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Colorado flooding brings tales of dramatic rescues, improvisation (+photos)

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 12:28 p.m. MDT

A muddy U.S. flag stands in front of flooded homes in Longmont, Colo., on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. Floodwaters have affected a 4,500 square-mile section of the state. National Guard helicopters have been evacuating residents from the hardest hit communities.  (Chris Schneider, Associated Press) A muddy U.S. flag stands in front of flooded homes in Longmont, Colo., on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. Floodwaters have affected a 4,500 square-mile section of the state. National Guard helicopters have been evacuating residents from the hardest hit communities. (Chris Schneider, Associated Press)

BOULDER, Colo. — As people came down from the flooded foothills of the Colorado Rockies, they brought tales of dramatic rescues, heartbreaking loss and neighbors coming together to protect their families and homes. Here are a few of their stories:

Emma Hardy's husband woke her up Wednesday night to say a well-loved neighbor had been killed by a mudslide that crushed his Jamestown home. From that point on, the 46-year-old artist and her family were in constant motion, knocking on doors and trying to get people out.

But within hours, a new, impassable river formed and bisected the town.

"It was totally biblical," Hardy said. "And then it just started getting worse and worse."

They watched a 10-foot-high culvert smash their deck. By the time the rain slowed, the house was in the water, but, Hardy made sure to point out, "still standing."

A rental property Hardy owned was completely washed away.

Suzanne Sophocles hugs Lefthand Fire Rescue worker Anne Reid after being rescued from her home that was surrounded by raging water, Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 in Boulder, Colo. By truck and helicopter, thousands of people stranded by floodwaters came down from the Colorado Rockies on Friday, two days after seemingly endless rain turned normally scenic rivers and creeks into coffee-colored rapids that wrecked scores of roads and wiped out neighborhoods. (Jeremy Papasso, Associated Press) Suzanne Sophocles hugs Lefthand Fire Rescue worker Anne Reid after being rescued from her home that was surrounded by raging water, Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 in Boulder, Colo. By truck and helicopter, thousands of people stranded by floodwaters came down from the Colorado Rockies on Friday, two days after seemingly endless rain turned normally scenic rivers and creeks into coffee-colored rapids that wrecked scores of roads and wiped out neighborhoods. (Jeremy Papasso, Associated Press)

"It's the river's house now," a neighbor observed outside an evacuation drop-off point at a high school.

Like many Jamestown residents, Hardy said she did not begin to process the scale of the disaster until she was flying away from the town.

"When you're bailing out buckets of water, you're not really thinking about anything. Now it's starting to sink in," she said.

The creek outside Terry Kishiyama's home just outside Lyons washed away the family's drinking well and much of their land.

"The river was just getting higher and higher to the point where we thought we were going to die," he said after walking off a school bus of evacuees. "You couldn't even talk because it was so loud."

Kishiyama, his wife, 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter hiked to a neighbor's house on higher ground. They shared a single toothbrush as they waited several days for rescue. Helicopters flew by in the distance, though none came near their location until Saturday morning.

This aerial photo shows a raging waterfall destroying a bridge along Highway 34 toward Estes Park, Colo. as flooding continues to devastate the Front Range and thousands are forced to evacuate with an unconfirmed number of structures destroyed Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (Dennis Pierce, Colorado Heli-Ops) This aerial photo shows a raging waterfall destroying a bridge along Highway 34 toward Estes Park, Colo. as flooding continues to devastate the Front Range and thousands are forced to evacuate with an unconfirmed number of structures destroyed Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (Dennis Pierce, Colorado Heli-Ops)

Then, a military helicopter appeared across the river. Kishiyama's son whipped off his orange T-shirt and waved it over his head.

His wife shouted, "We have babies!"

Kishiyama made eye contact with the pilot. Finally, he knew they would be safe.

Residents along Gregory Creek near Boulder joined with students from the nearby University of Colorado in a frantic effort to save homes.

They raided each other's yards for flagstones, filled garbage bags with sand and used whatever else they could to make berms and divert the water away from the houses. Along the alley, which had turned into a fast-moving river, they strung a rope so they could safely maneuver.

