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Montana Gov. Gianforte vacationed in Italy as flooding crushed Yellowstone

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) speaks after being sworn into office at the Montana Capitol in Helena, Mont., on Jan. 4, 2021. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record/AP)

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) was vacationing in Italy when historic flooding overwhelmed his state this week and caused Yellowstone National Park to close, his office confirmed Friday.

Gianforte and his wife, Susan, went on a “long-scheduled personal trip” that was cut short after heavy rains deluged southwestern Montana. The governor’s office had initially declined to disclose his whereabouts or specify when he would return, citing “security concerns,” even as many asked why Gianforte was nowhere to be found during flooding that prompted him to declare a statewide disaster.

“The governor departed early Saturday morning to Italy with his wife for a long-planned personal, private trip,” his office said in a statement Friday after Gianforte had returned. “When severe flooding struck, the governor delegated his authority to respond to the disaster to Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras with whom he worked closely over the last four days to take swift, decisive action.”

The governor’s office added that Gianforte was “grateful to be back in Montana” and that he planned “to survey damage and meet with residents and local officials about recovering and rebuilding.” Gianforte appeared at a briefing in the town of Gardiner on Friday.

As Montana reeled from floods, Gov. Gianforte was nowhere to be found

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Saturday.

Heavy flooding coursed through the region and swept away homes, bridges and roads. Montana National Guard soldiers have been deployed throughout the Yellowstone region, and the Red Cross is operating evacuation centers across the area.

Drone video shows flooding in Paradise Valley on June 13. (Video: Paradise Valley Aerials/Storyful)

The flooding — a mix of torrential rain and snow melt in the southwestern corner of the state — especially affected Yellowstone National Park, from where about 10,000 visitors were evacuated and at least 88 more were airlifted by the Montana National Guard from campsites and surrounding towns. No deaths or serious injuries were reported near the park, a beloved tourist attraction that covers 2.2 million acres.

The unpredictable onset of water caused dramatic river rises that shattered century-old records. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed this week that the flooding along the Yellowstone River was a 1-in-500-year event. The Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs, Mont., rose six feet between Sunday and Monday to its highest level on record, several feet above the previous high mark noted in 1918.

In maps, photos and videos, see the full force of Yellowstone’s floods

Gianforte declared a statewide disaster on Tuesday in an effort “to help impacted communities get back on their feet as soon as possible.” Then, on Wednesday, some in Montana began to wonder why Juras, the lieutenant governor, had signed the state’s formal request to President Biden for major disaster relief “on behalf of Gov. Greg Gianforte.”

That’s when the governor’s office began receiving repeated questions on Gianforte’s whereabouts. Outlets such as the Montana Free Press ran stories with headlines that read, “Where is Greg Gianforte?” The Montana Democratic Party dinged the Republican for being away on “a mysterious international vacation during an emergency flooding.” When the governor’s office initially said only that Gianforte was out of the country and would be “returning early and as quickly as possible,” critics were not impressed.

“The fact that [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 public administration professor at Montana State University who teaches a class on government leadership and ethics, told the Free Press.

Record floods destroyed buildings and infrastructure in communities close to Yellowstone National Park, Mont., on June 13 and 14. (Video: Jackson Barton/The Washington Post)

Gianforte’s absence prompted critics to compare him to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who left the country for Cancún, Mexico, when Texas suffered through the deadly winter freeze of 2021. Unlike Cruz, though, Gianforte left before the emergency began.

Although he was missing from the scene, Gianforte portrayed himself on Twitter as actively responding to the floods. Gianforte announced on Thursday that he had “secured” a major disaster declaration from Biden, which the governor said would supply federal aid to “further help our communities respond to the severe flooding, recover and rebuild.” The news release, however, did not mention his whereabouts or expected return date.

On Friday, Gianforte made his first public appearance since returning from Italy, joining officials including Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) at a spot in Gardiner overlooking the Yellowstone River. The governor acknowledged that cleaning up and rebuilding would take time but said efforts were already underway to repair damaged infrastructure.

“I understand the tragedy that has occurred. It’s wiped out businesses, and with them livelihoods here in the community,” Gianforte said, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “That’s why [to] get this park entrance open as quickly as possible, it’s so important.”

Yellowstone tweeted on Friday that a limited reopening of the park was “highly possible next week.”

“Yellowstone continues efforts to recover from historic flooding,” the park wrote, posting photos of some of the damage to the south loop of the park.

Gianforte emphasized his commitment to seeing Yellowstone reopen as soon as possible and again showing Americans “all that Montana has to offer.”

“I want you to hear loud and clear,” the governor said, “Montana is open for business.”

Karin Brulliard, N. Kirkpatrick, Jason Samenow, Dylan Moriarty and Laris Karklis contributed to this report.

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