WASHINGTON — A routine flyover of Blackhawk helicopters taking state and federal lawmakers on a tour of Colorado flood damage Saturday turned into a rescue mission after Rep. Cory Gardner spotted several victims of the disaster waving at the aircraft for help.
Unable to communicate directly with the pilot as the the team of the National Guard helicopter sped along Big Thompson Canyon, the 4th Congressional District Republican used his BlackBerry to type out a note, “There are people waving for help on the ground.”
Gardner used hand signals to help guide the helicopter back along the river where he spotted the group, and after a precarious landing on the mountain’s edge along the raging river, four people, a dog, and cat were rescued.
“This pilot did an incredible job,” Gardner told The Colorado Observer in an interview Monday, as the lawmaker was preparing to meet with FEMA director Craig Fugate and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper was also on the flyover, which included a second rescue mission after more victims were spotted on the mountainside, and the second Blackhawk managed a precarious landing on a small strip of asphalt of what is left of Highway 34.
The second rescue mission included the owner of Millers Indian Village Trading Post in Estes Park, whose business was also destroyed in the floodwaters that have crippled 4,500 square miles of the state.
The massive floods from record amounts of rainfall have topped 100 year and 1,000 year flood levels in numerous areas, killing eight people with 1,200 people still unaccounted for, and destroying or damaging 19,000 homes.
“There’s no shortage of bad news,” Gardner said. “It’s pretty tough.”
In an evacuation effort not seen since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, trucks and helicopters have rescued more than 12,000 Coloradoans.
“You go back and look at 1976 in Big Thompson Canyon, there were a number of lives lost and a lot of destruction, but I don’t think anybody could have foreseen this kind of damage,” Gardner said.
That tragedy occurred on July 31st as the state was celebrating its centennial, when a flash flood swept through the narrow canyon killing 143 people.
“In Longmont, they are seeing flooding in areas they didn’t even know could flood,” Gardner said.
Two disaster declarations have been issued for the state clearing the way for federal assistance to help with search and rescue efforts, relocating victims whose houses were destroyed, and to repair water systems, roads and bridges in the 17 counties affected – an area the size of the Connecticut.
In Boulder County alone where 35 bridges were destroyed and 100 miles of roads decimated, the destruction is estimated at $150 million.
Gardner plans to return to Washington on Tuesday to begin meetings with members of the powerful Appropriations Committee and lobby for the federal dollars that will be needed to help rebuild and recover from the damage he described as “mind-boggling.”