Rescue Operations Underway In Flooded Colorado

Heavy rain and flooding have destroyed scores of communities, with at least four people dead. While the rain had let up a little, more is expected Saturday.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A massive rescue operation continues today in Colorado. Authorities confirm that at least four people have died in the flooding there so far. Thousands have been evacuated since a huge and powerful storm began pounding the region Wednesday night. The cities and the foothills northwest of Denver have been hit the hardest. Whole roads connecting mountain towns have been ripped apart. Authorities still advise thousands of people to stay in place until help can arrive. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Boulder.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A welcome break in the rain and National Guard helicopters were able to begin airlifting hundreds of people yesterday afternoon. They'd been trapped in the mountains since Wednesday night. Finally, said a worried Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle as he looked up at the gray skies.

SHERIFF JOE PELLE: We are rescuing people, which is a tremendous relief. We've been just stonewalled by washed-out canyons and no access and no communication.

SIEGLER: Thousands have been stranded in and around a collection of funky old mining towns in the hills above Boulder, where there's usually only one way in and one way out. Authorities say people are being rescued from their rooftops. Until help came to the community of Jamestown yesterday, Sandra Levitt was riding out the storm with neighbors who live on higher ground.

SANDRA LEVITT: And my car is somewhere in a creek and we can't get home.

SIEGLER: Levitt was looking disoriented and had only a small tote bag. She had just climbed off of one of those choppers that had whisked her down to safety in an airport on the outskirts of Boulder. Before hurrying off to try and find her brother, she described a horrific scene in Jamestown.

LEVITT: Pieces of houses, whole houses floating down the river, rooms floating down, septic tanks floating down, roads out. It really looks like the next war.

SIEGLER: In Lyons, just north of Boulder, there are also reports of widespread damage to roads and bridges, homes underwater, and fields flooded. Further north in Larimer County, site of this state's worst and deadliest flood in 1976, Sheriff Justin Smith said the main road leading to the tourist town of Estes Park is all but destroyed in many places.

SHERIFF JUSTIN SMITH: There'll be parts where you may have a mile or two of road, and then just big sections where it's gone. Maybe a lane is washed off, and then there are other areas. It's just washed to the bedrock. It just, it didn't exist from what you can tell in there.

SIEGLER: Smith said most search and rescue in his county can only be done by air, which hasn't been easy.

SMITH: I don't see how people can get across rivers when the bridges are gone. I don't see how they can get across if there's a section washed out. It's 15-foot straight down and back up. I don't see how we can land in one spot and get to many people.

SIEGLER: On the streets of downtown Boulder, mud and debris are strewn everywhere. This would normally be the start of a bustling fall weekend here, but there are more utility crews than bar-hopping college students.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SIEGLER: About a quarter of the buildings on the University of Colorado campus were damaged. Today's football game against Fresno State was also postponed. Boulder Creek would normally be a lazy stream this late in the year, but now it's a brown torrent of raging river carrying debris and tree branches down off the mountains scarred by recent wildfires.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SIEGLER: In one of the hardest hit neighborhoods of North Boulder, Sue Anderson and a friend were in waders standing in a knee-deep stream of water on a sidewalk. They were using shovels and their bare hands to build a diversion dam to stop the water from flowing into her house.

SUE ANDERSON: It was flowing. Wow. That's amazing. That's really good.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

ANDERSON: I mean, it's still flowing.

SIEGLER: Four Mile Creek up this street began overflowing its banks early Thursday morning, and hasn't stopped since.

ANDERSON: You know, there's people who are a lot worse off than we are. We survived, we got out alive and that was great, and I think our house is salvageable.

SIEGLER: But for the time being, Anderson was just trying to figure out how to get rid of two feet of standing water in her bedroom before more storms head this way over the weekend. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boulder, Colorado.

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