Utah team goes door-to-door evacuating Colorado flooding victims
Pat Reavy, Deseret News
BOULDER, Colo. — Working through non-stop rain and flash flood warnings for most of the day, Utah Task Force 1 was put to work Sunday in "rescue mode" in Colorado's Boulder County.
The 75-member specialists from the Utah Urban Search and Rescue Team were deployed into the hard-hit Lefthand Canyon, an area that leads to the flood-ravaged communities of Jamestown, Lyons and Estes Park where many roadways have crumbled and bridges have been washed out.
The main goal of the team on Sunday was to convince residents who were still in their homes to evacuate, because they may not have any other chances to do so.
"There's people there that maybe don't understand the scope of the disaster and (don't know) that it might be awhile before any other help can come to them," said task force leader Erik Sandstrom. "The infrastructure is so destroyed, they might not be able to get out on their own or get others to come in for a long time."
Many of the mountain communities have lost power, water, cellphone and Internet service.
"This is one of their last chances to get out. So if they need food, water, medicine, anything, they need to leave the area," Sandstrom said. "They're telling us some of those roads that lead up there, it may be up to a year before they're rebuilt. The infrastructure is completely destroyed."
Utah Task Force 1 Commander Keith Bevan added that the operation was still in "rescue mode" and not recovery.
"We spent a lot of time speaking to people to make sure not only they, but their neighbors are accounted for. When you live in neighborhoods like that, traditionally everyone knows each other and they can clear areas more rapidly by just (talking to residents)," he said.
Task force member Karen Minchow was part of the crew that went door-to-door talking to and assisting residents near the mouth of Lefthand Canyon on Sunday.
"Quite a few were willing to (leave), but some weren't. They've lived there for a long time and been through a lot of different disasters, but they were all very nice and very appreciative," she said.
Travis Hobbs has been with the USAR team for 12 years. He said the Colorado incident was unique from the other disasters because days of rain and floods have caused damages over an enormous area.
"Most of the people (we came in contact with) have been out of communication for the past four days or so, so they didn't know how big and vast the disaster has been," he said.
The team saw several homes on Sunday that had suffered extensive damage.
"It was raining all day, really really rainy. There were washed out roads. We were walking through about 12 inches of water, lots of mudslides, debris. But it's kind of expected," said Utah Task Force 1 rescue specialist Josh Bailey.
The Utah group was divided into teams of 10. Two groups, or 20 people, were loaded onto a Chinook helicopter and were going to be dropped off about mid-canyon. But just as they were prepared to take off, heavy rain grounded the chopper and all the crew members had to unload.
That group hopes to get back into the air Monday morning.
Approximately 40 others were taken in three Colorado National Guard trucks to the base of the canyon to begin the same operation on the ground. They started at the bottom of the canyon and worked their way up.
"It's considered a hasty search. They move rapidly through those search areas. If they come into an area and they knock on a house and they see or hear someone, they will then make entry by any means necessary," Bevan said. "If the house is intact and there is no answer, they will not force entry into the home. They will put a sticker on the window that outlines the premises has been searched, the interior has not and they'll move onto the next structure."
But many of the homes in that area are not in one piece.
"They have numerous structures that half the house is missing. Obviously if half the house is missing, they can check the remainder. They also have a law enforcement officer with them that will enable them to do forced entry if anything indicates they need to make entry into some of those homes," Bevan said.
Utah's crew is one of five urban search and rescue teams called to Colorado. Originally, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska were called. Late Sunday, word was sent for teams in Nevada and Missouri to also travel to the region.
On Saturday, much of the rescue effort by the Colorado National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency focused on a massive air operation to find stranded residents, many of whom had been physically isolated in their mountain homes. More than 1,200 people were rescued in Boulder County alone on Saturday.
But as the operation transitioned to the urban search and rescue teams, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle cautioned there was a possibility of additional deceased victims being found.
"The cautionary note is this: we have not begun to search collapsed structures, debris piles and wash-outs where we would likely find human remains," he said. "I don't want to be pessimistic, but I also want to be realistic about the probability that we will find others."
As of Sunday, there were a total of three confirmed fatalities in Boulder County due to the storm. There were a total of four throughout Colorado, with some media organizations reporting a fifth death.
The total number of missing people in Colorado ranged from 200 to 500, according to various reports.
The Utah team traveled with enough supplies to stay in Colorado for 10 days if necessary, and could receive additional supplies if the stay is extended.
Utah Task Force 1 consists of firefighters and paramedics from the Unified Fire Authority, Salt Lake City Fire Department and Park City Fire District.
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