Receding flood waters in northern Colorado are revealing the extent of the disaster brought by days of historic rain that killed at least eight people.

Colorado residents who were evacuated from mountain towns due to heavy flooding last week have begun returning to survey the damage. Eight people have died or are presumed dead as a result of the floods, which damaged or destroyed around 19,000 residences in several towns:

Residents of Hygiene, a small community east of the Rocky Mountain foothills, returned home Monday to find homes destroyed and mud blanketing roads. The St. Vrain Creek left trucks in ditches and carried items as far as two miles downstream.

“My own slice of heaven, and it’s gone,” Bill Marquedt said of his home. . . .

In the mountain towns, major roads were washed away or covered by mud and rock slides. Hamlets like Glen Haven were reduced to debris and key infrastructure like gas lines and sewers systems were destroyed.

Hundreds of homes around Estes Park, next to Rocky Mountain National Park, could be unreachable and uninhabitable for up to a year, town administrator Frank Lancaster said.

The town of Lyons was almost completely abandoned. Emergency crews gave the few remaining residents, mostly wandering Main Street looking for status updates, a final warning to leave.

Most of Lyons’ trailer parks were completely destroyed. One angry man was throwing his possessions one by one into the river rushing along one side of his trailer on Sunday, watching the brown water carry them away while he drank a beer.

Associated Press

Many in Colorado are concerned about the consequences of the flooding for the state’s economy, particularly its tourism industry:

The flooding has struck at the very mountains that give the state its identity and attract millions of hikers, campers and skiers. Months and possibly years of painstaking, expensive repairs lie ahead, but Colorado officials must also deal with a second problem— the risk that catastrophic damage could keep tourists away, even from places that are unharmed.

Some tourism operators want to see a media campaign to counter the photos of raging rivers and towns ruined by muddy floodwaters.

David Leinweber owns Angler’s Covey in Colorado Springs, which caters to fly fishermen seeking prime trout. He said the images on television and social media make it look as if this year’s fishing season is finished.

“Our out-of-state business is down 15 percent. People don’t realize that we still have 9,000 miles of fishable water and 2,000 lakes in Colorado that aren’t affected,” he said. “And they won’t know unless we tell them.”

Thousands of tourists flock to the Front Range this time of year to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Some come for elk mating season, when the animals clash with their antlers and make bugle-like calls. Other visitors drive the Peak to Peak Highway in the foothills west of Boulder to see fall colors.

Associated Press

More than nine inches of rain fell in Boulder in 24 hours Wednesday and Thursday. The probability of a rainstorm of that intensity happening in any one year is about 0.1 percent. Meteorologists expected heavy rains last week, but they did not anticipate such heavy flooding. Nancy Colleton argues the disaster demonstrates the need for investing in forecasting technology:

Worry doesn’t consume all of my space, anger and frustration do. Will Boulder be just another extreme event, like Hurricane Katrina, like Hurricane Sandy, like the Rim wildfire in California? Or, will this event provide the tipping point to have our national leaders finally address the critical need to improve our short and long-term forecasting capabilities? . . .

We will never be able to prepare and protect ourselves from all of nature’s events, but I could not imagine trying to manage or monitor Colorado’s current crisis without accurate and timely weather forecasts. For most of us, trying to navigate traffic, thinking about how to send our kids off to school, or how to better manage our homes and businesses given the changing climate is enough to fear a gap in satellite weather data.

To make matters worse, a recent report to NOAA recommends using Chinese satellite data in U.S. weather models. The United States—the most technologically advanced nation in the world and a leader in weather related technologies—may have to rely on Chinese data for our weather forecasts. Interestingly, the report describes this potential solution as “a silver bullet.” Some might say otherwise.

Managing nature’s events and not having accurate and timely satellite weather data is as much a threat to our society as any other national security threat. As Hurricane Sandy and the Boulder floods have shown, people die, homes are destroyed, infrastructure is damaged, commerce is disrupted, and our spirit is tested. The only thing that can help the nation better manage these risks is our environmental intelligence infrastructure with our national weather satellites at its core.

Capital Weather Gang

Many people were trapped by the floodwaters, and some 2,300 people have been evacuated by helicopter, according to the Colorado National Guard. For more information, including closures and official phone numbers, visit this page from Google Crisis Response.