Lindi O’Brien doesn’t like to cry in front of people. She keeps the vibe on her eight-acre property in Fromberg upbeat with jokes. She reassures visitors that the mosquitoes that bloom in the floodwaters that passed through her hometown won’t hurt you, they’ll just shed a few pounds. When she comes across reminders of her nearly 50 years of life in Fromberg, family photos, books and keepsakes strewn across her property, there are no tears, but there is pause.
“It’s like I find little pieces of my dad everywhere,” she said.
There is still a house on the O’Brien property with at least an inch of water in its basement. On the ground floor, the skeletal framework of the house is visible. Crews ripped out the drywall and insulation. It was soaked just over a week ago by the historic flood that hit Carbon County towns dotting the waterways leading from the Beartooth and Absarokee Mountains. Last Wednesday, Lindi O’Brien focused on rebuilding a chicken coop for her dozens of poultry, including several chickens, geese and at least one turkey.
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The O’Briens do not work alone. Since Saturday, folks from AmeriCorps, a federal volunteer agency, have been sifting through the damage, helping to peel away the soaked and rotting soil. Others who came to help Lindi included children active in the FFA and a member of the Joliet Volunteer Fire Department. These volunteers represent only a portion of those who donate food, tools and labor to Fromberg. Some, like members of the AmeriCorps, are here on assignment from government or religious organizations. Others are next-door neighbors, from the next town, or from the next county. At least one is a 73-year-old man from Missouri who traveled straight to Montana when the floods made national headlines.
“Squeakers like the sissies that we are, we had help. AmeriCorps, they’ve been amazing. However, the people who live in this valley are so intertwined,” Lindi O’Brien said.
During a lunch and water break after cleanup work, Winnie Berckmoes arrived with an SUV full of fans, shovels and burritos. Berckmoes said she drove back and forth from the town school, where supplies were stored, dropping off anything her neighbors might need.
“It’s not great what happened, but doing this makes me happy,” she said.
Fromberg officials estimated that 100 homes were damaged by the flood, all in a town of about 400 people. As of Friday morning, residents were still under a boil order for their water supply, and Gov. Greg Gianforte requested one-on-one assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency just a day before. If that help arrives, it won’t be for at least a few weeks.
Last week, the White House declared a major disaster following Governor Greg Gianforte’s request to President Joe Biden to expedite the process. The statement opens up funding relief for the three Montana counties hardest hit by flooding: Carbon, Park and Stillwater. The federal government will now be able to provide up to 75% of the total cost of damage to public infrastructure such as roads and bridges, in accordance with the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.
The governor visited Fromberg on Tuesday. Several residents told him about their frustrations at having to rely on each other over the past week, as most emergency response went to Red Lodge and Gardiner, the Gazette reported.
Earlier Wednesday, three people looked at an annotated map of Fromberg. Stones held piles of papers. Local resident Lynn White led trucks loaded with the soaked innards of homes to the city park landfill and answered questions from the handful of people walking under the wooden shade structure off the 310 Freeway. days after the flood, the bridger middle school teacher unexpectedly found herself in the position of volunteer coordinator.
When floodwaters pierced the eastern part of the city on June 13, White said she was packing sandbags for the next two evenings. When she joined the team that went door-to-door assessing the damage to Fromberg’s homes, she finally began to organize the volunteer effort, researching who needed what and where.
“There really hasn’t been a lot of advice, so the cleanup has really been a community effort… We keep cleaning the houses, and then there will be a period of drying out. There is debris that is still strewn everywhere, but our biggest priority right now is getting people back to livable conditions,” White said.
With two people from the US Forest Service coming from Red Lodge to help, most of the morning was spent figuring out which houses needed volunteers. Many residents were reluctant to accept any help cleaning their homes, White said, not wanting to deprive others who might need it more. Since Saturday, she said, that hesitation has faded now that homeowners have seen volunteers able to clean an entire basement in less than a day.
As volunteers arrived for their assignments, they received packets to document their work. Documenting volunteer hours is one way to get better compensation from the federal government. While this compensation is not immediately available, it is an investment highlighted by officials to ease the county’s financial burden. FEMA will cover the cost of documented volunteer hours spent at a disaster, whether it is used to clean a road or a house, offsetting the 25% of the cost that is usually borne by the county government.
“With this flood, we have a group of people cleaning basements or sandbags, so FEMA will provide what a worker would earn at local rate, plus benefits,” said Jamie Porter, chief of the finance section of Western Montana All Hazard Incident. Management team.
Porter said volunteers can provide their name, what they did and where they were to help offset costs. They can also document the vehicles or machinery they have used, such as trailers, tractors and pumps.
White said all of the volunteers she has worked with have been receptive to having their hours logged.
On Wednesday, the Shaws were among those who recruited a team of volunteers. The family of four lives on Second Avenue in Fromberg, well within the path of water gushing from Yellowstone’s Clarks Fork.
The half-dozen volunteers who enter the Shaws’ house pass through a wall of freezing air, the flooded basement and the multi-window fan array turning the house into a massive swamp cooler. The cold is a relief for the skin, but a peek through the rooms that once housed Rebecca, James and their two children is an assault on the eyes.
Mud is caked on almost every surface, from waist to toe, and their floors are already starting to roll up. The couple’s mountain of computer equipment, used both professionally and for leisure, is now a useless scrap. Volunteers empty a bedroom, piles of what was once where the two Shaw boys slept were dragged onto the front lawn to dry in the sun or end up in a pile of rubbish.
Robert Leon Kennedy, a veteran of the United States Air Force and several natural disasters inside and outside the United States, was at home in Branson, Missouri, when he saw nationwide flood coverage in Montana. Kennedy made the 1,200 mile trip to Red Lodge last Saturday. He’s been sleeping in his vehicle ever since, and after helping clean houses at Red Lodge, he’s on his second day cleaning houses downriver in Fromberg on Wednesday.
“[Hurricane] Dorian was the worst in the Bahamas as the whole island was destroyed by this category five hurricane,” Kennedy said, wiping sweat from her tanned head while taking a break from the water. “We were going to clean houses like this and they were filled with sea water and sewage. You would work for 15 minutes and you would go outside and try not to throw… Disasters all run together, though. You are with people who see their whole world destroyed.
As of Friday morning, about a dozen homes still needed to be cleared of debris, White said. Although other groups of volunteers arrived in Fromberg last week, she said resources were still needed in the form of manpower.
Those interested in volunteering in Carbon County can contact the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation at 406-446-2820. Potential volunteers can also find coordinators in Fromberg at the Volunteer Tent near Highway 310 for assignment.
“Bring mud boots,” White said.