ESTES PARK, Colo. — As Colorado mountain towns cut off for days by massive flooding slowly reopened, shopkeepers in this gateway to majestic Rocky Mountain National Park worked to both clean up and remove salvageable goods from ravaged businesses for fear the swollen Big Thompson River would rise again.
“We have limited time to get as much out as possible,” Aspen Evergreen owner Tamara Jarolimek said as she and her husband, James, worked furiously Sunday.
Outside, crews plowed up to a foot of mud left standing along Main Street after the river late Thursday and early Friday coursed through the heart of town.
“I hope I have enough flood insurance,” said Amy Hamrick, who had friends helping her pull up flooring and clear water and mud from the crawl space at her coffee shop. Her inventory, she said, was safely stashed at her home on higher grounds.
Meantime, hundreds of residents and evacuees gathered for updates from the town’s administrator, Frank Lancaster, who said “we are all crossing our fingers and praying” that it won’t happen again.
Across town, comparisons were repeatedly drawn to two historic and disastrous flash floods: the Big Thompson Canyon Flood of 1976 that killed 145 people, and the Lawn Lake flood of 1982 that killed three.
“Take those times 10, that’s what it looks like in the canyon,” said Deyn Johnson, owner of the Whispering Pines cottages, three of which floated down the river after massive amounts of water were released from the town’s dam. Johnson said the only warning she and her husband had to evacuate their home and their guest cabins came from their cat, Jezebel, who jumped on her sleeping husband at 4:30 a.m., batting at him and yowling.
“I always thought we were safe unless the dam went,” she said. “I credit the cat with saving my family and the lives of everyone in the cottages.”
From the mountain communities east to the plains city of Fort Morgan, numerous pockets of individuals remained cut off by the flooding. Sunday’s rain hampered the helicopter searches, and rescuers trekked by ground up dangerous canyon roads to reach some of those homes isolated since Wednesday.
The surging waters have been deadly, with four people confirmed dead and two more missing and presumed dead after their homes were swept away.
Some 1,500 homes have been destroyed and about 17,500 have been damaged, according to an initial estimate released by the Colorado Office of Emergency Management on its website.
In addition, 11,700 people left their homes, and a total of 1,253 people have not been heard from, state emergency officials said.
With phone service being restored to some of the areas over the weekend, officials hoped that number would drop as they contacted more stranded people.
As many as 1,000 people in Larimer County were awaiting rescue Sunday, but airlifts were grounded because of the rain, Type 2 Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team commander Shane Del Grosso said.
Hundreds more people are unaccounted for to the south in Boulder County and other flood-affected areas.
Air rescue efforts are planned to resume in Boulder County Monday with improving weather.
The Office of Emergency Management is urging people who are cut off by flood waters and need to evacuate but have been unable to communicate by phone or other means to signal helicopters passing overhead with sheets, mirrors, flares or signal fires.
The town of Lyons, about 20 miles from Estes Park, was almost completely abandoned. Emergency crews gave the few remaining residents, mostly wandering aimlessly on Main Street, looking for status updates from each other, a final warning to leave Sunday.
One man, a bluegrass musician, has been visiting his home every day and taking photos. The house has a river running through it and he can’t get close.
Most of the town’s trailer parks were completely destroyed. One angry man was throwing his possessions one-by-one into the river rushing along one side of his trailer on Sunday, watching the brown water carry them away while drinking a beer.
In Estes Park, Lancaster called the flood a 500-year event. He said it was worse than previous flash floods because of the sustained rains and widespread damage to infrastructure across the Rocky Mountain Foothills. Major road were washed away, small towns like Glen Haven reduced to debris and key infrastructure like gas lines and sewers systems destroyed, meaning hundreds of homes in Estes Park alone could be unreachable and uninhabitable for up to a year.
The good news here in Estes Park and the Estes Valley, Lancaster said, was there appeared to be no loss of life.
Still, hundreds remained stranded in remote areas.
“We know there are a lot of people trapped but they are trapped alive,” he told people gathered at Red Cross evacuation shelter Sunday afternoon.
And rescues continued throughout the day Sunday any way possible, including zip lines rigged to hoist people and pets across swollen rivers and creeks.
That’s how retirees Jerry Grove and Dorothy Scott-Grove -- and their two golden retrievers -- were finally rescued Friday night from their vacation cabin in Glen Haven. Although they may not be able to get back to their new car for six months to a year, and they were still trying to figure out how to get home, Scott-Grove said they were glad to be alive and were now looking at the experience as a “great adventure.”
As many as 1,700 homes in the Estes Park area were under evacuation notice, Lancaster said, but the issue was more about lack of access because of washed out roads and destroyed infrastructure.
Even the town’s historic Stanley Hotel, a structure that was the inspiration for Stephen King’s “The Shining,” suffered damaged, despite its perch on a hilltop overlooking the town and the river. Front desk worker Renee Maher said the ground was so saturated that water was seeping in through the foundation, and had caused one suite’s bathtub to pop out “like a keg,” Maher said.
Ironically, the massive Estes Ark — a former toy store two stories high designed to look like Noah’s Ark — was high and dry.
“I don’t know if it’s open anymore, but soon it’s going to be our only way out,” joked Carly Blankfein.