As heavy rains further hampered rescue efforts on Sunday, residents in Colorado towns isolated by devastating floods have a choice: Leave now or face weeks without basic supplies, including running water and electricity, officials are warning.
"We're not trying to force anyone from their home. We're not trying to be forceful, but we're trying to be very factual and definitive about the consequences of their decision, and we hope that they will come down," said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle.
Residents who insist on staying might not get another chance to leave for some time because rescuers won't risk returning for people who chose not to evacuate, said Pelle.
Some 14,500 people live in areas under evacuation orders, officials said, with 17 Colorado counties affected by the flood waters.
Four people were confirmed dead in the flooding, and 1,254 people are unaccounted for statewide, according to Micki Trost, spokeswoman at the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
That number is likely to fluctuate, said Trost. Officials are unsure of whether those who are unaccounted for are stranded, injured or just have not had the chance to reach out to family and friends because of poor communications in the area.
The total area affected is bounded in the north by Fort Collins, the south by Colorado Springs, the west by the foothills of The Rockies, and the east by the Denver suburbs, officials said.
Meanwhile, heavy rain in Boulder continued on Sunday prompting the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning through late afternoon.
A small amount of rainfall could cause flash flooding and mudslides because the ground has been saturated since Wednesday, according to weather.com. "The problem now is relatively little additional rainfall may trigger additional flash flooding," said weather.com senior meteorologist Jonathan Erdman.
The persistent rain also prevented planned helicopter rescues. "It will affect our air operations if it keeps raining," Colorado National Guard Lt. James Goff said Sunday. "We'll look at ground operations of any other courses of action."
Sixteen helicopters were prepared to deploy in Larimer County but would not take flight until “weather allows them to do so,” said Nick Christensen, executive officer at the Larimer Country Sheriff’s Department.
“If there’s an opening and they can bring them up, they will,” Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith assured.
In Larimer alone, 482 people are unaccounted for, Christensen said. Some of the presumed missing people might be a result of cross referencing issues among several lists, he said.
“We’ll work hard to whittle down that 482,” said Christensen.
He did concede, “We do anticipate that there will be additional fatalities,” adding, “Hopefully it’s not an overwhelming number.”
Two 80-person search and rescue FEMA crews will disperse on Sunday in Larimer to thoroughly search structures individually, Smith said.
“What’s hard to describe until you’ve been there … and you smell it and you feel it … river developed out of nowhere,” Smith said. “There’s the potential that people got caught up where it felt safe,” he added.
President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster in the flood-ridden state, the White House announced on Sunday. The declaration allows Boulder County home owners and business owners who are suffering from flood devastation to receive federal funds, including low cost loans and grants for temporary housing.
"We are assuming there may be further loss of life and injuries," Pelle said on Saturday. "Given the devastation on some of those canyons, it's definitely a high probability."
Two of the four people confirmed dead were identified Sunday as 19-year-olds, Wiyanna Nelson and Wesley Quinlan, according to NBC affiliate, KUSA. The teens were in a car with two other friends but left the vehicle after it plunged into floodwaters, officials said. Their bodies were discovered on a road in Boulder.
And one missing 80-year-old woman is presumed dead after witnesses watched floodwaters from the Big Thomson River rush through her home, Larimer County sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said.
Over the weekend, National Guardsmen in helicopters and truck convoys warned residents in paralyzed communities that their refusal to leave could be perilous.
Nevertheless, dozens in hard hit Jamestown wanted to stay to watch over their homes.
"I was thinking about staying," special education teacher Brian Shultz, 38, told the AP. "I have a lot of training in wilderness survival."
He probably had enough beer to last the whole time, he added.
Shultz became emotional when he compared his lot to that of his neighbors.
"At least all of our stuff's there and will be there when we get back. The people right by the river, their houses were washed away," the AP quoted him as saying. "Other people thought their houses were going to be OK, and then they started to go. It's just really devastating."
In areas experiencing a reprieve from the flooding, residents got a chance to evaluate their very wet homes.
The Poudre River in Laporte swept through Wendy Clark’s home but has since receded.
"This mud smells disgusting," said Clark. "I don't know how long that's going to be around."
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