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Colorado flood damage

(Photo courtesy of the Colorado National Guard) The Big Thompson River washed away chunks of Colorado Highway 34.

Colorado surveys damage as floodwaters abate

By Tim Skillern

DENVER — Drier days are ahead for much of Colorado, drenched by last week’s destructive rains, with forecasts for lower flood levels, limited showers and mostly sunny skies through the weekend. But sunshine will also allow rescue crews and homeowners a closer look at the devastation the storms wrought on tens of thousands of homes and hundreds of thousands of residents in a dozen counties along Colorado’s Front Range.

The numbers so far are sobering:

- Officials have reported eight deaths and about 1,000 residents unaccounted for. 

- Nearly 12,000 residents have evacuated flooded areas. The storms have damaged 17,500 structures and destroyed 1,500, the Colorado Office of Emergency Management said.

- Twelve more counties were added to the presidential emergency disaster declaration on Sunday.

How to help Colorado's flood victims

Matt Sellars, a photographer in Boulder, has had a front seat to the destruction.

He and his wife live near Third Avenue and Arapahoe Avenue in western Boulder, just south of Boulder Creek. Sellars photographed these scenes near his home over the weekend. His home lost power, but the damage to surrounding structures, including an office building plowed over by the water, was more severe, he said.

“We lucked out because we just lost power. There was some minor flooding, but we got missed by the major stuff. Closer to the canyon, it was a lot worse,” Sellars, who lives about a quarter mile from Boulder Canyon, told Yahoo News.

Water in Boulder Creek, which runs through the canyon, has fallen in recent days. But levels on Monday morning remained higher, at about 3.5 feet, than last Tuesday’s levels, which were stable at just over 2 feet. The creek hit 7.8 feet at its peak on Friday morning, the National Weather Service said.

Sellars said the worst damage he’s seen in Boulder was the buildings swept away in the mud: “I tried to sneak up the canyon a bit, but they had it blocked off. The bike path was full of mud and rocks. It was pretty much a river. The river broke out of its banks, and it looked like it had run through some homes.”

Sellars, 30, has lived in Boulder since January when he and his wife moved from Chicago. He said they count themselves lucky.

“We still have a pretty dry home. All we lost was power. If we have to take a couple cold showers, I guess that’s not that bad,” he said. “No matter where you live, this would be pretty crazy. We moved here for the outdoor stuff. This is something you have to keep in mind, living closer to the mountains.”

Farther north, along the Big Thompson River, flooding has erased huge portions of Highway 34, a state road that connects Loveland, north of Denver, with Estes Park, a mountain town about an hour west.

The Colorado National Guard flew Gov. John Hickenlooper and a few members of the state’s congressional delegation in a helicopter over Highway 34 on Saturday to survey the damage. Huge chunks of the highway have vanished. The Big Thompson River — its waters responsible for 143 deaths in a July 1976 flashflood — was in a major flood stage Monday morning at 8.8 feet, according to the National Weather Service. It peaked at 10.55 feet on Thursday evening, well above its record 9.3 feet.

The Colorado Department of Transportation told Colorado Public Radio on Monday that the state may have to construct temporary roads to service some mountain communities because winter will arrive before new permanent roads could be built.