Officials implore Colorado canyon residents to evacuate; floodwaters reach plains

September 14, 2013

As rescuers broke through to flood-ravaged Colorado towns, they issued a stern warning Saturday to anyone thinking of staying behind: Leave now or be prepared to endure weeks without electricity, running water and basic supplies.

National Guard helicopters and truck convoys carried the admonition into paralyzed canyon communities, where thousands of stranded residents were eager to escape the Rocky Mountain foothills. But not everybody was willing to go. Dozens of people in the isolated community of Jamestown wanted to stay to watch over their homes.

Authorities made it clear that residents who chose not to leave might not get another chance for a while.

“We’re not trying to force anyone from their home. 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,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.

Special education teacher Brian Shultz, 38, was conflicted about leaving his Jamestown home.

“I was thinking about staying. I could have lasted at least a year. I have a lot of training in wilderness survival,” he said, adding that he probably had enough beer to last the whole time.

As he sat outside a makeshift shelter at a high school, he floated the idea of walking back into the eccentric mountain town.

“If we hike back, I would stay there and just live. I’d rather be at our own house than staying at some other people’s houses,” he said.

His wife, Meagan Harrington, said about 10 of their neighbors declined to evacuate.

Authorities “said they wouldn’t force you, but it was strongly encouraged,” she said.

Shultz teared up behind his sunglasses as he compared his situation to that of his neighbors.

“At least all of our stuff’s there and will be there when we get back. The people right by the river, their houses were washed away. Other people thought their houses were going to be okay, and then they started to go. It’s just really devastating.”

The Colorado National Guard is working non-stop to airlift stranded residents cut off from the rest of the state after record flooding washes out roads. Floodwaters have spread from the foothills to the eastern plains.

Across the foothills, rescuers made progress against the floodwaters. But they were still unable to go up many narrow canyon roads that were either under water or washed out.

On Saturday, the surge of water reached the plains east of the mountains, cutting off more communities and diverting some rescue operations.

Hundreds of people still have not been heard from in the flood zone, which expanded to cover portions of an area nearly the size of Connecticut. Some people may be stranded. Others may have gotten out but not contacted friends and relatives.

Officials say some people were probably injured, and they expect to find more bodies.

A woman was missing and presumed dead after witnesses saw floodwaters from the Big Thompson River destroy her home in the Cedar Cove area, Larimer County sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said.

“I expect that we’re going to continue to receive reports of confirmed missing and confirmed fatalities throughout the next several days,” he said.

The military put more troops on the ground and helicopters in the air to aid in the search-and-rescue effort. More rain was in the forecast.

By Saturday evening, more than 1,200 people had been evacuated over two days, National Guard Lt. Col. Mitch Utterback said. A helicopter taking Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) on a tour of the flooded areas picked up four stranded people and their two pets.

Over the plains of Larimer County, rescue crews planned to fly as many missions as possible while the skies were clear. Crews used inflatable boats to pick up families and pets from farmhouses. Some evacuees on horseback had to be escorted to safe ground.

Near Greeley, 35 miles east of the foothills, broad swaths of farmland became lakes, and the raging South Platte and Poudre rivers surrounded homes.

For those awaiting an airlift, National Guardsmen dropped food, water and other supplies into the winding, narrow canyons that cut through the foothills. With supplies dwindling, residents of Lyons barbecued their food before it spoiled.

It will be weeks or months before the most heavily damaged communities return to normal.

In one Boulder neighborhood, residents turned back city crews and machinery that arrived to remove the makeshift berms and sand-filled trash bags used to protect their homes. University of Colorado students helped as homeowners improvised to divert the rising water from Gregory Creek.

After being closed for more than a day, Interstate 25 to the Wyoming state line was reopened Saturday.

While many communities were still in a state of emergency, floodwaters receded in other areas, giving homeowners a chance to assess the damage.

In LaPorte, Wendy Clark surveyed soggy carpets, damaged furniture and the water from the Poudre River that still surrounded her home.

“This mud smells disgusting,” she said. “I don’t know how long that’s going to be around.”

— Associated Press

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