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Water has receded, but not the crisis for flooded Colorado

Though the rain has stopped, canyon communities in Colorado remain isolated and surrounded by rushing water, and 600 people are still waiting to be rescued.

September 17, 2013|By Tony Barboza
  • Rushing water has washed away a section of Lefthand Canyon Road near Olde Stage Road outside Boulder as Coloradans continue to contend with flooding that began last week.
Rushing water has washed away a section of Lefthand Canyon Road near Olde… (Jeremy Papasso / Daily Camera )

LEFTHAND CANYON, Colo. — By late summer, Left Hand Creek is usually a gentle stream that gurgles through this tranquil, tree-shaded neighborhood of spacious lots.

It was anything but that last week when rain-swollen waters enveloped houses, turned roads into riverbeds and sent cars tumbling downstream.

Hui Lam fled before dawn Thursday after the creek came thundering across his driveway and down Streamcrest Drive.

"It's completely surrounded by water," Lam, 41, said as he surveyed the area Tuesday, his house perched precariously against the current of brown, rushing water at the mouth of Lefthand Canyon. The rains had gone and the sun was shining, but the dirt road leading home remained a fast-flowing river.

Even as flooding recedes, Colorado is reeling. Communities up and down the state's Front Range remain isolated by washed-out roads, stranded by rushing creeks and without water and power. By Tuesday morning more than 3,000 people had been rescued in Boulder and Larimer counties, the areas hit the hardest by the flooding, officials said. An additional 600 people in Larimer County were waiting to be rescued.

Lam and several neighbors watched as a search-and-rescue team with the Federal Emergency Management Agency forded the braids of water in Left Hand Creek to knock on doors and look for signs of people still inside homes that have become inaccessible.

"Now there's a river everywhere and there's a lot of destruction," said Kevin Meschede, a firefighter from Omaha and a search-and-rescue specialist on the team. "There's footings washed away from houses, trees down, power lines down. Big, giant boulders. Cars. Everything that should normally be sitting in place is moving downstream."

More than 17 inches of rain fell on nearby Boulder in just over a week, breaking monthly and annual records in a place where precipitation averages 19.34 inches a year, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Kyle Fredin.

The number of people missing or unaccounted for statewide dropped to 581 from a peak of 1,200. Eight people were dead or missing and presumed to have died in flood-related events, officials said.

It is expected to take at least several more days for rain-swollen rivers to crest. As the water sweeps down the South Platte River toward Nebraska, towns in Colorado's northeastern plains are bracing for flooding. Logan County officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for the small community of Crook on Tuesday morning, directing residents to take shelter in a high school.

In the canyons along the Front Range, emergency responders are going door to door in some of the hardest-hit areas to search for people who may have stayed behind, even after evacuation orders and helicopter rescues.

"We're beyond the stage of the obvious people that want to be rescued," said Niko King, an information officer for FEMA. Many that remain are those that believe they can stick it out for days longer. "They have generators and food. We get it. They're hardy people," he said.

Authorities cannot force residents to leave their homes, King said, but they try to make a strong case by telling holdouts that they could be stuck there for weeks without power, water or food.

Lam, a finance director for a software company, had stayed behind at first, monitoring the rain from his home office in Lefthand Canyon, where he's lived for 13 years. After all, it wasn't the first time his family had been warned of flash flooding. Frightened by the roar of the water, Lam's wife, son and daughter left for higher ground about 12:30 a.m Thursday.

As the water kept rising, a neighbor called about 3 a.m. and told him: "We're leaving. You should leave too."

Lam grabbed the few belongings he could, bolted out the door and jumped in his Mercedes-Benz sedan. But the car stalled and wouldn't restart, so he left it behind and ran uphill toward a neighbor's house.

At least one of his neighbors had to be carried out by rescue crews, but Lam said he managed to get out that night. By then, the water was waist-deep and his car sat on its side, jammed between two trees.

"If I had stayed in my house another 15 minutes I would have had to have been rescued," he said Tuesday.

Those trees that snagged his car had been swept away and, for all he knows, the car is floating somewhere downstream. But behind his house, near where Left Hand Creek usually runs, a wooden play set for his 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son sits intact.

David Mamolen, a chiropractor who lives down the street, returned to check on his home Tuesday. The quaint white house with its big porch, where he has lived for 27 years, looked as if someone had picked it up and dropped it next to a raging river, he said. In fact, it was the river that had moved.

Mamolen managed to escape the flood last week behind the wheel of his Subaru Outback. Now, there is no way in or out, just a mess of stones, gravel and small boulders. "Those all came with the water," he said. Instead of a road, "we have a river, two rivers, three rivers," he said, counting them with his index finger.

His house sustained only minor damage and he would like to stay, but his wife is not so sure.

"I'm 65 years old. I was on the verge of being retired," he said. "Now my retirement will be rehabbing this home."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

Times staff writers Matt Pearce in Greeley, Colo., and Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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