Keep Missoula Weird

More than a popular bumper sticker, it’s a way of life in Missoula, Montana. Sometimes that leads to rather strange, wild and crazy things, but it also leads to amazing compassion and action. All of that was displayed in May.

The Clark Fork River runs through the middle of Missoula. It’s beautiful, despite being hemmed in by the city. It’s loved by kayakers, fishermen, floaters, tourists…everybody, really. But sometimes, it reminds us of the power of water. Montana’s snowpack broke records this year, then we had some particularly strong rainstorms, and it combined into a 40-year flood. While areas of Missoula flood semi-regularly, new areas flooded, to the point that three mobile homes floated down the river and three others were removed before they followed suit. Brand new subdivisions, in supposedly safe areas, flooded or were inundated by groundwater.

Some homeowners knew it was coming, they’d seen it before. They had sand and bags delivered early and started building walls and dikes. One house has a sandbag wall around the entire house, with a flamingo pool float out front. Been here before, we’ll survive it this time too, the bird says.

But the newer homeowners and renters? They were shocked, sometimes in complete denial and terribly unprepared. Fortunately for them, Missoula is weird. People came forward and started helping, wherever and however they could. Churches came forward, purchasing sand and mobilizing their congregations. Construction companies and dump truck owners stepped up, donating more sand. But the effort was unfocused and a bit chaotic.

I live well south of Missoula, but the emergency managers and other disaster organizations in the area know me. I was driving north to offer help when Missoula County called me, asking for Team Rubicon’s help in managing the spontaneous volunteer efforts. Of course, I said sure, we’ll give a shot. I had no idea how the weird people of Missoula would amaze me.

I gathered my small TRibe of dedicated Team Rubicon volunteers, including one who drove eight hours to my house straight from wildland firefighting training. We met in Missoula at the Orchard Homes Community Life Center, to survey and plan how to organize the sandbagging efforts.

But that’s not what happened.

Sandbags were desperately needed by homeowners, right now. So, our small band of intrepid leaders swung into action. The Seventh Day Adventists kicked off the effort, begging the major companies in the area for sand and buying more when their generosity ran out. Both Western Excavation and Knife River donated lots of sand and trucking, but they had commitments to honor too. So, how could we get more sand, fast?

Fortunately, Missoula is weird. People came to shovel sand, they brought their trucks to transport bags to where they were needed and donated lots of money. Cash is king in any disaster and key to a successful response. Church at the Gates, a Southern Baptist congregation, stepped up with huge donations for sand. Independent truckers delivered for free, and Time Rental donated sand and trucking over the weekend, so we could keep filling sandbags and stretch our budget further. Volunteers came out in droves, to fill bags, deliver bags, and go to affected homes to build walls. Local businesses brought food and water. Boyce Lumber volunteered their company forklifts and drivers. Schools brought busloads of students to fill bags for an hour or more.

Really, we were incredibly fortunate in so many ways, especially since our first site was way too small and in a very congested area. Everyone was cooperative and attentive, so no one got smashed by a giant dump truck, chopped off a foot with a shovel, threw out their back by lifting a too heavy bag or a billion other things that could have gone horribly wrong. Moving our operations to Ft Missoula was a huge relief, giving us enough room to work safely.

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My part of the operation ended on a particularly weird and wonderful note. Maggot Fest, an annual rugby tournament, occurred that weekend. Since rookie rugby players are put through a tryout period, and several teams decided to help Missoula and put their newbies through a physical wringer at the same time. I wrote a guest blog for Delilah Devlin about that day; I’ll link it here when it comes out next week.

In the end, we had over 2100 spontaneous volunteers, 1967 tons of sand, 112,000 sandbags built, and 92,000 sandbags delivered. We also gained more than 40 new volunteers for Team Rubicon. We helped save a lot of homes. And, because of the amazing generosity of Missoulians, we did it efficiently, cheaply and safely.

Keep Missoula weird!

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Copyright © AM Scott, 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Overhead sandbag photo courtesy of K. Kirkbride, all others AM Scott.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Kathe K. says:

    11 long days and a much greater appreciation for what it means to be a Bitterrooter.

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