DENVER — Efforts to reach hundreds of people still stranded in the flooded mountains of Colorado ran headlong into another day of pelting rain Sunday, the authorities said.
After a week of record-breaking rains, Sunday’s storms were the last thing anyone wanted. They dumped more water into gorged streams, flooded sodden fields and prevented rescue helicopters from reaching residents who are stuck behind shredded roads and walls of debris.
“The good news is we’ve got 16 helicopters,” said John Schulz, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office in hard-hit Larimer County, about 60 miles north of Denver.
“The bad news is they can’t go anywhere.”
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The storms have left six people dead or presumed dead, the most recent reported fatality being an 80-year-old woman apparently washed away with her home.
More than 800 people are now listed as “unaccounted for” in Larimer and Boulder counties, the authorities said.
Officials said they hoped most of those people had simply been unable to reach friends and family.
“It’s not people who are necessarily missing or in danger,” Schulz said. “Some of those people may end up missing or dead, but in most cases, it’s going to be that they just lost contact, or they’ve been evacuated and we just haven’t caught up with them yet.”
Just keeping track of who is out of reach and who is safe has been difficult, authorities said.
Officials in the two flood-ravaged counties have been adding and subtracting names as they get fresh information from relatives or rescuers.
But they said communication was still spotty.
A break in the relentless rains had brought dramatic scenes of rescue and reunion Friday and Saturday, as big-bellied Chinook helicopters buzzed over the flooded roadways to airlift hundreds of residents from campgrounds, homes and destroyed mountain hamlets. One mission rescued 85 children and 14 adults who had been trapped while attending an outdoor-education camp near the mountain community of Jamestown.
Schulz said phone service was slowly returning to stricken towns like Estes Park, a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, whose downtown was submerged in churning brown waters.
He said he hoped the list of unreachable residents would dwindle as people got in touch with relatives or found one another in shelters.
In an appearance on the State of the Union program on CNN Sunday. Gov. John Hickenlooper said: “There are many, many homes that have been destroyed. A number have been collapsed, and we haven’t been in them yet. So, we’re still dealing with that. How do we save lives first?”
Hickenlooper expressed hope that many of the missing are simply out of reach of communications, and have “already gotten out or (are) staying with friends.”
“But,” he added, “we’re still bracing. I mean, there are many, many homes that have been destroyed.”
It’s common in disasters to have large numbers of missing people who have simply been displaced and briefly cut off from contact, but the numbers usually peak early, then decline as people are located.
In Colorado’s slow-motion disaster, however, the number of missing has continued to rise.
As of Sunday morning, there are 234 people unaccounted for in Boulder County, up from 218 on Saturday, said Liz Donaghey of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.
Larimer County authorities said 482 people were unaccounted for, up from 350 on Saturday.
Donaghey stressed that not everyone on the list is missing.
Donaghey said it has been difficult to get accurate numbers of the missing because communications have been spotty or nonexistent in some of the hardest-hit areas.
Phone service was restored to some areas so authorities are hopeful they can reach more people.
Schulz, of Larimer County, attributed the growth in the numbers of missing to growing concern from relatives and friends.
People assume they will hear from loved ones but become increasingly frantic when days pass and they still have not, he said.