DENVER — Search teams in flood-ravaged areas of Colorado have accounted for all but a half dozen people, down from hundreds initially reported missing in the disaster nearly two weeks ago. Authorities said on Monday the body of an eighth victim has been recovered.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden surveyed the devastated region by helicopter and pledged that disaster relief would continue even if there were a government shutdown stemming from a congressional budget clash over President Barack Obama's healthcare program.
“They will not shut down (recovery operations) if Congress does not fund the government,” Biden said during a brief appearance at a Federal Emergency Management Agency center in Greeley, Colorado, north of Denver. “The help is going to remain.”
President Barack Obama has declared nine of Colorado's hardest-hit counties a major disaster area, making residents there eligible for direct federal grants to repair their flood-damaged homes, replace personal property and provide rental assistance.
The declaration also provides unemployment payments of up to 26 weeks to workers left temporarily jobless by the disaster and makes special low-interest loans available to farmers and small businesses to help cover their uninsured flood losses.
Authorities were winding down search-and-rescue efforts even as more heavy rain prompted a renewed flood warning for some areas. Biden was accompanied on his hour-long aerial tour by FEMA chief Craig Fugate, Governor John Hickenlooper and several members of Colorado's congressional delegation.
After evacuating thousands of survivors left stranded in washed-out areas of Larimer and Boulder counties, northwest of Denver, emergency management authorities said their focus has shifted to recovery initiatives and thorough damage assessments.
A new burst of heavy rains overnight prompted the National Weather Service to post a flood warning for the town of Kersey along the engorged South Platte River, just east of Greeley. The river was expected to crest about a foot above flood stage late Monday or early Tuesday.
Additional flooding was also possible in saturated fields and creeks farther east in low-lying stretches of Logan, Washington and Morgan counties, weather forecasters said.
The worst flooding to strike Colorado in about four decades swept the eastern slopes of the Rockies and prairie farmlands downstream the week before last, causing property losses across 17 counties estimated at $2 billion, including the destruction of at least 1,800 homes.
The confirmed death toll from the flooding rose to eight when Larimer County officials reported the body of a 79-year-old flood victim, Evelyn Starner, had been found on Saturday.
Six more Larimer County residents remained listed as unaccounted for, down from 82 on Friday. Search teams reached the last remote, isolated pockets of the flood zone over the weekend, county sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said.
Unless they surface in the next few days, those six are likely to be added to the list of missing and presumed dead, he said.
Starner was one of three Larimer County residents who had been listed as missing and presumed dead after their homes were washed away more than a week ago along the Big Thompson River. A 1976 flood disaster in the same vicinity claimed more than 140 lives.
Starner's remains were discovered near a ranch on the banks of the river. The bodies of two others believed swept away in Larimer County have yet to be recovered.
SOME OPT NOT TO LEAVE
Compared with the estimated 1,200 people statewide whose whereabouts were unknown in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the unaccounted-for roster has fallen sharply as families reunite, evacuees register at shelters and survivors turn up in areas initially cut off by the floods.
Schulz said the last 16 people still awaiting evacuation in Larimer County were rescued on Saturday, but nearly 370 others have opted to stay put even after losing sewage, fresh running water and other utility services.
The widespread flooding along the so-called Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, a region encompassing the state's most highly populated areas, was unleashed by heavy rains that started Sept. 9 and continued almost unabated for a week.
Days after the deluge began, floodwaters roared off rain-soaked mountainsides through canyons that carried torrents of runoff into communities below, sweeping homes from their foundations, crumbling roads and bridges and initially leaving some 12,000 people stranded.
Floodwaters spread out onto the plains east of the Rockies, swamping farmland along South Platte River and oil and gas production sites in the region, creating a toxic stew of industrial contaminants and wastewater.
Farmers in the northeastern corner of the state were particularly worried about their top cash crop, corn, which could be lost if water that has inundated low-lying prairie fields fails to drain away before the October harvest.