Search and rescue intensifies amid Colorado flood; death toll rises to 7

A break in the weather allowed search-and-rescue operations to resume Monday in flood-stricken parts of Colorado. Seven people have died; 1,253 are unaccounted for. For many, airlifts are the only way out.

Ed Andrieski/AP
Flood victims are helped off a military helicopter at the Boulder Municipal Airport in Boulder, Colo., on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, after being rescued. Thousands of people remained stranded by high water and washed-out roads in the state.

Boulder, Colo., residents got a welcome sight Monday morning: A little before 10 a.m., the sun poked through the clouds, clearing the way for a major rescue operation, with more than 1,000 people being deployed by air and on foot, to help evacuate the stranded and to search for the 1,253 still unaccounted for.

Seven deaths are confirmed so far, but that number may rise, officials warn, as efforts intensify to find missing people.

Through Monday morning local time, hundreds of Colorado National Guardsmen and active-duty Army soldiers from the Fourth Infantry Division had rescued nearly 2,200 people and about 500 pets. Although operations were largely at a halt Sunday, because of heavy rain, rescuers saved 80 people through ground operations, says Lt. James Goff of the Colorado National Guard.

“Right now, we’re trying to get our priorities together for flights,” says Goff, noting that the Guard has 19 helicopters ready to resume operations in the foothills west of Boulder. By late Monday morning, Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters were crisscrossing the skies above Boulder, transporting stranded residents out of the mountains.

Among those airlifted out over the weekend were 85 fifth-graders and 14 adults who had been stranded at an outdoor education center in Jamestown, one of the mountain towns hit hardest by the flooding and now unreachable by road.

Evacuation by air became the best option after washed-out roads and bridges left thousands of people in the hills and canyons west of Boulder – many without electricity, or with flood-damaged homes – with no other quick way out.

Authorities are asking stranded residents to signal to passing helicopters by waving a light-colored cloth; placing a large, light-colored cloth or sheet on their roofs; waving flares; using mirrors to reflect sunlight; or lighting safe signal fires, and to have a “go bag” with essentials prepared to take with them.

Meanwhile, finding the hundreds of people still unaccounted for remains a top priority Monday, according to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. Five teams of detectives from the Boulder County sheriff’s office are “going out in the field, going door-to-door as the situation allows, and comparing the data with information from shelters, emergency response evacuations, and other sources,” the office said in a release.

The number of people listed as “unaccounted for” has been fluctuating, and officials emphasize that those people are not necessarily considered to be “missing.”

Often, when people get displaced suddenly, “they’re OK, they don’t think anybody is concerned about them,” said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate during a press conference Monday, as he urged people to call in and let authorities know they are safe. “That will help the governor’s team focus on the ones we’ve got to look for,” he said.

Even as search-and-rescue operations resume, state and county officials are beginning to survey the extent of the damage and to prioritize rebuilding and cleanup – including getting some major roads passable again.

So far, some 14,500 people have been evacuated from flooded areas, and the state has said at least 1,500 residences were destroyed and some 17,500 were damaged. The state Department of Transportation said 20 state bridges were destroyed and 30 more need repair. But the broader figure – taking into account county, city, and private bridges that were damaged – is between 80 and 100, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said in an interview with NBC News on Monday.

"Today we continue to be focused on the search and recovery, and that’s our highest priority…, but even as we’re doing do that, it’s not too early to be planning what the recovery is going to look like,” Governor Hickenlooper said Monday in a press conference with FEMA's Mr. Fugate.  

The light drizzle that fell over Boulder through Monday morning pushed the precipitation total to a yearly record. More than 30 inches of moisture have fallen in Boulder to date, breaking the previous annual record of 29.93 inches, set in 1995 – with more than three months left in the year. Nearly 15 inches of that total fell last week between Monday evening and Friday.

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