Montana National Guard soldiers are deployed around the Yellowstone region, where they say they have rescued dozens of people from this week’s severe floods and ushered travelers along ravaged roads. The FEMA administrator is now in the state, surveying the destruction. Montana Red Cross officials are operating evacuation centers across the area.
But one key figure was not on the ground at this historic disaster: Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R).
Gianforte’s office has said he left for a personal trip outside of the country with his wife before heavy rains deluged southwest Montana, washing away bridges, sweeping buildings into rushing rivers and closing entrances to Yellowstone National Park — the region’s premiere tourist attraction and a pillar of its summertime economy. Gianforte’s spokeswoman declined to disclose his whereabouts or specify when the Republican will return, saying in a statement on Wednesday only that he would be “returning early and as quickly as possible.”
By Friday morning, Gianforte had returned to Montana, appearing at a briefing in the town of Gardiner.
In a statement on Thursday, Gianforte announced that he had “secured” a major disaster declaration from President Biden, which the governor said will supply federal aid to “further help our communities respond to the severe flooding, recover and rebuild.” The statement made no mention of the governor’s location or expected return date.
Gianforte’s spokeswoman, Brooke Stroyke, did not provide additional details in response to a request for comment. But NBC Montana reported that Gianforte’s office said he would return to the state Thursday night. Gianforte’s last public appearance in the state took place last Friday at the groundbreaking of Montana State University’s Innovation Campus, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.
Gianforte’s absence has prompted speculation and some grumbling on social media, where some critics have compared him to Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Tex.), who left the country as the Lone Star State suffered through a massive electricity crisis during in 2021. Unlike Cruz, though, Gianforte left before the flooding
“Where in the world is @GovGianforte?” the Montana Democratic Party tweeted. “It’s about time you came back home.”
In Gianforte’s stead, his deputy, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, signed a statewide declaration of disaster, as well as a letter to the White House Wednesday requesting a presidential declaration of major disaster. That letter, which cites Montana’s need for federal assistance for infrastructure repairs and other immediate needs, referred to Juras as “acting governor.”
Juras has also been meeting with state and local officials about the coordinated disaster response. On Thursday morning, she flew over flood-affected areas with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, the federal agency said.
Although he has been missing from the scene, Gianforte has portrayed himself on Twitter as actively responding to the floods. On Wednesday, he said “we are closely monitoring the flooding” in the Flathead Valley and the town of Miles City, and “working with local authorities.” Earlier in the day, he tweeted that he had spoken to the CEO of the region’s major power supplier about restoring electricity to inundated areas, and that he had spoken that morning with officials involved in the state’s disaster response.
Most of the responses ranged from unimpressed to enraged.
“You owe an answer to every Montanan as to where you are and why,” one response read, “regardless of a disaster.”