Members of the a FEMA Urban Search & Rescue team and Colorado National Guard look at a map before checking homes off in Boulder, Colo., on Sept. 16. (Mark Leffingwell / AP)
LONGMONT, COLO. — Airlifts gave way to door-to-door searches Wednesday for victims injured and killed in the flood-scarred Colorado foothills, as authorities began ramping down emergency operations and beginning the “long and arduous” recovery phase.
Urban search-and-rescue teams with dogs and medical supplies began picking through homes, vehicles and debris piles for victims as the number of people reported missing dwindled from a high of 1,200 to just about 300.
They also are documenting the damage they find, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.
It is part of responders ending the “high-octane” emergency response to dayslong flooding that began last week “and moving into the long and arduous task ahead,” Pelle said.
Some of the helicopters that have been used for emergency airlifts may be returned to Fort Carson, where they will be on standby, Colorado National Guard Lt. Mitch Utterback said.
Rescuers were trying to make contact with 450 people who remained stranded in Larimer County north of Boulder, but it was unclear how many of those people actually want to leave, sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said.
He warned those who stayed behind that they may be stuck there as the emergency operations end.
“The (military) air resources are going to be going away here very soon,” Schulz said. “Larimer County has no air resources, once they’re gone we’re not going to be able to get those people for a very long time.”
Business owners were being allowed back into the heavily damaged town of Lyons on Wednesday to assess the damage, and homeowners under mandatory evacuations were expected follow Thursday.
Many homeowners ignored the evacuation orders to stay with their homes, and they waved off rescue helicopters flying overhead.
Displaced Lyons residents and music fans took their traditional Tuesday night bluegrass jam to the nearby town of Longmont, where they comforted each other and raised money for two musicians who lost instruments in the flood.
“We’re all reconnecting after the storm, when we got split up, and now we’re all talking about how we’re going to rebuild and help each other and get through this, get back to a place of happy community,” said Mike Marzano.
Meanwhile, the South Platte River crested and surged Wednesday through the towns and farms of the Colorado plains and into Nebraska.
Volunteers in Ovid filled sandbags and built a dike overnight in the northeastern Colorado town of about 300, preventing serious flooding when the river crested there Wednesday morning, Sedgwick County emergency management director Mark Turner said.
The river rose to a record level of more than 10 feet near the Colorado-Nebraska border, and some flooding was reported near the Nebraska town of Big Springs.
The plains areas of eastern Colorado and western Nebraska is largely rural farmland, which has so far limited the damage compared to the devastation in the mountain communities to the west.
State officials held the number of flood-related deaths at six, plus two women missing and presumed dead. The number is expected to increase, but it could take weeks or even months to search through all the flooded areas.
More than 6,400 disaster victims have applied for federal assistance, with more than $430,000 approved so far, Federal Emergency Management officials said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation released $30 million to begin repairing roads, highways and bridges.
The cost of rebuilding infrastructure and thousands of homes is not yet known. Officials believe it will take hundreds of millions of dollars and months, if not years, to recover.
Volz reported from Denver.