The diversion tactics worked. Many of the homes had basement flooding, and some kitchens were damaged, but all the houses remained intact.

The Summit County Rescue team works to save Suzanne Sophocles,t center, from her severely flooded home Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 in Boulder, Colo. By truck and helicopter, thousands of people stranded by floodwaters came down from the Colorado Rockies on Friday, two days after seemingly endless rain turned normally scenic rivers and creeks into coffee-colored rapids that wrecked scores of roads and wiped out neighborhoods.  (Jeremy Papasso, Associated Press) The Summit County Rescue team works to save Suzanne Sophocles,t center, from her severely flooded home Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 in Boulder, Colo. By truck and helicopter, thousands of people stranded by floodwaters came down from the Colorado Rockies on Friday, two days after seemingly endless rain turned normally scenic rivers and creeks into coffee-colored rapids that wrecked scores of roads and wiped out neighborhoods. (Jeremy Papasso, Associated Press)

A conflict arose Saturday when city crews with dump trucks and front-end loaders showed up to remove some of the residents' handiwork. After some protests from homeowners, the crews left many of the diversion berms in place.

"People are extremely relieved, but we're not out of it yet," Charles Corfield said.

At Ted's Place, a convenience store at the entrance to Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins, dark clouds gathered Saturday afternoon with the threat of more rain. Michael Sronce made his way down from his home in the canyon to get milk and bread for a neighbor with seven children.

"There's a lot of people up there who need food and need to get out," he said.

He and his wife had initially been told to evacuate but couldn't because the river was flowing over the bridge to their house. On Saturday, Sronce was able to get down the road to the convenience store, stopping short of a traffic checkpoint and walking the rest of the way so he wouldn't be kept from returning to his home if he drove past the checkpoint.

Dave Jackson closes a mailbox with his foot after delivering the mail to a home surrounded on three sides by a flooded Cheyenne Creek Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 in Colorado Springs, Colo.  Coffee-colored floodwaters cascaded downstream from the Colorado Rockies on Friday, transforming normally scenic rivers and creeks into fast, unforgiving torrents and forcing thousands more evacuations from water-logged communities beset by days of steady rain. (Michael Ciaglo, Associated Press) Dave Jackson closes a mailbox with his foot after delivering the mail to a home surrounded on three sides by a flooded Cheyenne Creek Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 in Colorado Springs, Colo. Coffee-colored floodwaters cascaded downstream from the Colorado Rockies on Friday, transforming normally scenic rivers and creeks into fast, unforgiving torrents and forcing thousands more evacuations from water-logged communities beset by days of steady rain. (Michael Ciaglo, Associated Press)

"These trees were coming down the river and would hit the abutment to the bridge, and the earth would shake. So much power," Sronce said.

Sronce endured major flooding and runoff in the area two years ago, but said the water this time was 3 to 4 feet higher.

For a group of grinning, super-fit men and women, the flooding offered a real-life test of the skills they were learning in a wilderness survival course at a campground.

As they got off a school bus Saturday, the happy campers shouted boasts among themselves about how long they could have lasted in the wild.

"There were rabbits around. There were fish in the pond, water — you just make a charcoal filter and boil it," said Norwell Therien, who wore camouflage cargo shorts and several earrings and is starting an emergency preparedness company. "We could have been up there for the two weeks they speculated it would take to fix the roads without problem. I would have been cool with it."

A resident watches a boat float down the center of the street in Longmont, Colo., on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. Floodwaters have affected a 4,500 square-mile section of the state. National Guard helicopters have been evacuating residents from the hardest hit communities. (Chris Schneider, Associated Press) A resident watches a boat float down the center of the street in Longmont, Colo., on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. Floodwaters have affected a 4,500 square-mile section of the state. National Guard helicopters have been evacuating residents from the hardest hit communities. (Chris Schneider, Associated Press)

The torrential rain became a lesson in how to deal with washed-out trails.

"With our background in survival, we were perfectly content to just continue our class. We were all taking notes in the rain." Therien said. "I had already begun scouting out where you might find a rabbit or where the deer might come."

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