With Colorado’s skies expected to finally start clearing after a week of rainfall caused flooding in more than 15 counties, emergency management officials have begun the staggering tasks of rescue and cleanup.
Six people are confirmed or presumed dead, but with more than 1,200 people unaccounted for across the Front Range and the foothills, that number is expected to rise. Thousands of people are stranded without power, food or potable water in mountain canyons that were overtaken by floodwaters. Throughout most of the day Sunday, continuous torrential rains prevented a fleet of rescue helicopters from delivering aid and looking for survivors.
Some towns were utterly destroyed or cut off. The Boulder County town of Lyons was overwhelmed by the flooded St. Vrain River and evacuated by the National Guard.
Floodwaters in Big Thompson Canyon, which connects Loveland to Estes Park, stripped out the highway and collapsed homes and buildings. The only way in or out of Estes Park is via a western road through Rocky Mountain National Park, which has been closed to visitors to allow for emergency convoys in and out of the town.
According to Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management, 17,494 structures have been damaged and 1,502 have been destroyed. More than 11,000 people have been evacuated. The disaster zone is nearly 200 miles long from north to south.
President Barack Obama declared the 15 counties most affected by the flood to be disaster areas eligible for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The disaster began unfolding last week when wet tropical air from the south collided with a stalled jet stream over the eastern Rockies, dumping a year’s worth of precipitation over the course of just a few days. Drought-parched timberland and soil hardened from year-over-year wildfires couldn’t absorb the deluge, which poured off into the canyons and turned what are usually placid creeks into raging rivers.
At least 30 bridges were destroyed and for a time, I-25 was closed when the Big Thompson river flooded the roadway. All roads into Colorado from Wyoming were closed on Friday. Schools from Fort Collins to Boulder were cancelled at various times.
The floodwaters reached far beyond the mountain canyons. Farmland in rural Weld County was underwater as far as 50 miles east of I-25.
FEMA crews arrived in Larimer County on Sunday to help local authorities with search and rescue operations. Boulder County planned a major air rescue operation, with emergency officials telling stranded residents to use flares, mirrors and bedsheets to signal to passing aircraft.
It will be months before final damages are tallied, but the Weather Channel predicts the disaster could cost as much as $1 billion.
The five-day forecast calls for clearing skies, but with a chance of rain each day.
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