By Tom Howard
(Billings) Gazette Staff
Gov. Judy Martz pledged last week to help snowbound Eastern
Montana counties clear roads and prepare for possible spring
flooding from this winter's record snowpack.
A series of storms since Christmas, including one that moved
through the area early last week, has deposited several feet
of snow on northeastern Montana.
After an address to the Montana Association of Counties and
disaster and emergency officials, Martz met with county commissioners
from Eastern Montana who shared stories of depleted road budgets,
rescues of stranded motorists and propane trucks that follow
motor graders into snowbound ranches.
"We can't go home," said Gary MacDonald, a commissioner
from Roosevelt County. "It's a helpless feeling."
Ferris Toavs, also a Roosevelt County commissioner, said
the county's road department has accumulated hundreds of hours
"Our graders are taxed to the limit, and we have had
people stranded in their vehicles all night," Toavs said.
Martz said Montana is providing assistance whenever possible,
but the state doesn't have a lot of extra money.
Martz was able to use $27 million in one-time federal revenues
to pay the bill for the 2003 fire season. She said legislators
hounded her to call a special session to spend more money.
But she resisted because she wanted to save money for unforeseen
events such as the winter snow emergency, she said.
"We're doing what we said we would do," Martz said
"We didn't want the Legislature to spend it all. We'll
try to do the best we can do."
State snowplows have been directed to help clear county roads
after they have completed their work on highways, she said.
Equipment, including rotary snow plows, is also being transferred
to snowbound portions of Eastern Montana when possible, she
Although the record snowfall has caused hardship throughout
northeastern Montana, more danger could be months away.
"Our biggest concern is that when all of this snow melts,
there will be flooding," Martz said.
Dolores Plumage, a Blaine County commissioner, said winter
storms have hit the Fort Belknap Reservation especially hard.
The snows have stranded people who need medical treatment,
and schools in Hays and Lodgepole were closed after the latest
storm, she said.
County commissioners have the option of levying an additional
2 mills to pay for plowing. Several counties already have
done that, and others plan to do so soon.
Julie Adolphson, meteorologist in charge of the National
Weather Service office in Glasgow, said moisture accumulations
exceed levels measured in 1916 and 1951, which were record
flood years in northeastern Montana.
The outlook for floods depends on several factors, such as
whether more snow will fall over the next two months and whether
the snowpack melts quickly or slowly, Adolphson said.