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Weary but unbowed, neighbors pull together in flooded Colorado

Four are dead and hundreds still missing in Colorado's record flooding. In hard-hit Boulder, neighbors pitch in to help one another.

September 14, 2013|By Jenny Deam
  • Evan Russack and his son Trevor, 6, survey a flood-damaged street in Boulder, Colo. As residents were trying to clean up, more rain is expected.
Evan Russack and his son Trevor, 6, survey a flood-damaged street in Boulder,… (Paul Aiken, Daily Camera )

BOULDER, Colo. — When the rains began to fall last week, Coloradans exhaled. It had been a long, terrible summer of drought and deadly wildfires, and the afternoon downpours soaking parched soil felt a lot like salvation.

But then, in this land known for dryness, the rain would not stop.

The flooding that has ravaged — and continues to ravage — a 150-mile-long stretch of Colorado's Front Range has left at least four dead. More than 500 people are unaccounted for. Are they dead? Trapped? Or simply without power or phone service?

PHOTOS: Colorado flooding

No one is sure, reflecting the uncertainty that has descended on the state.

On Saturday, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle talked of his sinking feeling upon learning of people trapped in remote areas and knowing that authorities could not reach them. Among those unaccounted for are 200 people from his county.

Three hundred others are unaccounted for in Larimer County. A 60-year-old missing woman is expected to become the disaster's fifth fatality, although her death has not been confirmed, the Larimer County Sheriff's Department said Saturday.

The National Guard reported evacuating more than 500 people from mountain communities by Saturday morning, and the work was continuing. Even Gov. John Hickenlooper got into the act. His helicopter crew stopped to rescue four stranded people, a dog and a cat while he was on his way to a news conference to brief reporters on the disaster.

In the picturesque college town of Boulder, the impact of the floods could be felt everywhere.

In other times, a mid-September Saturday in Boulder would be a day of children's soccer games, clogged hiking trails, shoppers along the Pearl Street Mall and noisy festivities that surround a University of Colorado football game.

But on this Saturday, mud-covered streets were devoid of the usual traffic. Playgrounds were empty and Folsom Field silent as university officials postponed the game against Fresno State. Classes for 32,000 students at the university were canceled Thursday and Friday. It is not clear whether they will resume Monday.

With authorities still in search-and-rescue mode, residents began helping one another. Along middle-class streets, windows and doors gaped open to air out flooded homes as the sun made a brief reappearance Saturday morning. Piles of soaked carpets, overflowing trash bags and ruined drywall that resembled Play-Doh lined street curbs.

Megan Elphingstone, wearing rubber gloves and rain boots, was in her front yard, using bleach to scrub what was salvaged from her basement. Glancing at the pyramid of rotted carpet she and her husband pulled up when the water began to pour into their basement, she laughed a little. What else can you do?

On Wednesday as they returned from Back to School Night, they noticed water was starting to come through basement windows. Then, like something out of a horror movie, it began to seep through the walls. Her sons, Luke, 10, and Jack, 5, armed with their plastic Halloween buckets, tried to help by bailing water and dumping it into a basement shower.

"We tried to keep up with it as much as we could, but then we gave up," Elphingstone said, her voice a mixture of exhaustion and resolve to make the best of things.

Their basement is now a musty shell with no carpet and large gaps in the walls where her husband cut out chunks of drywall to try to stave off mold. Three fans hummed in the background.

They have no flood insurance. They are trying not to think too far ahead.

"Could you use some help?" The question came from a man at their door, a member of a nearby church.

"We're not as bad off as some," said Elphingstone's husband, David. Then he remembered the hefty, soaked couch still in the basement. "You got a saw?" he joked.

In an instant, four other men appeared and hauled the couch up the stairs and deposited it on the curb. Then they were gone but soon replaced by Beth Gallovick, a neighbor, bearing muffins.

By 10 a.m., Gallovick had given out three dozen muffins and one vat of chili to people working to clear their wrecked houses along South 45th Street. "Now, don't you worry about dinner tonight," she called out as she made her way down the street.

But even as recovery was just starting in some parts of Boulder, new problems were starting elsewhere.

"Jake! Get your hands out of that poopy water," Renee Williams scolded her 3-year-old son. The boy and his 1-year-old sister were splashing in the stream of water flowing in the front yard of their house — the house they moved into two weeks ago. But it wasn't floodwater. Backed-up sewage was coming out of the toilet.

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