Rescuers broke through to 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 carried the message to Rocky Mountain foothill communities paralysed by days of rain that unleashed harrowing floods. Four people have been confirmed dead since floods began on Wednesday and hundreds of others in the flood zone have not been heard from.
Not everybody was willing to evacuate. Dozens of people in the isolated community of Jamestown wanted to stay to watch over their homes.
Authorities made clear that residents who chose not to leave might not get another chance for a while. 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 of their decision, and we hope that they will come down,” he said.
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 makeshift 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 and diverting some rescue operations.
Some of those who were unaccounted for may be stranded or injured. Others might have gotten out but not yet contacted friends and relatives, officials said. Police expected to find more bodies as the full scope of damage emerges.
A woman was missing and presumed dead after witnesses saw floodwaters from the Big Thompson River destroy her home in the Cedar Cove area, Larimer County sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said.
President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration and ordered federal aid for Colorado.
The city of Longmont ordered a curfew in flood zones and evacuation areas, urging residents to remain indoors.
The military put more troops on the ground and helicopters in the air to aid in the search-and-rescue effort. By last night 1,750 people and 300 pets had been evacuated from Boulder and Larimer County, National Guard Lt. James Goff said. The airlifts were continuing yesterday with helicopter crews expanding their searches..
A helicopter taking Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on a tour of the flooded areas stopped twice to pick up six stranded people and their two pets.
Rain was expected to start up again in the mountains and foothills, with up to two inches forecast to fall overnight, according to the National Weather Service.
Crews also used inflatable boats to pick up families and pets from farmhouses on Saturday. Some evacuees on horseback had to be escorted to safe ground.
Meanwhile, in the neighbouring state of New Mexico, flood waters broke through dams, inundated neighbourhoods and killed at least one person.
The massive flooding prompted Gov 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.