DENVER – “Major flooding/flash flooding event underway at this time with biblical rainfall amounts reported in many areas in/near the foothills,” warned the National Weather Service at 9:41 a.m. Thursday.
By Sunday, the flood had inundated communities in 15 counties, taking six lives, damaging an estimated 17,494 homes, destroying 1,502 homes and displacing thousands of residents, according to Colorado Emergency Management officials.
More than 2,000 people have been evacuated – the greatest number of Americans air rescued since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Air evacuations were impeded Sunday because of rain, but are expected to resume Monday.
“The helicopters – those were the best!” exclaimed Luca Voeller, one of 85 fifth graders airlifted Saturday from Cal-Wood Education Center near Jamestown.
The Chinook helicopters, deployed from Fort Carson, rescued the Fireside Elementary School students and 14 adults who had been stranded after Jamestown was isolated because powerful floodwaters caved bridges and crumbled roadways.
Nearly 100 soldiers from the Joint Task Force Carson performed search and rescue missions that day and dispatched three CH-47 Chinook helicopter and, three UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters which airlifted 700 people and 250 family pets to safety.
“This is a team effort assisting, working with the Colorado National Guard to help protect our communities and save lives,” said Maj. Earl Brown, Fort Carson spokesman. Earlier this summer, the task force had worked to put out fires and rescue victims in Colorado.
An estimated 1,253 people are unaccounted for. In devastated Boulder and Larimer counties, the number of unaccounted for individuals is 318 and 473, respectively.
There are four confirmed deaths and two presumed deaths.
The storm event – now, deemed a 500-year level – caused millions of dollars in infrastructure damages, washing out roads and bridges.
Damage estimates are expected to climb Monday when FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate travels to Colorado and emergency management teams assess damages in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Clear Creek, Denver, El Paso, Fremont, Jefferson, Larimer, Logan, Morgan, Pueblo, Washington and Weld counties.
“While authorities cannot conduct damage assessment until rainfall subsides and flooding recedes, known consequences are… damage to a natural gas distribution pipeline, power outages, at least two structures destroyed, water damage to approximately 40 buildings on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus,” said Hickenlooper in a media statement Friday.
Those concerns included infrastructure damages caused by flooding in Estes Park, Jamestown, Lyons and Nederland as well as closure of numerous roads and damage to the waste water treatment system in Lyons and several towns. Over the weekend, heavy rains and flooding destroyed farm fields and threatened horses and cattle on ranches in Larimer, Logan, Weld and Morgan counties.
President Barack Obama approved a request by Gov. John Hickenlooper for federal disaster assistance. Initially, FEMA is authorized to spend $6 million for relief efforts and the U.S. Department of Transportation will invest $5 million to repair roads and bridges.
Colorado currently has about $42 million in the emergency reserve fund, said Sen. Kent Lambert (R-Colorado). He said the governor has the power to use these monies or divert funds from any cash fund for an emergency.
Lambert suggested that much of the money spent will likely be reimbursed by federal and local agencies.