Colorado remains under the spell of water. Steady rains Sunday hampered evacuation and rescue efforts and brought renewed warnings to a flood weary Front Range.
Update 1:06 p.m. - Grace Hood reports that helicopter evacuation operations have resumed in both Boulder and Larimer County. Our original post continues:
When Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate arrives Monday to personally coordinate Federal aid, he’ll find flood conditions spread over 15 counties and 11,750 evacuated people statewide. Many more are awaiting evacuations in the more mountainous areas since helicopters were grounded by weather.
Those helicopters are expected to be back in the air in a major way Monday.
"The pilots are going to go anywhere and everywhere they can," Boulder County spokeswoman Gabrielle Boerkircher tells the Daily Camera. "People need to be prepared to be evacuated. They need to try to flag down the choppers in any way they can."
The number reported missing has fluctuated. As of Sunday afternoon the estimate was 1,253 – with most of those being in Larimer County. Many areas, like Estes Park, were without phone or cell service but have slowly been regaining contact, leading to rapid changes in the unaccounted for.
Officials are slowly accounting for residents, as they cross reference names with Red Cross and shelter listings. “So we have a master list that will get shorter — hopefully far, far shorter, and time goes by and we cross reference where each of those parties are,” said Nick Christenson with the Larimer County Sheriff’s office.
The death toll rose over the weekend. In addition to four previously announced fatalities in Colorado Springs, Jamestown, and Boulder, two women - one 60 and the other 80 - are both missing and presumed dead in the Cedar Cove
Grove area of the Big Thompson Canyon.
In a statement Sunday, Sheriff Joe Pelle said locating missing people is one of the highest priorities, with 5 teams dedicated to the task. The other focus is opening roads to all communities. An estimated 35 bridges are damaged with officials expressing concern about the one bridge used to access Lyons.
“The bridge is unstable because of the flood. It loses a little earth each time a vehicle crosses it for a rescue. Scary for everyone,” said Boulder Police Public Information Officer Kim Kobel on Twitter.
In Lyons, 108 homes are destroyed and another 49 are damaged. The town still has no water, sewer, electric, or gas services and all efforts are aimed at rescue and infrastructure.
In the city of Boulder some infrastructure issues are creeping up as well.
"What we're seeing most is it's floodwaters overwhelming the sanitary sewer system," Boulder Public Works spokesman Mike Banuelos said to The Denver Post. "It's coming through the grates. That's a lot of what people are seeing. In some cases, it might be sewage backing up into homes. In those cases, we're asking people to evacuate because it's a health issue."
1,120 square miles of the county has been impacted by the water. Many of the winding mountain roads that provide access to towns have been wiped out by overflowing rivers.
That makes helicopters the only way to reach some of the stranded residents and time isn’t an ally.
“It’s the middle of September, and it’s not going to be long in this county before you start getting frost and you’re going to start having some snow,” said Incident Commander Shane Del Grosso. “It’s going to take months and years to rebuild some of these roads.”
As flood waters crested in the foothills, the water has to go somewhere. Waters from Longmont, Loveland and Fort Collins all drained into the South Platte River causing it to flood as it flowed east. Those waters will eventually reach Nebraska.
The east side of Greeley and Evans were hardest hit. Greeley Evans School District 6 Superintendent Dr. Ranelle says classes are canceled across the district Monday. The University of Northern Colorado has also closed their Greeley campus.
While procedures are in place to deal with crises, the flooding in Evans is unprecedented. “I think that what is new for us is the protracted nature of this and the unpredictability because no one has ever dealt with this and the major systems that are beginning to fail,” Dr. Ranelle.
A no flush order is in effect in Evans as the town’s water treatment plant remains unusable. It is creating a unique health situation.
“Go get baby wipes as crazy as that sounds. But… you can do hygiene with baby wipes and dispose of them,” said Fred Starr, public works director of Evans. “All we’re asking is people that use water don’t put it down the sewer system. That means bathroom water, shower water, laundry water, sink water. That’s what’s going in and impacting my system now.”
This post was updated to correct the name of the area where the two indiviuals are presumed lost.