Larimer County: Search to become more meticulous as choppers, rescuers head into remote areas

FORT COLLINS, Colo. - After the bulk of the remaining rescues in Larimer County concludes Tuesday, officials say they will transition to a more meticulous process as they search for people living in more remote areas of the canyon and search along the river for possible victims of the flood.

During a Larimer County press conference Tuesday morning, Larimer County officials say 1,041 people have been evacuated by air and ground so far and 580 more are known to need evacuation.

Two are still presumed dead, and although that number is expected to increase, it's not going to be exceptionally high, said Sheriff Justin Smith.

"It's not going to be the kind of number that came in 1976," Smith said, referring to the catastrophic flash flood that killed 114 people and injured 150 people in the Big Thompson Canyon.  

He said most residents had advanced warning.  

"They had an idea of it coming," Smith said.

"We're happy with the amount of people we've been finding and happy about the shape that they're all in," said Chuck Russell, with the Rocky Mountain incident response team.

Those who don't want to be evacuated won't be forcibly moved, but Nick Christiansen, a spokesman for the Larimer County Sheriff's Office, warned that if residents are contacted, and declined to evacuate, they will not get a chance to leave at a later time.

"A lot of roadways are cut off and it will be difficult to get supply, and we won't resupply those areas," Christiansen said.

In an afternoon briefing, he said that rescuers are taking pictures of the damage to the roads and the canyon to show residents who refuse to leave. These residents, who may be cut off from the Internet and television, may not realize how dire the situation is, and may not understand that they will not be able to leave in October or November when snow hits, Christiansen said.

He said he doesn't have the number of people who have chosen to stay but that "most people are cooperative and understand the magnitude."

"From here on out, it's going to be more meticulous, " Russell said, as rescuers venture into areas that are more remote and where the terrain is trickier.

He said the big meadows were great for landing Chinooks but they will need smaller aircraft to do more "pinpoint insertions."

Authorities are now getting resources, including National Guard troops, moved to the Estes Park area, which has essentially been cut off, but where the fire and police department are taxed and tired.

"I'm just overwhelmed with the way things are coming together," Smith said.

Crews helping in the flood are coming from California, Nevada and Missouri as well as military troops from the Colorado National Guard, Wyoming National Guard and Fort Carson.

"The spirits of these troops are tremendous," Smith said.

"While we are doing rescue and recovery, at the same time, we have utility folks -- roads, electricity and telephone crews -- working on immediate repairs to the road so emergency vehicles can pass through and ... electric poles strung together," Smith said.

He said the telephone fiber link that ran up to Estes Park on Highway 34 is essentially gone and crews have to build a new line in a few days.

"We have a new normal in Larimer County for months if not a few years," Smith said.

After the cloud cover lifted on Monday, choppers started flying again and picked up 420 people, some from the isolated towns of Pinewood Springs and Drake.

Many of those who arrived at the Timberline Church in Fort Collins, where they were checked in and given information about their next steps, were in great spirits, smiling and happy, despite being stranded for nearly a week.

"Overall, just amazing, it spoke to the spirits of the people who live here," said Smith, who spent some time at the air base where these evacuees were arriving. "I thought I would  see more frustration, many of them have been without water, running low on food … Most of them had one heck of a smile on their face."

Most of these evacuees don't spend the night at the shelters and are reunited with friends within hours.

About 197 people remain unaccounted for. These are not people who are not necessarily missing, just people whose whereabouts haven't been confirmed. If you are evacuated, please register with or call the Joint Information Center at 970-498-5500.

The disaster recovery center in Loveland will be available on Wednesday to help evacuees with next steps.


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