WASHINGTON – Torrential rain grounded rescue helicopters in Colorado for much of Sunday, slowing the search for hundreds of people unaccounted for after massive flooding in the western U.S. state killed six.
More than 1,500 homes have been destroyed and an estimated 17,000 damaged after days of flooding, the Colorado Office of Emergency Management said, while at least six people have died. The toll is likely to rise.
President Barack Obama has declared the flooding a major disaster, unblocking federal resources to help a vast operation that has seen more than 11,000 residents evacuated as roads and bridges have been swept away.
The number of people unaccounted for was put as high as 1,253 by the state emergency management office, although Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper put it at 500. Many of the missing may simply be unable to report their whereabouts, but Hickenlooper warned that the death toll may increase.
“There are many, many homes that have been destroyed,” Hickenlooper told CNN. “A number have been collapsed, and we haven’t been in them yet.”
Boulder Sheriff Joe Pelle said, “Finding the people who are unaccounted for is one of the highest priorities.”
Flash floods have afflicted 15 counties along a 300-km north-south section of the Front Range, where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains.
“We’ve got a heck of a lot of communities dealing with a heck of a lot of water,” Jennifer Finch, a spokeswoman for Weld County northeast of Boulder, told Denver Channel 7 News.
Rain began pelting the western state earlier in the week, with Boulder especially hard hit, seeing 183 mm of precipitation in about 15 hours starting Wednesday night.
And with more downpours affecting already flood-ravaged areas, “that’s going to just really magnify the problems we’ve had so far,” Hickenlooper said, in reference to Boulder County.
Meanwhile, in the neighboring state of New Mexico, another round of rain moved across the state on Sunday, renewing the threat of heavy runoff from already saturated soils and flooding in low areas as residents faced a major cleanup effort from damage left in the wake of days of relentless rain.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for much of central and northern New Mexico. The flooding killed at least one person — a man who died after his car was submerged when his car was washed into a ravine and carried 1½ km from the road.