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'You can't beat Mother Nature': Carbon County dispatch reflects on historic flood one year later

Seana Knox, Carbon County 911 Dispatch, at work
Posted at 5:41 PM, Jun 10, 2023

CARBON COUNTY — One year ago, the streets in Red Lodge looked a lot different. As water rushed through the town, citizens frantically called for help. Now, one of those dispatchers is reflecting on the chaos that happened in Carbon County.

“Starting about the eleventh, we got a call from our Forest Service officer that Rock Creek up the main fork was flooding campgrounds. They were starting to evacuate. Things just started escalating kind of quickly at that point,” said Seana Knox, a Carbon County 911 dispatcher, in a recent interview. “It happened so quickly and the water happened so quickly. And the worst-case scenario was it happened at night. So people are panicking, people are scared."

Seana Knox
Seana Knox

911 dispatchers had to think quickly and carefully to ensure help got to the right places.

“You have to be that calm, still voice in the background saying, ‘We understand, we know your situation, and we’re going to get you help as quickly as we can,'" Knox said. “You’re afraid for them, but you can’t let that get through. You don’t want them to panic anymore. You just want to reassure and let them know, we’re here to get you the help. That’s why you called us."

Knox knows that all too well. She dealt with navigating the flood firsthand, all while short-staffed.

“We’re a tight-knit group in here. We are a family, we bicker like a family. We tease each other. But dispatching is a difficult job and not everybody can do it," Knox said. "It’s not just here, it’s all over the state. Dispatch centers are horribly shorthanded."

Seana Knox, Carbon County 911 Dispatch, at work
Seana Knox, Carbon County 911 Dispatch, at work

A tough job—made even harder knowing it was her family and friends on the other end of the line.

"I will admit that the flood was difficult because it was my family that was affected, it was my community that was affected," Knox said. “I think you have to be a robot not to have it affect you. My stress level went up. I had to call my boss and tell him, ‘Hey, I just need a day. I just need a day to decompress.’ I was running up to the rodeo fairgrounds to get water, to take a shower because we lost power."

According to Knox, from June 6 to June 13, the dispatch center received a total of 918 incoming calls.

Calls that were difficult to take.

"We had a family, I want to say it was six people, that the water had come up through their fields and their house was essentially an island," Knox said. "And they had a number of elderly residents there."

Knox is referring to a family that had to be rescued via helicopter. Carbon County Sheriff Josh McQuillan assisted on that call.

"National Guard was huge. We used them to hoist out a family over out of Fromberg that the water came through their field and surrounded their house," McQuillan said. "They hoisted six people up."

Josh McQuillan
Josh McQuillan

McQuillan ended up stranded after assisting with evacuations, and the only way out was up.

"It was really a good sound when we heard the Chinook come in the last time and we were all able to get on," McQuillan said. "You know we had dogs and a lot of young kids because there were camps up there. And they loved it."

He says without dispatchers, the event could have turned deadly. Especially since many weren’t aware of how bad things were.

"We landed and people were like, ‘No, we’re good for a couple of days.’ And we’re like, ‘You don’t understand, the road is gone,'" McQuillan said.

McQuillan explained the county had a feeling the flood was coming but would never have imagined just how devastating it would be.

"It was that mid-June event that, we knew we were in trouble. What was already up there, the weather forecast. Everything that could go wrong, did,” McQuillan said. "There were a lot of people trying to help, but the water, you know, you can’t beat Mother Nature."

And formulating a plan to combat the rushing waters wasn’t easy.

Rock Creek overflowing into Red Lodge
Rock Creek overflowing into Red Lodge

"Every time we thought we had a plan, the road would wash out or the water would be coming from a different direction. And so the fact that there was no loss of life, I think is the most remarkable thing," McQuillan said. "A lot of people suffered severe damage, and that’s devastating in itself. But you know, to be able to say that we went through an event like that with no loss of life, is a pretty big accomplishment."

A pretty big accomplishment—one that might not have been possible without the first-first responders taking those calls.

"It all started in dispatch," McQuillan said. "Our dispatchers are awesome on any day and they really stepped up during that time frame."

"We don’t get enough credit where credit is due.”

And that credit is certainly due after the dispatchers worked tirelessly while their own homes were being washed away.

"It still gets me choked up because with everything going on in this world right now, people do care. And we saw that firsthand," Knox said. "It’s a tough job. But we have an outstanding group here. We pulled it off."