The National Guard worked to rescue an entire Colorado town of about 1,600 people on Friday, a day after they were cut off by raging floodwaters that have killed at least three people, washed out dams and turned roads into rivers across the state.
As forecasters called for some let-up in record rains that have caused the worst flooding in Colorado in over three decades, Guard members in high-clearance vehicles drove truckloads of residents through floodwaters up to three feet (one meter) deep, out of the remote town of Lyons.
“These individuals are not only coming with just themselves, but with their suitcases and their precious household items along with their pets and everything, all getting loaded in the back of these vehicles,” said First Lieutenant Skye Robinson, a spokesman for the Colorado National Guard.
The flooding was triggered by unusually intense late-summer storms that drenched Colorado's biggest urban centers, stretching 130 miles (210 km) along the eastern slopes of the Rockies from Fort Collins near the Wyoming border south through Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs.
Lyons, north of Boulder, was virtually cut off when floodwaters washed out U.S. Route 36, and residents have been without water and power for 48 hours, said Mike Banuelos, a spokesman for the Boulder County Emergency Operations Center.
“It's a pretty dangerous situation,” he said.
Kari Bowen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the rains should slow on Friday, but intermittent showers may still bring up to an inch (2.5 cm) of rain to hard-hit Boulder and Larimer counties as the bulk of the rainfall moved east.
Rainfall Records Shattered
“We're still expecting some flooding to occur, but not quite as bad as the last couple of days in terms of the amount of rain that we've been getting,” she said.
Governor John Hickenlooper said evacuations were the highest priority and advised people to stay out of debris- and sand-filled floodwaters that were “almost like liquid cement.”
“It's got to be the largest storm that I can imagine in the state's history,” he told a televised news conference.
The flooding was the worst in the state since nearly 150 people were killed near Boulder in 1976 by a flash flood along the Big Thompson Canyon.
John Hoffenberg watches the flow of water increase in Boulder, Colorado, Sept. 15, 2013.
An aerial photo of a flood-affected area of northern Colorado along the Big Thompson River, Sept. 14, 2013. (U.S. Air National Guard Handout photo)
An aerial view of vehicles submerged in flood waters along the South Platte River near Greenley, Colorado, Sept. 14, 2013.
Children board a rescue helicopter flown by the U.S. Air National Guard after severe flooding shut down major roads leading out of Jamestown, Colorado, Sept. 14, 2013. (U.S. Air National Guard Handout photo)
Will Pitner is rescued by emergency workers and neighbor Jeff Writer after a night trapped outside on high ground above his home as it filled with water after days of record rain and flooding at the base of Boulder Canyon, Colorado, Sept. 13, 2013.
Boulder Creek flows at high speed next to a road closed off by debris from days of rain and flooding, at the base of Boulder Canyon, Colorado, Sept. 13, 2013.
Nick Carter shovels debris as heavy rains cause severe flooding in Boulder, Colorado, Sept. 12, 2013.
A home and car are stranded after a flash flood in Coal Creek destroyed the bridge near Golden, Colorado, Sept. 12, 2013.
A section of Highway 72 is missing after a flash flood tore through Coal Creek near Golden, Colorado, Sept. 12, 2013.
Matthew Messner looks for a way to cross the sidewalk covered by heavy rains in Boulder, Colorado, Sept. 12, 2013.
President Barack Obama approved a federal disaster assistance request, which will release funds to help with emergency protection.
In Boulder, the storms shattered the rainfall record for September set in 1940, officials said, unleashing surging floodwaters in Boulder Canyon above the city that triggered the evacuation of some 4,000 residents late on Thursday.
Also on Friday, flooding forced the Colorado Department of Transportation to shut down a 70-mile stretch of Interstate 25 from north of Denver to the border with Wyoming, said Mindy Crane, a spokeswoman for the agency.
It represents one of the largest freeway closures in recent years in Colorado, said agency spokesman Bob Wilson.
In Denver on Friday, a man who was swept into a culvert by raging waters was rescued about four blocks away along with his dog, said Denver Fire Department spokesman Mark Watson. “He was pretty beat up, but conscious and talking, certainly was glad to be out of there,” he said.
20 People 'Out of Contact'
Boulder County Sheriff's Commander Heidi Prentup told reporters on Friday that about 20 people in the county were “out of contact,” with loved ones notifying authorities that they have been unable to reach them. But it was not immediately clear if they were in danger.
Boulder Creek, which runs through the heart of Boulder, became a raging torrent that burst its banks and flooded adjacent parking lots and streets as warning sirens wailed.
In Longmont, about 14 miles (23 km) northeast of Boulder, the St. Vrain River jumped its banks, cascading across main thoroughfares and cutting the city in two.
Assistant city manager Shawn Lewis said 7,000 households were under mandatory evacuation orders. The city opened two emergency shelters for displaced residents.
A dozen major roads in northeastern Colorado remained shut with significant damage from flooding, mudslides, rockfalls and other debris, the Colorado Department of Transportation said late on Thursday.
Heavy summer rains are not unusual for Colorado, but the intensity and duration of the downpour that began on Monday night was unprecedented.
A flood watch was extended until 12 p.m. MDT (1800 GMT) on Friday for the entire Front Range.
The National Weather Service said at least 12.3 inches (31.24 cm) of rain have fallen on Boulder this month, smashing a 73-year-old record of 5.5 inches (14 cm) for September.
Among the casualties of the floods was a person whose body was found in a collapsed building near Jamestown, an evacuated enclave north of Boulder.
A couple were swept away in floodwaters after stopping their car northwest of the city. The man's body was recovered but the woman was missing and feared dead, said Commander Heidi Prentup of the Boulder County Sheriff's Office.
Police found the body of a third confirmed fatality, a man, during flood-watch patrols in Colorado Springs, about 100 miles (160 km) to the south, officials said.