But one key figure was not on the ground during this historic disaster: Montana Governor Greg Gianforte (right).
Gianforte’s office said he left for a personal trip out of the country with his wife before heavy rains flooded southwestern Montana, washing away bridges, washing away buildings in rushing rivers and closing entrances to Yellowstone National Park – the region’s number one tourist attraction and a mainstay of its summer economy. Gianforte’s spokeswoman declined to disclose his whereabouts or say when the Republican will return, saying in a statement Wednesday only that he would “come back soon and as quickly as possible.”
In a statement Thursday, Gianforte said he had “obtained” a major disaster declaration from President Biden, who the governor said will provide federal assistance to “further help our communities respond to severe flooding, recover and to rebuild”. The statement made no mention of the governor’s location or expected return date.
Gianforte 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 came last Friday at the grand opening of Montana State University’s Innovation Campus, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.
Gianforte’s absence has sparked speculation and 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 from a massive electricity crisis in 2021. Unlike Cruz, however, Gianforte left before the flood
“Where in the world is @GovGianforte?” the Montana Democratic Party tweeted. “It’s time for you to come home.”
In Gianforte’s place, his deputy, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, signed a statewide disaster declaration, as well as a letter to the White House on 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 also met with national and local officials about coordinated disaster response. Thursday morning, she flew over flood-affected areas with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, the federal agency said.
Although he was absent from the scene, Gianforte presented himself on Twitter as actively responding to the floods. On Wednesday, he said “we are closely monitoring flooding” in the Flathead Valley and the town of Miles City, and “working with local authorities.” Earlier today he tweeted that he had spoken to the region’s CEO major electricity supplier on restoring electricity to flooded areas, and that he had spoken this morning with officials involved in the state’s disaster response.
Most responses ranged from unimpressed to enraged.
“You owe every Montanan an answer as to where you are and why,” one response read, “regardless of disaster.”