Colorado battles historic flooding; more rain to come

12:33 PM, Sep 14, 2013   |    comments
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Local resident Chris Rodes gets help from emergency responders as he helps salvage a friend's belongings after floods left homes and infrastructure in a shambles Lyons, Colo., Sept. 13, 2013. (Photo: Brennan Linsley, AP)

BOULDER, Colo. (USA Today) - Rescue operations and evacuations continued at a frantic pace Saturday as residents of this flood-hammered state dealt with more swamped roads, inundated homes and the dark forecast of more rain to come.

"It is a sinking feeling when you realize that when some people call ... we are not going to be able to get to them," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said. "But we are making great progress."

The sun peeked out over the debris-strewn area Saturday morning, providing a brief respite after days of torrential rains that have left at least four people dead and thousands evacuated from their homes.

But showers and storms remained in the forecast in Boulder - which normally sees less than 2 inches of rain in all of September but has been deluged by more than 14 inches this week alone, the National Weather Service said.

"We have another disturbance coming through this afternoon, extending into tomorrow, that could bring another 1-3 inches of rain," said Scott Enterkin, a weather service meteorologist in Boulder, told USA TODAY. "We don't expect quite the level of intensity we've seen the last few days, but the soil is saturated, so it won't take much to do damage."

Many of those driven from their homes may not be able to return for weeks. Early Saturday, National Guard helicopters evacuated hundreds of residents from Jamestown, a mountain town northwest of Boulder.

"Essentially, what they were threatening us with is, 'If you stay here, you may be here for a month,' " 79-year-old Dean Hollenbaugh, who was evacuated by Chinook helicopter from Jamestown, told the Associated Press.

"We are not going to force anyone from their home," Pelle said Saturday, but said that "if they don't come today, we want people to know that we may not be able to get them tomorrow."

President Obama declared an emergency for three counties in Colorado, and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said a FEMA assistance team was coordinating with state and local officials.

The U.S. Transportation Department said it would immediately provide $5 million in emergency relief funds to help Colorado cover the costs of repairing roads and bridges.

Flood warnings remained in effect Saturday morning throughout the state from Denver to the Wyoming border. Parts of New Mexico and Texas also were dealing with torrential rains, flooding and evacuations.

Boulder County officials said more than 180 people remained unaccounted for but are not considered missing; they have yet to contact family members. Forecasters predicted local downpours and flooding would persist through the weekend.

About 15 miles north of Boulder, the Colorado National Guard began evacuating 2,500 residents of Lyons at daybreak Friday, according to the Boulder County sheriff's office.

"There's no way out of town. There's no way into town. So, basically, now we're just on an island," said Jason Stillman, 37, who was forced with his fiancée to evacuate their home in Lyons after a nearby river began to overflow into the street.

Flooding closed Interstate 25, the state's main north-south highway, north of Denver to the Wyoming border.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the state has lost "a great deal of infrastructure,'' although an exact assessment over flood damage could take weeks.

Hickenlooper urged residents near flood areas to remain "exceptionally careful" and stay away from swollen streams and rivers. "People try to walk through what looks like a harmless foot or two of water. You have to realize this is like liquid cement and you can be swept away."

Officials planned to publicly release the names of those still unaccounted for. " 'Unaccounted for' doesn't mean missing. It means we haven't heard back from them," said Boulder County spokesman James Burrus.

Boulder Sheriff Joe Pelle said he expects the number of those unaccounted for - and the death toll - to rise, because most of the western part of the county remained inaccessible.

"The things that worry us are what we don't know," he said. "We don't know how many lives are lost, we don't know about homes lost."

The flood that swept down Boulder Creek was a 1-in-100 year event, the U.S. Geological Survey said Friday. The college town is considered Colorado's "most at risk" city to flooding because of its proximity to Boulder Creek, which courses through Boulder Canyon into the heart of town, says Weather Underground weather historian Christopher Burt.

Hughes and Shiff reported from Colorado; Welch reported from Los Angeles; Bacon and Strauss from McLean, Va. Contributing: Doyle Rice and Donna Leinwand Leger; the Associated Press

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