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Flooding transforms foothills of Colorado Rockies

LYONS, Colo. — The cars that normally clog Main Street in Lyons on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park have been replaced by military supply trucks. Shop owners in Estes Park hurriedly cleared their wares in fear that the Big Thompson River will rise again. And a plywood sign encouraged residents mucking out their homes to "Hang in there."

Days of rain and floods have transformed the outdoorsy mountain communities in Colorado's Rocky Mountain foothills affectionately known as the "Gore-Tex Vortex" from a paradise into a disaster area with little in the way of supplies or services — and more rain falling Sunday.

Six fatalities have been confirmed since the bulk of the rain began Wednesday evening. The number of people unaccounted as of Sunday rose to 1,254 as flooding spread to 15 counties and rain continued to fall.

An 80-year-old woman in Larimer County's Cedar Grove was missing and presumed dead after her home was washed away by the flooding Big Thompson River, the county Sheriff's Office said Sunday. The woman was injured and unable to leave her home Friday night, sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said.

A second Larimer County 60-year-old woman is also presumed dead after the river destroyed her home the same night.

Some 1,500 homes have been destroyed and about 17,500 have been damaged, according to an initial estimate released by the Colorado Office of Emergency Management.

Many roads and bridges in the state are damaged or destroyed, said Amy Ford, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Crews are assessing the extent of the damage, which will cost "hundreds of millions" of dollars to repair, Ford said.

From the mountain communities east to the plains city of Fort Morgan, many communities remained cut off by the flooding. Sunday's rain hampered the helicopter searches, and rescuers trekked by ground up dangerous canyon roads to reach some of those homes isolated since Wednesday.

As many as 1,000 people in Larimer County were awaiting rescue Sunday, but airlifts were grounded because of the rain, Type 2 Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team commander Shane Del Grosso said.

Hundreds more people are unaccounted for to the south in Boulder County and other flood-affected areas.

In Estes Park, some 20 miles from Lyons, hundreds of homes and cabins were empty. High water still covered several low-lying streets. Where the river had receded, it had left behind up to a foot of mud.

Ironically, the massive Estes Ark — a former toy store two stories high designed to look like Noah's Ark — was high and dry. "I don't know if it's open anymore, but soon it's going to be our only way out," joked Carly Blankfein.

Supplies of gas and groceries had been running low until Route 7 was recently reopened. On Sunday, people were lined up at the one gas station where a tanker had arrived.

At the Aspen and Evergreen Gallery along the town's main street next to the Big Thompson River, owner Tamara Jarolimek was clearing out the shop Sunday in fear that the new wave of rain would cause another surge.

At the town's historic Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining, clerk Renee Maher said the hotel was nearly empty. Though it sits on a hill overlooking town, the ground was so saturated that water was seeping in through the foundation, and had caused one suite's bathtub to pop out "like a keg," Maher said.

Despite the mess, some people staying in town turned out for the Stanley's nightly ghost tours. "They said they came because they had nothing to do," Maher said.

In Boulder, often called America's fittest town, Mayor Matt Appelbaum warned people to stay out of the wide-open spaces that ring the city. "I know that people are eager to get out there again, but it's truly unsafe," he said. "Places that I've known and loved for 30 years are gone."

Boulder remained a refuge for evacuees from the more isolated mountain towns. Meanwhile, water continued to back up in some parts of town and a water treatment plant remained down Sunday. But the town was bouncing back. Classes at the University of Colorado are expected to resume today.

Deeper in the mountains, people are wondering whether the rest of the state will move on without them. "At least it's the slow season, so we have some time to rebuild," Kevin Cray of Lyons said. "There's going to be cleanup for a long time. Folks are going to have to come together."

New Mexico flooding

Rainfall also pounded New Mexico on Sunday, renewing the threat of heavy runoff from already saturated soils and flooding in low areas as residents faced a major cleanup effort from damage left in the wake of days of relentless rain. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for much of central and northern New Mexico. In the northeastern corner of the state, where the chance for heavy rain was greatest, residents along the Gallinas River were warned that the waterway could swell again. Some areas received close to 10 inches of rain since the deluge started Tuesday. Parts of Albuquerque have seen more than 4 inches, marking the wettest September on record for the city.

Flooding transforms foothills of Colorado Rockies 09/15/13 [Last modified: Sunday, September 15, 2013 11:38pm]
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