Colorado families stranded by floods watch waters rise and wait for help

Families cut off by worst flooding in decades in Rocky Mountain foothills face anxious period as waters rise and rescuers try to reach them

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 4:08am


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

Sitting on the deck behind her house, Scott can see the rising floodwaters approach her home in Loveland, a mountain town 72 kilometres north of Denver. She has heard the roar of water in recent days as it overflowed the river's banks and cut off her area. 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 on Thursday was just a memory on 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 the US state of 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.

At least four people have been confirmed dead, officials said. The Boulder Office of Emergency Management listed 172 people as unaccounted for.

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 towns such as Lyons and Loveland and bring out those stranded, often without electricity and drinkable water. Others are still searching for survivors, with some rivers flowing at 10 times their normal rate.

Buildings across central Colorado have been turned into impromptu evacuation centres. Hundreds of people have arrived in school buses at the LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, about 10 kilometres 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.

Rain began pelting Colorado early last week, but by Wednesday night it had picked up tempo. As much as 220 to 25omm fell in the populous parts of the state known as the Front Range.

The damage was expected to run into the tens of millions of dollars and repairs could take weeks, Governor John Hickenlooper said. He has declared a state of emergency, as has US President Barack 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, whose home overlooks the St Vrain River near Lyons, said he awoke on Thursday to "total devastation".

"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," 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, before high water turned him back.

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. When he reached the Lyons town centre, emergency personnel told him to evacuate.

"But my family is back home," he protested. Floodwaters made it impossible for any vehicle to rescue them. So Sangelo headed back. Like refugees, he and his family began a perilous journey.

Clinging to the hillside and holding hands in a line, they made it to the evacuation zone in Lyons, from where they were taken to Longmont.

"I think the house will be all right," Sangelo said, "but the whole landscape has changed."