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Air rescues aid Colorado flood victims escaping disaster zones

Helicopters swoop in to rescue scores of weary Colorado flood victims. Many spots declared federal disaster areas could be uninhabitable for months.

September 16, 2013|By Jenny Deam and Michael Muskal
  • In just four hours Monday, about 200 Colorado flood victims were rescued by helicopter, mainly from the rugged foothills of Boulder County. Above, a flood victim is helped off of a helicopter at the Boulder Municipal Airport.
In just four hours Monday, about 200 Colorado flood victims were rescued… (Ed Andrieski / Associated…)

BOULDER, Colo. — Chinook helicopters swooped into isolated Colorado mountain areas Monday morning to rescue scores of flood victims as emergency officials described the state's mammoth disaster scene: 4,500 square miles of the Front Range — a swath the size of Connecticut.

In an operation one official said was "believed to be the largest airlift rescue since Hurricane Katrina," the Colorado National Guard air fleet mobilized as soon as the weather cleared, loading its choppers with dazed and weary residents, including children wearing backpacks, the elderly and pet dogs straining at leashes.

"You just never thought it would happen here," said 1st Lt. Skye Robinson of the Colorado National Guard.

The flash flooding brought on by days of historic rain across the most populous areas of the state has left eight people dead. The number of unaccounted people has dropped to about 650. Parts of at least 13 counties have been declared federal disaster areas, eligible for government aid.

"Some areas of Larimer County experienced a 100-year flood, some a 1,000-year flood," said Jennifer Hillman, a public information officer for the sheriff's department in Larimer County; in nearby Boulder, a year's worth of rain fell within days. "When you're talking about rivers cresting 10 feet over their banks, no one can be prepared for that."

About 18,000 residential structures have been damaged or destroyed across the region. An estimated 35 bridges and more than 100 miles of road will need repair in Boulder County alone. Early estimates predict those repairs could cost $100 million to $150 million and take months, if not years, to complete. An additional 35 to 50 roadways have been washed out by walls of water that turned tame canyon creeks into fierce torrents.

In just four hours Monday, about 200 people were rescued by helicopter, mainly from the rugged foothills of Boulder County. In recent days, thousands have been brought out by air and truck or have made their own way through the water-logged roads.

Reggie Liesveld, 59, emerged from the belly of a chopper with an exhausted sigh after a week of uncertainty. Her husband stayed behind in their home in the hamlet of Pinewood Springs. With fuel and food running low, and no electricity or water, she decided to leave.

"There was so much rain, so quickly," she said, hauling a suitcase with her Akita in tow.

After passengers disembarked, firefighters in grimy yellow shirts and red helmets formed a brigade, passing luggage and pet carriers down the line into a pile on the runway.

It is unclear how many isolated residents still seek to be rescued, but estimates range into the high hundreds. Authorities encouraged those still stranded to wave towels or shine mirrors to signal the helicopters. One of the helicopters Monday was equipped with a loudspeaker that blared into the wilderness: "Come out now."

In recent days, about 12,000 people have been brought out by air and truck or managed to make their way through the flood-damaged roads. About 2,000 people have stayed at some point at 24 shelters around the state. Most have moved on to stay with relatives and friends. At last count, the state said 536 people were in shelters.

The evacuees landing Monday in Boulder were led across the runway into an aircraft hangar turned into an emergency command center. After checking in to confirm whether they had been reported missing, they were led to tables offering bottled water, bagels, cupcakes and trail mix. They were also offered counseling by Federal Emergency Management Agency workers, who helped them fill out relief funding paperwork.

They learned that their hometowns with quaint names like Lyons, Jamestown and Glenhaven could be uninhabitable for months.

Mike Grady and his girlfriend, Danielle Lafaille, hiked out of Four Mile Canyon on Monday with 60 pounds worth of their lives crammed into two backpacks. They also had their three dogs. They had decided that enough was enough.

For days they heard the helicopters overheard. "Saturday was like Vietnam," Grady joked. They had lost power and water and had been trying to get around by foot. A picture on Lafaille's phone shows a neighbor's house that has mostly disappeared into a crevice. Their house had survived but the isolation was unnerving.

"We could've stayed, but to what end?" Grady said. Lafaille has been offered a place to stay in an empty house her boss owns in Longmonth. "I just want to return to normal," she said.

A series of freak meteorological events conspired to create the disaster that will linger, especially in Boulder and Larimer counties.

Though it is relatively arid, the Front Range has long been known as the region in the state with the highest flood risk. The area sits at the base of the Rocky Mountains, where creeks that drain vast and steep mountain watersheds let out near populated areas.

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