By Michael Muskal and Jenny Deam
1:20 PM EDT, September 14, 2013
LONGMONT, Colo. -- With more heavy rains expected, Colorado accelerated rescue efforts Saturday from this 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 at a Saturday morning news conference.
Authorities will continue air rescues and also seek to find the more than 200 people still unaccounted for since the heavy rains on 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 500 people from mountain communities by Saturday morning and were resuming their work. About 295 people were evacuated from Jamestown, one of the towns cut off by the floods. The Guard was trucking people from Lyons, another mountain area.
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,” Liz Donaghey, a spokeswoman for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, told The Los Angeles Times. She said if roads remain impassable, the campers will be brought out by air.
It began raining on 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 are expected to begin late Saturday into the night, but forecasts offer some hope for gradual clearing and even sunshine by the beginning of 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 the hardest hit. 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?” asked Boulder County Deputy Britt Fell.
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, Teghan.
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 wildlife firefighter, had fought the High Park fire last year. He was used to disaster but never expected to face flooding in Colorado.
Fell warned the fleeing residents that once they left they would not be permitted back in. Just past the trees, the St. Vrain River churned out of its banks, flooding pastureland and lapping at railroad tracks.
Fell said it was more chaotic Friday than Thursday as people once trapped were finding a way out. But getting where they were going was another story.
“Where you headed?” he asked. Greeley, Castle Rock, Longmont came the litany of responses. Fell paused and tried to find routes still open. All across the region, access was cut off by floodwaters, turning a normal grid system into a game of hopscotch that led drivers miles out of their way.
In Longmont, the entire town was divided into two as travel from north to south had become mostly impossible. Nearby Interstate 25 was closed from Erie to the Wyoming border.
“Good luck,” was all the deputy could say as he waved the drivers through.
Deam reported from Longmont and Muskal from Los Angeles.
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