Rescuers have now managed to reach flood-ravaged Colorado towns where thousands of stranded residents were eager to escape, warning stragglers that they must be prepared to endure weeks without electricity, running water and basic supplies.
Helicopters and truck convoys at the weekend reached Rocky Mountain foothill communities paralysed by days of rain that unleashed heavy floods. Four people have been confirmed dead since floods began on Wednesday while hundreds of others are missing.
Authorities made clear rescuers won’t go back for people who insist on staying, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.
“We’re not trying to force anyone from their home. We’re not trying to be forceful, but we’re trying to be very factual and definitive about the consequences,” he said yesterday.
Special education teacher Brian Shultz, 38, was torn about leaving his Jamestown home.
“I was thinking about staying. I could have lasted at least a year. I have a lot of training in wilderness survival,” he said as he sat outside a temporary shelter at a high school.
Across the foothills, rescuers made progress against the floodwaters, but they were still unable to go up many narrow canyon roads that were either underwater or washed out.
On Saturday, the surge of water reached the plains east of the mountains, cutting off more communities. Some of those who were unaccounted for may be stranded or injured. Others might have escaped but not yet contacted friends and relatives, officials said. Police said they expected to find more bodies.
President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration and ordered federal aid for Colorado.
The military put more troops on the ground and helicopters in the air to aid in the search-and-rescue effort. By Saturday night, 1,750 people and 300 pets had been evacuated from Boulder and Larimer County, National Guard Lieutenant James Goff said.
A helicopter taking Colorado governor John Hickenlooper on a tour of the flooded areas stopped twice to pick up six stranded people and their two pets. More rain is expected in Colorado.
Meanwhile, in the neighbouring state of New Mexico, flood waters broke through dams, inundating neighbourhoods and killing at least one person. The massive flooding prompted governor Susana Martinez to issue a state of emergency, opening up recovery funding after rivers overflowed because of heavy rains and caused millions of dollars in damage.