Colorado Flood: Rescue efforts ongoing for hundreds of people still unaccounted for; death toll rises
By Kirk Mitchell
The Denver Post
Rabbit, ears down, drawn by Belinda Baardsen, Artist for Animal Rescue
A 60-year-old Cedar Cove woman was believed to be the fifth person killed in this week’s historic flooding in northern Colorado as authorities scrambled Saturday to reach hundreds of people listed as unaccounted for.
Rivers continued to flow well above flood stage, prompting orders for mandatory evacuations on both banks of the South Platte River in eastern Morgan County, including the towns of Orchard, Goodrich, Weldona and Muir Springs. Thousands living in the flood zones were displaced.
The South Platte was nearly nine feet over flood stage at Kersey Saturday morning.
“It is no doubt an epic event,” said Weld county commissioner Sean Conway. “It is a once in 500 years or 1,000 years situation.”
Water flows through the property at 51 S. Bowen St. in Longmont, Colorado on Saturday morning, Sept. 14, 2013. (Lewis Geyer, Longmont Times-Cal)
and hail also prompted warnings and flooded streets in parts of Adams, Arapahoe, Denver and Douglas counties.
Throughout the area, rescue teams continued their efforts. Boulder County doubled the number of rescuers Saturday to around 800, authorities said.
“There might be further loss of life,” Boulder County sheriff Joe Pelle said in a news conference. “It’s certainly a high probability…With an army of folks and an air show we’re hoping to reach everyone as soon as possible.”
Seven helicopters continued rescue trips in Larimer County, evacuating 1,200 people stranded in Pinewood Springs between Lyons and Estes Park along U.S. 36, and 100 people in Big Elk Meadow off Larimer County Road 47, the Boulder Daily-Camera reported.
By the end of the day, 15 helicopters were in service to reach stranded residents in remote parts of Boulder County, including many who weren’t able to contact relatives because phone service was down.
“We’re very much concentrating today on life-safety issues,” said Dan Dallas, incident commander of Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Team B. “We’re working to bring order to a chaotic situation.”
Hundreds of people were evacuated by Saturday morning, Dallas said.
Favorable flying conditions early in the day helped teams rescue many more before rains began again Saturday afternoon. Private pilots assisted by flying reconnaissance missions over the flooded areas to help spot those in need of rescue.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead activated five Wyoming National Guard helicopters to assist evacuation efforts Saturday afternoon.
Larimer county sheriff’s spokesman Nick Christensen said the rescue efforts focus on “people first, then structures.
“The recovery will take months.”
Some people in mandatory evacuation areas, including Jamestown, decided not to leave their homes, Pelle said. About 50 of the 295 residents in Jamestown had declined to board helicopters as of late Friday night,
Longmont Colorado Flooding
Rosa Garcia surveys the flood damage to her home at First Avenue and Elizabeth Court, in the Bohn Park neighborhood, Saturday morning, September, 14, 2013. Garcia, who has lived there for 15 years, said she has no flood insurance. (Lewis Geyer, Longmont Times-Cal)
It could be several days before the National Guard can send helicopters with food, drinkable water and supplies.
“We are making our best effort today to evacuate people but we might not be able to do so [Sunday],” Pelle said. “We hope that they’ll come down.”
Pelle predicted that despite hundreds of rescuers trying to reach people who are in remote areas, the sheriff’s office will be unable to help some residents because roads are unaccessible.
“It’s a sinking feeling… We are not going to be able to help them,” he said.
The mountains are strewn with cabins and homes that are in some cases miles away from any community, Pelle said. Rescuers are using ATVs and are hiking in to dozens of homes doing
Boulder Colorado Flooding
Meg Faygen walks along a washed out Topaz Drive in Boulder, Colo., on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. View more images from the Colorado floods. (Paul Aiken, The Daily Camera)
Just because authorities haven’t heard from people listed as unaccounted for doesn’t mean that they were killed or injured, he said. It may be they were unable to get out of the mountains on their own and do not have phone service.
“We don’t know what we don’t know. Part of the challenge is getting to all those people,” Pelle said. “I’m assuming we’re going to make a very large dent in reducing the list of people who are unaccounted for.”
Forecasters expect rain in the area, heavy at times, to continue through Sunday.
“Our normal has changed for a while,” Pelle said.
Road closures continued across the area. At a press conference Saturday, Gov. John Hickenlooper said several assessment teams are
Longmont Colorado Flooding
Looking south, the washed out bridge on South Sunset Street in Longmont, on Saturday morning, September 14, 2013. (Lewis Geyer, Longmont Times-Cal)
looking at bridges and roads.
Hickenlooper said he reached out to Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin on Saturday for insight on transportation infrastructure. Vermont, hit by catastrophic Hurricane Irene in 2011, is the “model of best practices” for Colorado, he said. On Monday, the state will send two people from the task force that headed Vermont’s relief to Colorado.
He said he expected a full assessment damage to roads and bridges by Tuesday.
As floodwaters overwhelmed municipal sanitation plants, officials imposed ever-increasing limitations on water use.
One pregnant woman was flown out of Lyons on a helicopter Friday, Pelle said.
“Her water broke last night,” he said. “There are some personal stories that make all this worth it.”
A group of Louisville fifth graders who were sheltered at the Cal-Wood Education Center outside of Jamestown were taken by helicopter to the Boulder airport Saturday.
In Evans, where the First Avenue treatment plant was out of service, authorities asked residents to stop flushing toilets, doing laundry, taking baths or showers and washing dishes indefinitely. The city is distributing portable toilet facilities around town.
Longmont officials asked homeowners to stop watering their lawns.
Residents of the close-knit community of Jamestown have opened up their homes and refrigerators to neighbors in need.
“My truck is high and dry behind my house by my buddy’s trailer has half tank of gas if you can siphon it out,” wrote one Jamestown resident on an online community bulletin board after he was evacuated Saturday. His message applied to anyone left in town.
“Keys are under the driver’s side mat if you need to move it or use it,” he added. “My dirt bikes are up there …My house door is locked but shouldn’t be too hard to get in if absolutely necessary. Hang in there Jimtown, we’ll be back.”
Kristen Browning-Blas, Bruce Finley and Jordan Steffen contributed to this report.
Kirk Mitchell: 303-954-1206, denverpost.com/coldcases or twitter.com/kmitchelldp