Colorado Officials Scale Back Searches For Flood Victims

The search and rescue effort in Colorado is slowing down. While many are still listed as missing, officials are scaling back on the effort to find those trapped in areas severely affected by recent flooding. They say most people who wanted to get out have been able to do so.

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In Colorado, thousands of people remain evacuated from their homes and at least eight have died from what are being called biblical floods. Some 21 inches of rain poured down on the mountains north of Denver last week, causing flash floods that damaged or destroyed highways and more than 19,000 homes. That water is still moving, downhill towards the east, forcing more evacuations as it goes. Hundreds are still unaccounted for, though most are expected to be OK. Still, rescue crews are working to find them and identify them, as NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: A crew of assorted men pull on dry suits and padded gloves, cinching down belts and snapping on bright orange life jackets.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everybody's got their Kevlar in the bottom of their shoes?

ROTT: They are part of one of FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue Teams. A specialized one, trained for swift-water rescue.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is everybody ready? Everything fit good? Everybody feel all right?

ROTT: They are one of many search and rescue teams who are scouring the water-wrecked canyons and foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front Range, just north of Denver. It's a 200-mile stretch of land that bore the brunt of the flash flooding that occurred here as rain raced off of the higher mountains into the lower valleys. And it's a stretch of land that still hides hundreds of missing people.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everybody good? Any questions? All right, let's head out.

ROTT: So the search and rescue crews have sort of fanned out and are now wading across the water, using PVC pipes as sort of walking sticks to check the depth of the water in front of them. They're trying to check on six different houses that have been cut off since the flooding started a few days ago. They've had line-of-sight checks on these houses. In fact, we can see a couple of them now.

One has a car in the driveway that has water just rushing by it all the way up to the door handle. But they have not been able to actually get up and physically touch the house, knock on it, make sure that there is nobody left in there that wants to get out and can't. That's what rescue crews are focusing on as the water levels lower.

NICO KING: We can't just take a neighbor's word for it. We can't just take someone that's saying, oh yeah, I know them and they did leave and they're not there.

ROTT: Nico King is with FEMA. He says that most of the people that wanted to get out have. They were the obvious ones, the more than 3,000 in total that stood on roof-tops, waved flags and signaled helicopters. King says rescue efforts like this are for the hundreds that are still reported missing and those that might not want to leave at all, though none were found here.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

ROTT: Back in Boulder, at the incident's command post, National Guard helicopters came and went. But the number of evacuees in them - hundreds on Monday - were just two as of late Tuesday evening. Mike Frary is with the operations branch of the incident management team.

MIKE FRARY: Our mission here was to get people out and so I think we've accomplished that.

ROTT: Now, he says, they're entering what they call the recovery phase - fixing infrastructure and assessing damage. Which will be no small task. Hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of roads are damaged or destroyed. Here in Boulder County's foothills, it's estimated to be about 150 miles of road at least. And that's not to mention the bridges, culverts, canals and dams.

FRARY: The recovery phase is the long term thing. And it may take years in some places.

ROTT: And cost millions. Some are estimating that in the end the total damage will be around a half billion dollars. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Boulder.

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