Montana governor returns home to historic flooding, and criticism

Audrey J. Powers

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte was expected to return home Thursday, six days after his state was inundated with historic flooding that closed Yellowstone National Park and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Word of the governor’s return came a day after his spokeswoman reported that Gianforte — who left the country last week on what his aides described as a “long-scheduled personal trip” with his wife, Susan — was trying to return home as “early and as quick as possible,” she told NBC Montana.

While the governor’s office refused to say exactly where Gianforte was, it said he has been in communication with his team in Helena, the capital, and keeping abreast of the unfolding calamity in the state through social media.

A house sits in Rock Creek after floodwaters washed away a road and a bridge in Red Lodge, Mont., on Wednesday. David Goldman / AP

Gianforte, a Republican elected in 2020, tweeted Tuesday that he was declaring “a statewide disaster due to flooding to help impacted communities get back on their feet as soon as possible.”

But the first inkling most Montanans got that Gianforte was out of the state came Wednesday when the state’s formal request for major disaster relief landed on President Joe Biden’s desk bearing the signature of Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, “on behalf of Governor Greg Gianforte.”

Biden has approved the Montana Disaster Declaration that will send recovery funds to the beleaguered state, the White House said Thursday. He did so while Gianforte was still en route to Montana.

Gianforte spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke did not respond to a question about exactly what time the governor would be arriving.

Gianforte did not take the private jet he regularly uses to travel around the sprawling state and that is registered to Bozeman Technology Incubator Inc., a company he and his wife own.

Flight records showed that since Tuesday morning the jet has been parked at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.

Residents clear mud, water and debris from the main street in Red Lodge, Montana, on Tuesday. Matthew Brown / AP

The deluge that caused the crisis in Montana began last Friday, when the southwestern corner of the state was hit with heavy rains that, combined with snow melt, caused the Yellowstone River to swell to near-record levels.

By Monday, thousands of tourists and locals found themselves stranded by rising waters that swept away bridges, cut off many communities in Park, Carbon and Stillwater counties, and caused catastrophic flooding in cities like Red Lodge, Billings and Livingston. About 10,000 visitors were moved out of the national park.

A headline on a story Wednesday in the Montana Free Press summed up the growing frustration many residents felt because their governor was gone.

“Where is Greg Gianforte?” it said.

“The fact that it [the flooding] is so extreme and his office has just been pretty recalcitrant about where he is and what’s going on is not great,” Eric Austin, a professor at Montana State University who teaches a class on government leadership and ethics, told the news outlet.

Democrats slammed Gianforte this week for failing to disclose that he wasn’t in the country while the state was dealing with a calamity.

“In a moment of unprecedented disaster and economic uncertainty, Gianforte purposefully kept Montanans in the dark about where he was, and who was actually in charge,” Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said in a statement. “Again, we ask, where in the world is Gov. Gianforte?”

Gianforte made national news five years ago when he body-slammed a reporter for The Guardian newspaper. He was charged with misdemeanor assault and later apologized to reporter Ben Jacobs and admitted his behavior was “unprofessional, unacceptable and unlawful.”

Jay Blackman contributed.

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