POWELL — On June 17, before sunrise, volunteers started arriving in downtown Powell to load their vehicles with supplies prior to heading north in an 11-county convoy.
They forged their way to flood-ravaged Red Lodge, Montana, to show support for residents and volunteers with free food, drinks and a heaping helping of love.
Organized by Danielle Joy Dearcorn, owner of Hickory Street Catering and Bistro, the volunteers built a makeshift kitchen on Broadway Avenue — the town’s main business artery — and offered free hot meals to anyone needing a bite to eat and a cold drink.
“[Helping] is where our heart is,” Dearcorn said while preparing burgers, hot dogs and tacos for lunch.
The hot meals were a blessing for folks who had been without access to a kitchen or utilities for nearly a week.
“Some came to us in tears,” said Brenda Mattson, who volunteered to cook with her husband, Steve.
The volunteer crew of nine served hundreds of meals on the street. They sent volunteers into the devastated sections of town looking for folks in need.
“People won’t stop working,” Mattson said. ‘They won’t even stop to eat. So we’re taking it to them.”
After Rock Creek left its banks during unprecedented flooding, at least one home was washed into the river and many dozens more were flooded with water and thick mud after rain fell for three straight days and warm temperatures quickly melted late-season snow.
The water ripped through the neighborhoods, laying waste to paved streets and ripping out at least three bridges used to cross Rock Creek, which flows just two blocks south of the city’s main street (U.S. Highway 212). Fortunately, the bridge on U.S. Highway 308 was spared in the incident, giving the city quick access to Powell and Cody.
Hundreds of volunteers, many traveling to Red Lodge without contacts in the city, swarmed flooded neighborhoods looking to help exhausted residents in their attempts to save their homes, furnishings and memories.
Dino Zimmerschied, of Jackson, arrived Thursday after seeing news reports about the natural disaster. He tried to approach officials looking for direction, but eventually just started walking the “backstreets” looking for someone who needed help. He didn’t have to go far.
Zimmerschied found another group who had done the same, landing at Pat Ruzich’s house.
“We thought we had it under control and then the bridge went out and diverted the creek,” Ruzich said. “The water broke out a basement window and started filling up my basement. Then I quit. The water won.”
The water, heavy with sediment, eventually filled the entire basement and flooded the main floor of the house “over the hardwood floors,” said Ruzich’s daughter, Amanda Clardy.
That’s when a group of volunteers from a local company, Link Construction, came to the rescue.
They had worked for three straight days, picking up more volunteers including Zimmerschied and at least two volunteers who were on vacation and — by the time Powell volunteers found them — had decided to stay to help rather than finding a new destination.
Sarah Wormald and Dylan Cordes came across the crew while searching for folks in need. They returned to the makeshift kitchen to grab a hot breakfast for everyone and headed back on foot over broken roads and through the maze of sandbags, debris and mud with a dozen meals and drinks.
It wasn’t just random volunteers helping to save Red Lodge. Federal, state and local agencies all came together in the recovery effort. Leading the organized effort was Ken Parks, Missoula County deputy director of the Western Montana All-Hazard Management Team and nearly 50 representatives from agencies responding to the scene.
New in town were representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, who were tackling priority issues. They joined the National Guard, who was in town securing the incident scene and diverting “looky loos” from the area.
Parks said it was encouraging seeing so many people converge on the area to volunteer, but it was a “double-edged sword,” he said.
“Businesses want an influx of people, but that also gums things up [for those trying to work],” he said. “Finding a balance is important.”
At some point, Parks said, “people sending stuff here will become a problem. He said the best thing for the city right now is financial assistance.
“Just send cash,” he said, realizing how bad that might sound to someone unfamiliar with their limited storage access and ability to distribute perishable goods.
The Powell volunteers were touched by their reception.
“It’s hard to talk about. You kind of want to cry,” Dearcorn said while putting together an order for 20 volunteers who had been on the scene since the flood began.