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Bloated numbers reflect size of Colorado disaster

| Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, 8:54 p.m.

LYONS, Colo. — The numbers that were released on Sunday by the Colorado Office of Emergency Management were grim: Flooding in 15 Colorado counties has damaged or destroyed nearly 19,000 homes. At least 1,253 people who have not communicated with family, friends or authorities are considered unaccounted for. Six are confirmed or presumed dead. And 11,700 people have been evacuated.

Days of rain and floods have transformed the outdoorsy mountain communities in the state's Rocky Mountain foothills — affectionately known as “The Gore-Tex Vortex” — from a paradise into a disaster area with little in the way of supplies or services.

The string of communities from Boulder to Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, is a base for backpackers and nature lovers where blue-collar and yuppie sensibilities co-exist. Their roadways crumbled, scenic bridges are destroyed, and most shops are closed.

The cars that usually clog Main Street in Lyons have been replaced by military supply trucks. A plywood sign tells residents mucking out their homes to “Hang in there.”

Chris Rodes, one of Lyons' newest residents, said the change is so drastic that he is considering moving away just two weeks after settling there.

“It's not the same,” Rodes said. “All these beautiful places, it's just brown mud.”

Estes Park town administrator Frank Lancaster said visitors who normally would flock there during the golden September days should stay away for at least a month, but it could take a year or longer for many of the mountain roads to be repaired.

Meanwhile, people were still trapped, the nearby hamlet of Glen Haven has been “destroyed,” and the continuing rain threatened a new round of flooding, he said.

“We are all crossing our fingers and praying,” he said.

The residents who remained or began trickling back — if they were allowed to do so — were left to watch out for one another. Restaurateurs and grocers in Lyons were distributing food to their neighbors as others arrived in groups carrying supplies.

Scott Martin, 25, drove the half-hour from Boulder on Saturday to deliver drinking water and gasoline to a friend's parents. He fled Lyons amid a torrential downpour on Wednesday night.

Martin grew up tubing down the river and hiking the mountains, and like many residents, he still jumps in the water after work. Looking into the cottonwood and aspen trees at the outskirts of town, he wondered when he would be able to do those things again.

“Best case, it's just mud everywhere, in everyone's yard and all the streets,” he said.

From the mountain communities east to the plains city of Fort Morgan, numerous pockets of individuals remained cut off by the flooding. As the rain on Sunday hampered helicopter searches, rescuers trekked up dangerous canyon roads to reach homes isolated since Wednesday.

With phone service being restored to some of the areas over the weekend, officials hoped the number of unaccounted for would drop.

As many as 1,000 people in Larimer County were awaiting rescue, but airlifts were grounded because of the rain.

Ironically, the huge 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.

Supplies of gas and groceries had been running low until Route 7 was recently reopened. On Sunday, people were lined up at the one gas station that had fresh supplies.

At the Aspen and Evergreen Gallery along the town's main street next to the Big Thompson River, owner Tamara Jarolimek was clearing out the shop in fear of more rain.

“We only have limited time to get out as much as we can,” she said.

At the town's historic Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King's “The Shining,” clerk Renee Maher said the hotel was nearly empty. Though it sits on a hill overlooking town, 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.

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