A Devastating Flood Brings Out the Best in a Small Town

When the floodwaters rose in Red Lodge, Montana, so did a river of helping hands

The volunteer bucket brigade, organized by a local Forest Service ranger, was just a text message away.Sue Roberts
The volunteer bucket brigade, organized by a local Forest Service ranger, was just a text message away.

It was 3 a.m. when the flood came on an unseasonably warm night in June, the summer rain melting snow from an unseasonable Memorial Day blizzard. Susan Roberts, new to Red Lodge, Montana, a small town of 2,300, woke from an uneasy sleep. She saw the lights on at her across-the-way neighbors’, on the side bordering Rock Creek, a 55-mile river skirting the town’s eastern edge.

“You could hear the boulders smashing together,” says Red Lodge Mayor Kristen Cogswell. “It was surreal, like nothing I’d ever heard before.”

Roberts’s next-door neighbor, a police officer, was evacuating with his four kids, and he advised Roberts to do the same. So she put her dogs in the car and moved it to an alley behind her home, about 10 feet uphill, as her husband went house to house, waking others.

“It was still dark; people were sleeping and didn’t realize,” says Roberts. “There wasn’t a public response, it was more people going to each other’s doors saying, ‘Wake up, you gotta get out.’ ”

The couple stayed in their car and on the few feet of dry land surrounding it for the entirety of the next day, watching their house crumble.

As far as 100-year floods go, Red Lodge’s had it all. Fir trees washed down the town’s main drag. Cars floated away. Craters contoured the Beartooth Highway, a major artery connecting Red Lodge to Billings.

“Broadway looked like a riverbed,” says Cogswell. “The whole community was wandering around, trying to grasp what happened.”

Nicest Places In America 2023 Red Lodge Montana Sueroberts02 Np23Sue Roberts

Then, as suddenly as Rock Creek surged, Red Lodge regained its bearings. The day after the flood, more than 20 people­—friends, neighbors, strangers, even tourists—flocked to help.

“People went into our wet, muddy basement and pulled everything out,” says Roberts. “They sorted and took things home to wash. One person brought a Bobcat to clean up our yard. A mother and her two young children pulled debris from our chain-link fence.” Helpers even salvaged her precious photo albums, drying each print before returning it to the book.

And volunteers kept coming every day until summer’s end.

“People would not take no for an answer. If I was like, ‘Oh, we’re OK now,’ they’d be like, ‘No. I’m gonna do something,’ ” she says.

All over town, people mobilized. Volunteer bucket brigades worked quickly to muck out a space within hours. People offered their Yellowstone vacation homes to the displaced at no charge. Restaurant owner Gena Burghoff organized a gift card brigade for people to buy gift cards from local businesses to donate to affected residents. Cogswell’s husband even saw a man catching fish on Broadway to return to Rock Creek.

Neighbors rushed to help neighbors all along Rock Creek.Sue Roberts
Neighbors rushed to help neighbors all along Rock Creek.

Most important, amid it all, Red Lodge remained grounded.

“We moved in, and we have to learn to live harmoniously,” says Cogswell.

Harmony has been well learned in Red Lodge, a blue town in a red county. Burghoff remembers people publicly forcing their opinions on both sides leading up to the 2020 election.

“There was a lot of separation a couple years before,” says Burghoff, “but people either came to their senses to help one another or were just kind of over the nonsense.

“It was a good lesson,” she adds.

More than a year later, Red Lodge is still recovering from the flood’s destruction, but tourist season looks bright. In the spring, Roberts finally moved home, with a freshly poured concrete foundation. And Red Lodge will continue to seek the balance needed to thrive in the Montana wild.

“What’s different about Red Lodge is we’re here because of our respect and compassion for nature. People in Red Lodge will try to understand it and work with it, but every once in a while you need a good talking to,” says Cogs­well, “and that was a good one.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest