency services coordinator for Valley County. "Now, we're up to 60 roads."
Many of the direct routes to Valley County's biggest community, Glasgow, have been cut off this spring either because of flooding, or because heavy rains simply turned the area's dirt roads to greasy mud. Seiler said. The county hasn't seen neighborhoods with homes and businesses submerged to their eaves in floodwater, but there have been at least 70 homes damaged. It still has residents surrounded by water who haven't been able to leave their home for weeks.
"It's just been such a long ordeal for them, just being caged up that long and not being able to go to town," Seiler said. "Imagine what your wife or girlfriend would be like after being caged up like that."
Valley County had reported the most road damage of any county presented to FEMA, but much was left out of the estimate, including bridge repairs. County Commissioner Bruce Peterson said another $1.5 million to $2 million in repairs will possibly be needed once murky waters recede and crews get their first look at bridge damage.
As it is, some 3-mile trips to town have become 20-mile zigzags through the countryside as locals work to avoid roads completely closed or only open to four-wheel-drive trucks, and in some cases, tractors.
In Fergus County, Commissioner Ken Ronish said even though the rain has mostly stopped, waterlogged hillsides are still slumping onto county roads, which are also being turned to soup by springs. Like Valley County, Fergus is still waiting for waters to die down so it can assess bridge damage, Ronish said. Each bridge that needs repairs can easily add $500,000 to the county road damage estimate that was $652,000 at month's beginning. The county has taken out a $1 million loan from the state to cover immediate repairs costs with hopes that FEMA funding will eventually arrive and cover the debt.
In Custer County, where earlier damage estimates exceeded $500,000, officials were still waiting to assess some bridges and running into materials shortages for some projects.
"You can't get larger culvert. It's four to six weeks out for larger culvert, 8-foot and 12-foot culverts," said Jim Zabrocki, Custer County disaster and emergency services coordinator. "You have to wait for those before you can get the road fixed."
Custer County has 50 damaged roads, Zabrocki said, many of which have been buried by slumping hillsides.
The list of state roads in need of repair is also long, said Jim Lynch, Montana Department of Transportation Director. Thursday, the inventory of damaged state roadways in need of cleanup or repair stood at 133, including everything from washed out bridges to mudslides.
"We've spent about $2 million currently, both in emergency work to protect infrastructure and to save infrastructure, which includes cleaning up mudslides," Lynch said. "The repair work will be in the tens of millions of dollars. Huntley Bridge we know will be $2.5 million. It's going out for bid tomorrow."