REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Livingston flood victims’ personal stories

Jeff Schlapp - Enterprise Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2022
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Julie Benden stands in front of her business, Last Stand Fireworks, and the piles of destroyed fireworks that were damaged by the flood waters. Benden estimated she lost at least a third of the products she had hoped to sell leading up to the Fourth of July holiday.

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Business Park Storage owner Melvin Schuman, far left, stands with Casey Purcell, Kylie Purcell and Beth O’Neill outside of the U-Haul center in Livingston. The four business owners have worked together through the week since Tuesday to help with flood recovery efforts within the business storage area. Purcell purchased and donated over three tons of gravel to help make the area accessible for approximately 500 storage locker owners. Enterprise photo by Jeff Schlapp

On Tuesday I wrote a story about my experience on Monday night traveling around Livingston meeting folks who were victims of the flood as well as the folks who I ran into the levee at Sacajawea Park. On Saturday I went in search of these people to see how they were doing and what their recovery looked like. Thanks to a friend, Lauren Dalzell, who gave me additional information about local residents who were effected by the flood, I was also able to meet Beth O’Neill, Melvin Schuman, Kylie Purcell and her husband, Casey Purcell.

eI first headed over to see how Ann Fuller and Melanie Reid were doing. They were two women I had met Monday night as the flood water rose above my ankles on O and Lewis streets. Fuller was back in her home, as she was able to get help from friends who stopped by and pumped out water from her basement. She was standing out in her field doing work which six days ago was submerged and turned into a lake. She told me she was doing OK and that most important, her chickens survived. I was able to get in contact with Reid, who was gracious enough to invite me over and took me on a tour of her home and yard.

“Well, on Monday thanks to Ann, I was able to find a place to sleep,” Reid told me. “A friend of Ann’s invited us to stay as guests so I was able to sleep on her couch, which was a huge relief. I came home on Tuesday morning and the water on the road had receded, and when I walked into my home I was happy to see that there was no water on my main level, and my first thought was that I escaped any damage. I went outside and looked around my yard and there was still some water but no damage there either. Then I went to look in the basement and when I opened the door I immediately saw water. It was almost to the top step. There was a work bench that was very heavy and built into the wall which was floating in the middle of my basement along with many of my storage boxes. I called Nicole Mains my landlord from Cole Property Management here in town and thanks to her I had a place to live these past days as, she put me up in another rental, and her crew has been busy pumping out the water and getting my house back to normal.”

As we walked around her yard, Reid looked over near a grouping of bushes and laughed as she picked up a gnome she found about 10 feet away, still standing upright, from its original location. She mentioned that all she can do is move forward and that she hopes to be back in her home by the end of the week.

I next drove over to see how the folks at the Growing Roots Learning on East Park Street were doing, and I found Charles Barber and his wife, Dawn, loading up a final load of the center’s belongings with two friends who had helped, Carrie Dean and Alicia Kister.

“We’ve taken over three huge loads of garbage to the city dump so far and this will be our last load,” Charles said. “We started cleaning as soon as we could get back in on Tuesday. It’s backbreaking work but we’ve had help from friends which was a big relief.”

Dawn said they were able to relocate their center to the basement of Grace United Methodist Church.

Next door I met Julie Benden the owner of Last Stand Fireworks, who was busy outside cleaning up and moving her damaged fireworks from inside her stand. Helping her were folks from as far as Kalispell thanks to a Facebook post put out by Expedition Church in Livingston asking for volunteers.

“I am just so thankful for everyone who has stopped by to help us,” Benden said. “We’ve lost about a third of our product due to water damage, and our RV was flooded as well. I came here and tried to start putting items up but the water just came so fast it was impossible. And my husband just accepted a job offer a week ago as a tour guide for Yellowstone Park.”

Benden, like so many others I met, told me that all she can do is keep going. She owns the fireworks stand with her husband Chris and plans on opening the stand with the supplies she has left, and is holding out hope she can find replacements for what she lost — which an early assessment by her was $22,000 dollars.

“This is our business and we rely on the income to live off of,” Benden said. “But we’re lucky because our home wasn’t damaged and we understand that a lot of people are much worse off, and our hearts just go out to all of them.”

On Sunday I headed over to the Business Park Storage location. There I met Beth O’Neill, Melvin Schuman and Kylie Purcell and her husband, Casey Purcell.

Schuman owns the U-Haul center and 500 storage units. He also owns and leases out space within the business park to 10 local businesses, including O’Neill’s specialized car detailing business — Montana Vehicle Detail — and Purcell, who owns Montana Dog Company, which is a dog training and grooming company.

Schuman and O’Neill described a scene out of a movie as the flood waters turned the parking lot into a river.

“I was working in my office around 9p.m., ” Schuman said. “I was getting ready to leave and I heard noise and I opened my door and saw the water coming into the business park. By the time I gathered some belongings and got into my pickup, the water was rising to the top of my tires. I drove out near our entrance and called my wife and she asked if I was in the river due to the noise, and I looked out the window and told her “Sort of.’ Our parking lot was literally a river by then. I felt two bangs on my truck and looked out and saw two power poles float by and just then the power transformer I was parked next to exploded. Sparks and flames seemed to be everywhere and that’s when I quickly drove away.”

O’Neill credits Purcell with saving her dogs from drowning.

“I was helping on the Ninth Street bridge area with other folks around 8:30 p.m. get a horse evacuated which was stuck in the rising water and then I decide to come her to finish up paper work,” O’Neill said. “I was placing a few orders at 9 p.m. when I saw the water coming in and looked outside and noticed the flooding water outside my door. I sent a text to Kylie to ask if she wanted me to go into her business and grab anything when my office really began to flood. I was able to get a few things off the floor but within moments the water was rushing into my store. My two dogs were with me and I was trying to grab them when Kylie came banging on my door, grabbed me and my dogs and rushed me to her truck, and we drove through what appeared to be the Yellowstone River — that’s how deep the water was.”

Purcell gave me a tour of her dog training center and the water level marks were about 5 feet high. She lost practically everything to the flood. Despite loosing most of her business supplies, Purcell thought of those who had belongings stored in the storage units.

“When I came back on Tuesday this place was a river bed,” Purcell said. “There was huge rocks everywhere and no real way for people to be able to drive to their units. In my space there were dead fish parts floating among my belongings, so I could only imagine what folks storage lockers were like.”

So instead of thinking of her own loss, Purcell went out and purchased over three tons of gravel, and John Ruggles of Ruggles Excavation, Inc. volunteered his services and equipment to spread the gravel and help clean the parking lot. Yet another moment of community members putting their own needs aside to help neighbors.

I also met Ari Novak, owner of Pixium Film Group, who was cleaning out one of his two storage units with the help of his friend Taylor Allen. Novak provides movie supplies and props to the movie industry and he suffered a huge loss.

“For the immediate future there will be certain aspects of our services which we won’t be able to offer,”Novak said. “Right now my concern is just trying to get our equipment out of these storage lockers and see what we can salvage, but right now it looks like about a third will be salvageable. But there are so many people who are worse off than we are. We’ll be able to maintain our company — it just will be smaller until we’re able to figure out what we will do next.”

The whole weekend sort of a blur for me as I went from place to place to talk to people who suffered flood damage. So many of the folks I spoke with have suffered life-changing losses but I was struck by two things — how much this community cares for one another and how much damage water can do.

“None of us had flood coverage,” Schuman said. “Why would we, after all the river is a mile away?”