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Survivors recount harrowing escapes from raging floods in Colorado

Survivors tell of rising water and high anxiety as they fled floods ravaging Colorado's Front Range. At least four have died, and towns are cut off.

September 13, 2013|By Jenny Deam and Michael Muskal
  • Emergency workers rescue Will Pitner, center, and neighbor Jeff Writer, left, after they were trapped on high ground at the base of Boulder Canyon in Colorado.
Emergency workers rescue Will Pitner, center, and neighbor Jeff Writer,… (Brennan Linsley, Associated…)

LONGMONT, Colo. — For Carey Scott, life these days is all about watching the angry Big Thompson River, swollen by torrential rains, move closer.

Sitting on the deck behind her house, Scott can see the rising floodwaters approach her home in Loveland, a charming mountain town 45 miles north of Denver. She has heard the roar of water in recent days as it overflowed the river's banks and cut off her subdivision. All bridges to the north are under water. She can't escape to the west because Highway 34 has buckled. To the south, the town of Longmont is also flooded. Interstate 25 to her east is closed.

A building that was visible Thursday was just a memory Friday. "As I look out my window this morning I cannot see a farmhouse," Scott said, speaking by telephone from her still-dry house. "We're ready to go. We would go if they told us we needed to evacuate, but we have nowhere to go."

Scott is among thousands of people in Colorado waiting for help as flooding has smacked the eastern chunk of the state with biblical force. Entire towns nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills are isolated by washed-out roads, mudslides and the record rain that has fallen for five days.

Helicopters flew 295 people out of Jamestown, which was cut off by raging water and mud. The Colorado National Guard has used more than 100 troops in 21 military-style trucks to bring in supplies to picturesque towns such as Lyons and Loveland and to bring out those who have been stranded, often without electricity and drinkable water. Others are still searching for survivors, with some rivers flowing at 10 times their normal rate.

Scott's subdivision sits near the mouth of Big Thompson Canyon. She knows only too well, as do all the locals, the damage from the Big Thompson River flood in 1976, when a flash flood roared out of the canyon and killed 144 people. But she says she is not scared. "Our house sits above the flood plain," she said.

Buildings across central Colorado have been turned into impromptu evacuation centers. Hundreds of people have arrived in school buses at the LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, about six miles east of Lyons, one of the towns hit worst by the recent flooding. The church's administrative pastor, Kevin King, 52, said the church was anticipating 2,000 to 3,000 weary people.

"People have been holed up without power or water," King said by telephone. "Many homes, we don't know what the inside looks like."

Rain began pelting Colorado early this week, but by Wednesday night it had picked up tempo. As much as 9 to 10 inches fell in the populous parts of the state known as the Front Range.

In Boulder, 7.21 inches of rain fell in about 15 hours beginning Wednesday night. That was 50% more than the previous record in 1919 — 4.8 inches within 24 hours.

The heavy rains began to slacken on Friday, but thunderstorms were still expected through the weekend.

At least four people were confirmed dead and dozens were unaccounted for, officials said. The damage was expected to run into the tens of millions of dollars and repairs could take weeks, Gov. John Hickenlooper told reporters Friday. He has declared a state of emergency, as has President Obama.

Some isolated areas of the state have been cut off entirely by rapidly advancing floodwaters, leaving residents unable even to phone for help.

David Sangelo, 49, whose rustic home overlooks the St. Vrain River near Lyons, said he awoke Thursday to a scene of "total devastation." The river had turned into a violent, muddy rapid that had washed away chunks of the road below his hillside home. His long driveway ended in the muddy swirls.

"The whole valley had turned into a raging rapid with debris, propane tanks, whole trees, a refrigerator, a big roof of a house just floating by. Houses were under water. Everything was totally swamped," he said. He had no power, no phone, no Internet — no way of knowing what to do. Sensing the house was on high enough ground, Sangelo decided to leave his wife, Lisa, and their two children and try to walk two miles to town for help. He almost made it before high water turned him back.

For the next 24 hours, Sangelo and his wife slept in shifts. On Friday morning, still cut off from all communication, he decided to try the trek again. He followed the contour of the river, picking his way along steep hillsides. "If I lost my footing, I would be dead," he said. Sangelo made it to the Lyons town center, where emergency personnel told him to evacuate.

"But my family is back home," he protested. Floodwaters made it impossible for any vehicle to rescue them. Sangelo headed back alone. Like refugees, he and his family began a perilous journey. Each child took one backpack. The couple packed a single suitcase. Sangelo knew that if they could just cling to the hillside they could make it out.

They held hands in a line, followed by their big Akita dog.

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