Better Weather Lets Crews Ramp Up Rescue Work In Colorado

Better weather conditions are allowing rescue crews in Colorado to ramp up their search for those stranded after days of torrential flooding and rain.

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In Colorado, a break in the weather is allowing search and rescue crews to resume looking for people stranded by days of rain and flooding. Some parts of central Colorado have received more than 14 inches of rain in the past few days. That's about the amount most areas would see in an entire year. Officials estimate the flooding has damaged some 19,000 structures, including more than two dozen bridges, and at least seven people have died because of the floods. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Denver.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: National Guard's Chinook helicopters are scouring flooded areas again today, looking for people still trapped by the floodwaters. State and federal authorities are trying to put the word out to stranded people to wave anything they have - sheets, mirrors, pieces of glass that will glare in the sun, anything - to get the attention of rescuers. No one knows for sure if that message will even be heard. Power, phone, Internet has been out in some places for days. But the good news is help is beginning to pour in to Colorado.

CRAIG FUGATE: We're still working on the immediate needs, getting ready to set up recovery.

SIEGLER: FEMA administrator Craig Fugate arrived this morning to begin coordinating response and recovery efforts.

FUGATE: And one of the things that we know will be important is that people find a place to live while they make repairs and determine the next steps.

SIEGLER: Fugate says more than 3,000 families have already registered with the agency, but the number of displaced people is estimated to be above 11,000. And there's still an active search and rescue mission going on. Nevertheless, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper says the state has to start focusing on recovery.

GOVERNOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Well, I can tell you I am very gratified and encouraged that a lot of what people perceived as the old FEMA is gone. And I think what we see now is an agile partner that's going to move a lot faster, be willing to look at how do we build things better than they were before, how do we do it less expensively and how do we do it faster?

SIEGLER: The governor declined to give any estimates on damage costs, saying that number won't be available for days.

HICKENLOOPER: Well, it's going to be a challenge. And let's not make any, you know, let's not avoid that fact, but it's not a challenge we can't take.

SIEGLER: But the fact is recovery is going to be expensive and take months, if not years. This disaster is far worse and more widespread than any of the recent wildfires here. Parts of whole towns are wiped out. Oil and gas drilling sites along the state's eastern plains are flooded. Some farms and feedlots are underwater. In the mountains, crews are starting to make some progress getting into towns that have been completely cut off. Mindy Crane is with the Colorado Department of Transportation.

MINDY CRANE: We're really trying to look at ways to get some type of transportation into them, whether it's, you know, a temporary road, if we can do some fixes. We're also taking a look at other areas that we think are pretty safe to open, and what we want to do is really get in there and inspect.

SIEGLER: But time is a factor in all of these efforts in Colorado. Snow could come to the high country any day now. Take Estes Park, a tourist town of about 6,000 people at the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Residents there are being urged to evacuate to the west up and over a 12,000-foot pass that will close for the winter soon. Authorities are advising residents it could be months before they get to return to their homes and businesses. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Denver.

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