LONGMONT, Colo. – With more heavy rains expected, Colorado accelerated rescue efforts Saturday from the week’s flooding but braced for more bad news in coming days.
At least four deaths have been confirmed, but that toll could rise as officials continue to make their way to areas that have been cut off by torrential rains that flooded rivers and streams, destroying roads, bridges and dams.
“We’re assuming there will be further loss of life,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Saturday morning.
Authorities will continue air rescues and also seek to find the more than 200 people still unaccounted for since the heavy rains Wednesday. The missing are those who have not checked in and could still be alive, officials said.
Using helicopters and trucks to navigate around the water-damaged areas, the National Guard reported evacuating more than 1,750 people from mountain communities by Saturday night.
Several hundred people were evacuated from Jamestown, one of the towns cut off by the floods. But not everyone was willing to go. Dozens of Jamestown residents wanted to stay to watch over their homes.
Authorities made clear that residents who chose not to leave might not get another chance for a while. Rescuers won’t go back for people who insist on staying, Pelle said.
“We’re not trying to force anyone from their home,” Pelle said. “We’re not trying to be forceful, but we’re trying to be very factual and definitive about the consequences of their decision, and we hope that they will come down.”
The Guard was also trucking people from Lyons, another mountain area.
A helicopter taking Gov. John Hickenlooper on a tour of the flooded areas even got in the act Saturday, stopping twice to pick up six stranded people and their two pets.
On Friday, 138 sixth-graders had to be escorted down a mountain on foot by an alpine rescue team and sheriff’s deputies after they became trapped during a five-day outdoor nature camp. Access to the camp, near Evergreen, was blocked by flooding, downed power lines and fallen trees. All of the children made the trek safely and were reunited with parents, said Melissa Reeves, a Jefferson County Schools spokeswoman.
On Saturday, 188 children and adults were being aided at another nearby outdoor camp where they were trapped near Jamestown.
“We’re going to get them out one way or another,” said Liz Donaghey, a spokeswoman for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. She said if roads remain impassable, the campers will be brought out by air.
It began raining Monday and by Wednesday the rainfall had set records. The National Weather Service reported as much as 9 to 10 inches of rain falling in just hours in many areas, too much for the already saturated ground to handle.
Heavy rains were expected to begin late Saturday into the night, but forecasts offer some hope for gradual clearing and even sunshine early in the week.
The scope of the destruction was as big as the great outdoors for which the Colorado Rockies region is famed. The eastern portion of the state has had flood damage across about 4,500 square miles. The numbers tell a tale of major destruction that will likely take time and money to heal: As many as 100 roadways have been damaged and dozens of bridges brought down by raging waters so fierce they turned into 15- to 20-foot walls of water smashing through the area.
Boulder County was hit hardest. By Saturday, officials said, 3,500 people remained under evacuation orders in the city of Boulder while 5,500 were under evacuation orders in Longmont. At least 3,600 customers were without gas and 3,000 were without electricity just in Boulder.
As bad as the cities were, the mountain regions were worse. Power has been out for days and people have been told to boil their water while waiting for supplies and evacuation. Thousands of evacuees sought shelter from mountain communities to downriver towns.
People were still talking about their difficulties during the week.
By late afternoon Friday, a steady stream of SUVs, many loaded with belongings, passed through a checkpoint west of Longmont.
“You evacuating?” Boulder County Deputy Brit Fell asked.
One after another, weary drivers said yes, they had just left Lyons, their town now devastated and until Friday cut off from the outside world.
“We’re outta here,” said Bryan Baer, his two sons, ages 8 and 5, in the back seat of his SUV. His wife, Kathleen Baer, was in the SUV behind him with his 2-year-old daughter.
The family had no electricity in their home and needed to get somewhere so they could hook up a son’s asthma treatment machine.
Baer, a wildland firefighter, had fought the High Park fire last year. He was used to disaster but never expected to face flooding in Colorado.