HYGIENE, COLO. — Weary Colorado evacuees have begun returning home after days of rain and flooding, but Monday’s clearing skies and receding waters revealed only more heartbreak: toppled houses, upended vehicles and a stinking layer of muck covering everything.
Rescuers grounded by weekend rains took advantage of the break in the weather to resume searches for people still stranded, with 21 helicopters fanning out over the mountainsides and the plains to drop supplies and airlift those who need help.
The confirmed death toll stood at four, with two women missing and presumed dead. State emergency officials reported the death toll at seven Monday — four dead in Boulder County, two in Larimer County and one in El Paso County. But local authorities said they had not raised the death count to seven.
The number of missing people was difficult to pinpoint, but it has been decreasing. The state’s count fell Monday from just over 1,200 to about half that. State officials hoped the overall number would continue to drop with rescuers reaching more people and phone service being restored.
“You’ve got to remember, a lot of these folks lost cellphones, landlines, the Internet four to five days ago,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said on NBC’s “Today” show. “I am very hopeful that the vast majority of these people are safe and sound.”
Residents of Hygiene returned to their small community east of the foothills to find mud blanketing roads, garages, even the tops of fence posts. The raging St. Vrain River they fled three days earlier had left trucks in ditches and carried items as far as 2 miles downstream. “My own slice of heaven, and it’s gone,” Bill Marquedt said after finding his home destroyed.
Residents immediately set to sweeping, shoveling and rinsing, but the task of rebuilding seemed overwhelming to some.
“What now? We don’t even know where to start,” said Genevieve Marquez. “It’s not even like a day-by-day or a month thing.
“I want to think that far ahead but it’s a minute-by-minute thing at this point. And, I guess now it’s just help everyone out and try to get our lives back,” she added.
Helicopters had evacuated more than 100 stranded residents in Larimer County by midafternoon Monday, said Chuck Russell, a spokesman for the federal incident command helping with the response.
Russell said he expected that helicopter crews would evacuate a total of up to 400 by the end of the day and perhaps twice that number on Tuesday.
Once the evacuations are complete, officials said it could take weeks or even months to search through flood-ravaged areas looking for people who died.