By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Temperatures this week have Blaine County officials on edge as they wait to see if creeks and coulees burgeoning with freshly melted snowpack will force the evacuation of some families near Harlem and Fort Belknap.
If water overflows the banks of Thirtymile Creek north of Harlem, it could displace as many as 10 families, and potential flooding in Fort Belknap could affect as many as five families, said Vandy Damany, director of emergency services for the American Red Cross in north-central Montana.
So far, water has stayed within the banks of Thirtymile Creek, but officials warned that plenty of snow is still melting. The National Weather Service on Monday issued a small stream advisory warning for a 10-county area, including all of Blaine County and part of Hill, Phillips and Chouteau counties.
"The water rose last evening and has since receded some. It is still within the banks, but there is some possibility throughout the day of some flooding if it warms up," said Haley Gustitis, the disaster and emergency services coordinator for Blaine County.
Blaine County Commissioner Don Swenson said conditions have improved since Monday.
"It did freeze last night, and the water is down a little from where it was yesterday," he said, adding that today's temperatures will be a large factor in whether flooding occurs.
Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan said the Sheriff's Office on Monday distributed notices to families near Thirtymile Creek about potential flooding, and asked them to make arrangements should they need to be evacuated.
"There is a lot of snow yet to come down, and it will depend on the temperatures," he said.
Harlem Mayor Jason Gibson issued an emergency declaration Monday, allowing authorities to seek voluntary evacuation of residents near Thirtymile Creek should flooding occur.
Despite the declaration, Harlem resident Jay Miller said he doesn't think severe flooding is likely, and has no plans to evacuate. Miller's house is surrounded on three sides by Thirtymile Creek, and has been flooded three times during the last 50 years.
"You get tired of that damn flooding after a while, but that's the way it is when you live on Thirtymile," he said. "You expect it."
Miller said he thinks the current water flow through the creek is typical.
"It went down over the night, but it's coming up again. That's normal for this time of year," he said.
Still, warm temperatures or rain could change that, he said.
"It all depends on the weather. I built a mound about a foot high so if it does flood, it won't get my floor again," he said.
Temperatures near Harlem were expected to reach 60 degrees today, with a 20 percent chance of rain tonight. The forecast for later in the week calls for slightly cooler temperatures and a chance of precipitation.
Ice in the Milk River could cause a backup in Thirtymile Creek, making it less able to handle another wave of runoff, officials said.
''They've lost 10 inches of snow in two days,'' said Rick Dittman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls.
Gibson was working with Harlem city crews this morning to assess the water levels.
"The water has receded a lot since last night," he said. "I'm on my way to drive up Thirtymile Creek and play in the mud a little bit. Right now it's running in the channel just like it's supposed to, but we'll have a better idea by 6 or 7 tonight."
Cooler temperatures slowed down the water last night, but warm weather today could spell trouble, Gibson said.
"It's going to run its course. There's nothing we can do about," he said.
Kleinjan said he has heard of some potential flooding in Fort Belknap as well.
"I've had some reports that the coulees are running pretty wild," he said.
Havre Red Cross volunteer Terry Schend said tribal disaster and emergency services coordinator John Allen told him that as many as six families on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation could be displaced by flooding.
Allen could not be reached for comment.
Emergency services workers were collaborating with the Red Cross Monday and today to make evacuation arrangements.
"We do have a feeding site in place," Damany said. "We have standby volunteers if there is any evacuation. If there is only one or two families displaced, they can call Red Cross directly, and we'll put them up in a hotel. If it's more than one or two families, we'll have to look at setting up a shelter."
Most families prefer to stay with relatives or friends if they are displaced, Kleinjan said, but if it is necessary, authorities will set up an emergency shelter. Such a shelter could be in a school gymnasium or other building with enough space, he said.
Two Red Cross workers from Great Falls were driving to Harlem today, Damany said. The Red Cross has arranged to borrow cots and blankets from the TownHouse Inns in Havre to use in an emergency shelter, she said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.