Rescues accelerate in Colorado as floodwaters inundate plains

By P. Solomon Banda

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 14 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Trent Fallica of the City of Boulder Traffic Signal Department, checks on an electrical box next to a raging creek during the flood in North Boulder, Colo., on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. Heavy rains and scarring from recent wildfires sent walls of water crashing down mountainsides early Thursday in Colorado, cutting off mountain towns. Boulder County was hit hardest, but flooding was reported all along the Front Range, from Colorado Springs to north of Fort Collins.

Paul Aiken, Associated Press

LYONS, Colo. — The rescue of Coloradoans stranded by epic mountain flooding accelerated Saturday as debris-filled rivers became muddy seas that extended into towns and farms miles from the Rockies. Authorities expected to find more fatalities when full scope of destruction emerged.

Helicopters and hundreds of National Guard troops searched the mountainous terrain for people as food and water supplies ran low in remote communities cut off since Thursday. Thousands were being driven to safety in convoys.

A woman was missing and presumed dead after witnesses saw floodwaters from the Big Thompson River destroy her home in the Cedar Cove area, Larimer County sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said.

"We're sure there are going to be additional homes that have been destroyed, but we won't know that for a while," Schulz said. "I expect that we're going to continue to receive reports of confirmed missing and confirmed fatalities throughout the next several days."

Four people have been confirmed dead since the harrowing floods began Wednesday. The high water has affected an area nearly the size of Connecticut.

National Guard helicopters flew in and out of the mountain hamlet of Jamestown late into Friday night after it became isolated by rushing water that scoured the canyon the village sits in. Rescuers on the ground focused on the town of Lyons.

By Saturday morning, the Guard had evacuated nearly 800 people by air and ground.

More than a dozen helicopters were available to aid with rescue efforts.

"We have the ability to go whenever, wherever," Master Sgt. Cheresa Theiral said.

Still more rain was expected Saturday. And the outlook for anyone who preferred to stay behind was bleak: weeks without power, cellphone service or running water.

"Essentially, what they were threatening us with is, 'If you stay here, you may be here for a month,'" said 79-year-old Dean Hollenbaugh, who was evacuated by helicopter from Jamestown, northwest of Boulder.

For those awaiting an airlift, Guardsmen dropped food, water and other supplies to residents of the winding, narrow canyons that cut through the Rocky Mountain foothills.

Although the number of confirmed deaths stood at four, authorities feared more bodies could turn up in areas that remain inaccessible.

"The thing with this event is, we don't know what we don't know," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.

More than 170 people remained unaccounted for in Boulder County, but that number could include people who are still stranded or who escaped but have not made contact yet, the sheriff said.

As the waters rose, thousands of people fled mountain and downriver towns, where rivers were still swelling and spilling over their banks Saturday.

One was Mary Hemme, 62, who displayed a pair of purple socks as she sat outside the Lifebridge Christian Church in Longmont. The socks were a memento of the more than 30 hours she spent in an elementary school in Lyons. Many evacuees were given dry socks because most had wet feet, Hemme said.

She recalled the sirens blared at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.

"Mary, we have to go. This place is flooding," she recalled friend Kristen Vincent saying as they clambered out of a trailer into water that was nearly knee-deep.

"It wasn't just sitting there," she said. "It was rushing at us."

Soon the trailer, like others in the park where she was staying, was submerged.

Hemme said she walked up at hill a daybreak and surveyed the trailer park.

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