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Fierce, fast rains imperil Colorado; at least three dead

September 12, 2013|By Michael Muskal and Jenny Deam

DENVER -- The rains began earlier this week in Colorado, accelerating far beyond the ground’s ability to absorb moisture. Torrents churned into flash floods that have killed at least three people, washed out roads, isolated whole towns and forced schools, colleges and municipal offices to evacuate or close.

Thursday was the fourth straight day of rain, and forecasts call for more precipitation in the coming days. Making things worse, more than seven inches of rain fell in just hours by Thursday morning, a volume that triggered flooding that left residents in the towns of Lyons and Jamestown cut off. 

Suburban Aurora received eight inches of rain in about six hours -- the equivalent of about half of the total precipitation that the Denver metropolitan area gets in an entire year.

Even as rescuers were scrambling to aid the stranded, there were fears that the death toll of three would climb as searchers moved through Colorado’s Front Range. At a morning news conference, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle grimly predicted more bad news.

“We are likely to find more victims. We’re bracing for the worst,” he said.

Authorities said a collapsed home in Jamestown killed one person, and there was an unconfirmed report that another person was missing. One person was killed by the floods and was found in the 200 block of Linden Drive in Boulder, the sheriff reported. In a separate incident, the Colorado Springs Fire Department recovered the body of a flood victim around 5:30 a.m. Thursday.

All roads into the nearby foothills were closed, as were many into Boulder. There have been reports of people stranded in trees and huddled on rooftops in the foothills with emergency workers unable to reach them. There are also reports of eight-foot-high debris walls with more than six feet of water behind them.

The usually tranquil Boulder Creek that snakes through the picturesque city was flowing at more than 1,800 cubic feet per second, nearly 10 times its usual 200 cubic feet per second, Sarah Huntley, a spokeswoman for the city said at the morning news briefing. Overnight, it was roaring at 3,200 cubic feet per second, she said.

“We’re dealing with a disaster that is broad in scope and damage,” Pelle said. “This has been devastating.”

He said that although Boulder has flooded in the past -- one of the worst incidents coming in 1969 -- this episode is unique because its impact is being felt across a wide area.

Street flooding was reported in Denver and Aurora, as well as in Jefferson County. Several school districts were closed, and a number of city and county offices in the area were shuttered.

The Boulder County Justice Center was reported to have sustained heavy flood damage. “It doesn’t look very good,” the sheriff said. “It’s far from over.”

The University of Colorado-Boulder was closed Thursday and will remain shut on Friday. Students living on campus were urged to stay in their dorm rooms.

Bronson Hilliard, a university spokesman, said 351 graduate students and staff members were evacuated overnight from graduate- and family-housing apartments on campus adjacent to Boulder Creek.

Thirteen underclassmen were evacuated from two other residence halls because of roaring floodwaters in Boulder Creek. Several buildings on campus were said to have sustained water damage.

At the news conference, Hilliard said one student suffered a broken ankle while playing “Slip and Slide” in the floodwaters. He warned students who might be tempted to sightsee or enter floodwaters that “it could be the last picture you ever take.”

In the town of Lyons, the National Weather Service reported, the situation was “extremely dangerous” and evacuations may be needed. The water treatment plant in the community was heavily damaged and residents have been told they must boil their drinking water, officials said.

Elsewhere, the weather service reported early Thursday that floodwaters had overtopped a dam near Big Elk Meadows, about four miles west of Pinewood Springs.

In Twitter messages from the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, residents were told that a dam had apparently broken and that evacuation steps were in progress.

At least 400 homes in Big Elk Meadows, Pine Springs and the Blue Mountain area were in peril, and residents were told to seek safety.

Several creeks in Boulder and Larimer counties, including Coal Creek, Left Hand Canyon Creek, 4 Mile Creek and Saint Vrain Creek, were flooding as of Thursday morning.

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