President Obama approved federal disaster aid late Thursday night for areas along Colorado’s Front Range mountains after days of heavy rain caused flash flooding that left at least three dead and prompted authorities to evacuate thousands from cities like Boulder.
Governor John Hickenlooper signed a disaster declaration and said, “this could easily be a 50 or 100-year-flood.”
After a rainy week, up to 8 more inches fell in an area spanning from the Wyoming border south to the foothills west of Denver. Flooding extended all along the Front Range mountains and into some cities, including Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins, Greeley, Aurora and Boulder.
Boulder County appeared to be hardest hit. Sheriff Joe Pelle said the town of Lyons was completely cut off because of flooded roads, and residents were huddling together on higher ground. Although everyone was believed to be safe, the deluge was expected to continue into Friday.
“Our city is completely divided,” by the floodwaters, assistant city manager Shawn Lewis told Reuters.
Late Thursday night, Boulder city officials said they sent a notice to head to higher ground to about 4,000 people living around the mouth of Boulder Canyon after 11 p.m. MDT, according to a report in Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper.
Boulder County spokesman James Burrus said about 8,000 telephone numbers with the message to evacuate were called, but officials aren’t sure how many individuals that represents.
The city Office of Emergency Management said that the alert was prompted by rapidly rising creek levels caused by water backing up at the mouth of the canyon because of debris and mud coming off the mountainsides.
In Lyons, residents took shelter on higher ground, including some at an elementary school. Although everyone was believed to be safe, the deluge was expected to continue into Friday.
“There’s no way out of town. There’s no way into town. So, basically, now we’re just on an island,” said Jason Stillman, 37, who was forced with his fiancee to evacuate their home in Lyons at about 3 a.m. after a nearby river began to overflow into the street.
Stillman, who sought shelter at a friend’s house on higher ground, went back to his neighborhood in the afternoon and saw how fast-moving water had overturned cars and swept away homes at a nearby trailer park.
“Water was just coming up over the bridge,” he said. “All kinds of debris and trees were just slamming into the bridge. Just surreal.”
Numerous roads and highways were washed out or made impassable by floods. Floodwaters poured into homes, and at least a few buildings collapsed in the torrent.
“The rains have been sitting over that area,” Boulder Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Gabrielle Boerkircher said. Boulder offices and facilities, including libraries and recreation centers, were closed Thursday due to the conditions. Hundreds of university students living near a creek in the city have also been evacuated.
The Weather Service said that county officials reported some homes had collapsed in Jamestown, where dozens of people live, according to a report by The Denver Post.
Boerkircher told The Associated Press that one person was killed when a structure collapsed in Jamestown, but that she didn’t have any other details because rescuers hadn’t reached the scene.
“There are mudslides prohibiting us from getting to that area,” Boerkircher said.
Another person drowned in northern Boulder as he was trying to help a woman who was swept away in a torrent of water, authorities said. Boulder County sheriff’s Cmdr. Heidi Prentup said the woman is still missing.
To the south, Colorado Springs police conducting flood patrols found the body of 54-year-old Danny Davis in Fountain Creek on the west side of the city.
An evacuation center for the mountain residents has been sent up in nearby Nederland, officials said.
Meanwhile, about 400 students at the University of Colorado housing in Boulder were evacuated and classes canceled Friday because of the flooding, Boekircher said. The school said it will assess the situation and determine when it will reopen portions of its campus.
Firefighters performed a daring rescue of two men trapped in vehicles in Rock Creek, east of Boulder. After rushing water collapsed a section of road, rescuers used a raft to reach the men, broke the car windows and lifted them to safety.
Some of the flooding was exacerbated by wildfire “burn scars” that have spawned flash floods all summer in the mountains. That was particularly true in an area scarred by fire in 2010 near the tiny community of Jamestown and another near Colorado Springs’ Waldo Canyon that was hit in 2012.
“We’ve asked people in low-lying areas all through the county to evacuate,” said Andrew Barth, another Emergency Management spokesman.
In addition to the two counties where there were flood emergencies, the Weather Service posted flash flood warnings for parts of Broomfield, Adams, Weld, Larimer, and El Paso counties.
Mudslides and rockslides were reported in several areas, with parts of U.S. 6, Boulder Canyon, Colorado 14 and U.S. 287 all reporting problems and temporary blockages during the evening, the Denver Post said. Lefthand Canyon was reported blocked by one of the many slides.
Boulder police dispatchers were receiving calls of flooding basements and homes and of flooded streets and submerged cars. Authorities said the flooding has made many Boulder streets impassable.
Emergency Management Director Mike Chard said people should avoid creeks and waterways, and not attempt to cross flooded intersections in their cars.
“We’re also asking people who are OK to shelter in place Thursday, just because the roads are so bad,” Barth said.
Rain showers and thunderstorms were expected through the night, with some storms capable of dumping an inch of water in 30 minutes, the weather service warned.