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Flooding from snow melt, ice jams shuts I-90 in east Montana

March 25, 2019
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The I-90 and Highway 212 intersection floods as the Little Bighorn River covers roads, homes and fields near Crow Agency, Mont. on Sunday, March 24, 2019. (Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette via AP)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Flooding shut down a long stretch of Interstate 90 and covered other roadways across Montana on Monday with the still-frozen ground unable to absorb the rapidly melting snow and ice jams causing water to spill over river banks.

The Crow Tribe set up a command center and the Red Cross opened a shelter after the Little Bighorn River flooded land and roads on the southeastern Montana reservation over the weekend. In Central Montana, a home near Vaughn was surrounded by water, but the family inside declined assistance.

“They said they’re OK for now,” Vaughn Fire Chief Jason McAllister told The Great Falls Tribune. “I said, ’If that changes to go ahead and contact us and we’d assist.”

The spring thaw comes after a winter that recorded above-average snowfall and extended periods of freezing temperatures that left the ground frozen and unable to absorb the snowmelt.

“There’s not much room for that meltwater to go, so it ends up running off and pooling in place,” meteorologist Bob Hoenisch said.

The snowmelt has prompted flood warnings and advisories for multiple counties in central, northeastern and southeastern Montana, and the warming trend is expected to continue this week with high temperatures reaching the 50s.

The thaw is breaking up frozen rivers into jagged, swiftly moving floes that can form ice jams that spill water over their banks. An ice jam in the Little Bighorn River and rapid snow melt caused the flooding that has closed I-90 between Hardin and the Wyoming state line, a 60-mile (96-kilometer) stretch of highway. About 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the Montana-bound portion of the highway was also closed in Wyoming because of the Montana flooding.

The interstate crosses the Crow Reservation, which also experienced flooding. Tribal spokesman Justin Stewart urged travelers not to try to cross flooded roadways or go around barricades.

The Billings Gazette reported the tribe has been working to assist people in remote locations or without drinking water due to recently repaired water mains with water not yet deemed safe to drink.

The Little Bighorn crested Sunday, meteorologists said.