172 people unaccounted for following Colorado flooding
BOULDER, Colorado (CNN) — The mission for emergency responders in northern Colorado Saturday: “To bring order to a chaotic situation,” as an incident commander put it.
Waters receded some in the flood-devastated areas, but the rains were expected to fall heavy once again over the weekend.
At least four people have been killed and 172 are unaccounted for, officials say. The number of missing peaked at 218 and is expected to continue to shrink.
“We’re assuming some of them have been stranded, we’re assuming that some made their way out and simply haven’t contact us or friends and family to get off the list, we’re assuming that there may be further loss of life or injuries,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.
Evacuations continued Saturday, but were hindered by drainage issues and flooded roadways, he said. Many residents are isolated.
“It’s a sinking feeling,” Pelle said, knowing that emergency responders may not be able to reach everyone who needs help.
The nightmare is far from over as the state awaits more rainfall, threatening to send swollen rivers gushing through streets choked with debris.
It will not be as much as the 15 inches dumped in some spots this week, but it could cause more flooding in areas where water has already receded, forecasters warned.
Residents got some relief Friday when rains subsided, giving a clear view of towns turned into abrupt lakes, homes and businesses inundated with muddy water and bridges devoured by raging creeks. Homes dangled off cliffs.
In Larimer County, there were 46 medical rescues on Friday, and teams continued looking for those unaccounted for on Saturday.
“We hope the worst has passed,” John Schulz of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said. “The water levels are receding, and it was a quiet night overall. We are expecting more rain tomorrow, but with the levels receding today we hope tomorrow is better.”
Hundreds of residents were evacuated Friday, including 162 people transported by air from Jamestown because roads to the city were impassible, Boulder County EMS spokesman Ben Pennymon said.
Rescuers have retrieved the bodies of the four who died in the waters. Many more people are cut off by devastated roadways, and authorities don’t know how long it will take to reach them.
Gov. John Hickenlooper warned an extensive recovery is ahead for the affected area from the state’s center into the northeast.
“This is not going to get fixed in a week,” he said. “We have lost a great deal of infrastructure.”
Currents swept away a woman who got out of her car Thursday in Boulder County. A man jumped out of the car to save her. Both drowned.
Authorities have recovered both bodies, Pelle said. An additional body turned up in the same county. Rescuers recovered yet another in El Paso County.
In Denver, rushing waters swept a man into a drainage pipe with his dog. Both were saved after traveling two blocks in the water, police said.
All the people unaccounted for were in Boulder County alone.
“These are people whose family or friends haven’t been able to reach or account for them, not necessarily in harm or dire need,” said county spokeswoman Gabrielle Boerkircher.
President Barack Obama declared an emergency for Boulder, Larimer and El Paso counties, FEMA announced Friday. The declaration allowed FEMA to bring in four rescue teams, the largest ever deployment in Colorado, officials said.
The clear skies allowed for an uptick in evacuations.
National Guard troops using “high-profile” trucks to wade through water evacuated 550 people from the Boulder County town of Lyons, CNN affiliate KUSA reported.
It had been cut off since the flooding began Wednesday night — without water or sewer service, in many cases without electricity.
Melinda Villa was stranded in her apartment with her 1-month-old baby in the inundated town. She had no phone service, no water and was running out of formula and food.
Then the National Guard arrived.
“It just really felt like God came down and saved us,” she said.
Some had to rescue themselves.
Catherine Smith and Mandy Stepanovsky lived in a part of Lyons that is accessible only by bridges.
“When those became compromised — one bridge completely blew out and the other one was very much impassible — we started looking at other options,” Smith said.
So the couple decided to hike for 2 miles to safety — with their eight-month-old toddler in their arms. Walking was the only way out.
They hiked to Smith’s brother’s house, where they showered and ate a meal before the weather caught up with them again.
A mudslide suddenly brought mud, debris and water through the house, Smith said. They were forced to run to higher ground.
“It was terrifying,” Smith said.
Jonathan Linenberger described a Noah’s Ark-style evacuation as he, his fiancee, four dogs and three cats greeted the National Guard truck.
“We had to go (through) knee-deep water, at least. We had to wade our animals across into the truck to get them there,” said Linenberger. “That was the first thing you can grab, your loved ones — and that’s what we have.”
The National Guard also was evacuating the entire population — 285 people — from the town of Jamestown by helicopter, CNN affiliate KCNC-TV reported.
In Larimer County to the north, Sheriff Justin Smith surveyed the heavily damaged Big Thompson Canyon by air Friday. Some people remain stranded in homes there, he said, “How we’re going to get them out — it’s going to take a damn long time.”
However, he said the break in the rain allowed school buses to begin evacuating students who had been stranded at a school.
State transportation officials closed Interstate 25 from the Wyoming line south to Denver. Part of Interstate 70 also was shut down.
They issued an emergency alert telling residents in some of the hardest-hit counties to stay off of roads because many are unstable and could give way without notice.
From his chopper, Smith surveyed widespread damage to roads. He estimated 17 miles of Highway 34, a major artery, will need to be rebuilt.
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