HYGIENE, Colo. – Weary Colorado evacuees have begun returning home after days of rain and flooding, but Monday’s clearing skies and receding waters revealed only more heartbreak: toppled houses, upended vehicles and a stinking layer of muck covering everything.
Rescuers grounded by weekend rains took advantage of the break in the weather to resume searches for people still stranded, with 21 helicopters fanning out over the mountainsides and the plains to drop supplies and airlift those who need help.
The number of dead and missing people was difficult to pinpoint. State emergency officials reported the death toll at eight Monday, but local officials were still investigating the circumstances of two deaths.
In a Colorado Springs creek Monday, authorities recovered the body of a man but can’t say yet if the death is related to recent flooding. And in Idaho Springs, an 83-year-old man died Monday afternoon when the ground he was standing on gave way and he was swept away by Clear Creek, according to the Denver Post.
Two of the eight fatalities are women missing and presumed dead.
The number of missing people was dropping as the state’s count fell Monday from just over 1,200 to about half that. State officials hoped the overall number would continue to drop with rescuers reaching more people and phone service being restored.
“You’ve got to remember, a lot of these folks lost cellphones, landlines, the Internet four to five days ago,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said on NBC’s “Today” show. “I am very hopeful that the vast majority of these people are safe and sound.”
Residents of Hygiene returned to their small community east of the foothills to find mud blanketing roads, garages and even the tops of fence posts. The raging St. Vrain River they fled three days earlier had left trucks in ditches and carried items as far as 2 miles downstream.
“My own slice of heaven, and it’s gone,” Bill Marquedt said after finding his home destroyed.
Residents immediately set to sweeping, shoveling and rinsing, but the task of rebuilding seemed overwhelming to some.
“What now? We don’t even know where to start,” Genevieve Marquez said. The town of Lyons was almost completely abandoned. Emergency crews gave the few remaining residents, mostly wandering Main Street looking for updates, a final warning to leave Sunday.
Most of the town’s trailer parks were destroyed.
Helicopters had evacuated more than 100 stranded residents in Larimer County by midafternoon Monday, said Chuck Russell, a spokesman for the federal incident command helping with the response.
Russell said he expected that helicopter crews would evacuate a total of up to 400 by the end of the day and perhaps twice that number today.
Once the evacuations are complete, officials said it could take weeks or even months to search through flood-ravaged areas looking for people who died.
State emergency officials offered a first glimpse at the scope of the damage, with counties reporting about 19,000 homes either damaged or destroyed.
Those preliminary figures are certain to change as the waters continue to recede and roads are cleared.