Colorado floods: Stories of grief, generosity and gratitude
By David Simpson and Ana Cabrera
BOULDER, Colorado (CNN) — The numbers are stark: As many as six dead. Hundreds more unaccounted for. Up to 1,000 people still awaiting evacuation.
But it’s the stories — of loss, but also generosity and gratitude — that truly reflect the scope of the misery, and the tenacity of spirit, in Colorado’s once-in-a-lifetime flooding — now in its fifth day.
‘I started panicking and I couldn’t breathe’
So far, the state has confirmed four deaths and fear that two others missing will be added to that toll.
The four confirmed victims include a man and a woman, both 19, who were among a group of four teen-agers headed home when the deluge began in Boulder County late Wednesday night.
Emily Briggs was the driver. She told CNN affiliate KUSA-TV that she was terrified. Her friend Wesley Quinlan took over.
“I started panicking and I couldn’t breathe, and Wesley said, ‘It’s OK, Emily, I’ll drive.’ So I let him drive, and we kept driving and we just hit a wall of water and rocks,” Briggs
With the car stopped, Quinlan said everyone should get out and try to reach safety.
“Our feet were just thrown in the air,” said Nathan Jennings, who survived along with Briggs.
Wiyanna Nelson, 19, was swept away first, and Quinlan tried to rescue her, the survivors said.
“I looked at Wesley and he looked at me, and he jumped after her,” Briggs said. She got back in the car and was rescued later. Jennings couldn’t get back to the car but grabbed a log until a firefighter rescued him.
Quinlan’s body was recovered Thursday and Nelson’s body the next day.
Another body was found in a collapsed home in Jamestown in Boulder County. Rescuers recovered a fourth body on a roadway in Colorado Springs in El Paso County.
Those presumed dead include a 60-year-old woman and an 80-year-old woman, both in Larimer County.
Witnesses saw the younger woman swept away by floodwater that demolished her house. The older woman suffered injuries and was unable to leave her home.
Authorities Sunday were updating the lists of “unaccounted for” in the two hardest-hit counties: 482 people in Laramie County and 318 in Boulder County.
Gov. John Hickenlooper said many of those may have found shelter with friends.
“But we’re still bracing,” Hickenlooper told Candy Crowley on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I mean, there are many, many homes that have been destroyed. A number have been collapsed, and we haven’t been in them yet.”
‘The helicopters — those were the best’
Ten-year-old Luca Voeller was on a fifth-grade field trip to a camp at a high elevation when the flood began. The floodwaters blocked the road to the camp, trapped 78 students and their teachers.
Teachers were hatching a plan to hike across several miles when National Guard helicopters arrived Saturday.
“The helicopters – those were the best,” he said.
All the choppers were grounded by rain Sunday. But only scattered showers are expected Monday, and then no rain is in the forecast for the remainder of the week.
“If we get that window of opportunity, which it sounds like we might get, we have the horsepower to hit it hard,” federal incident commander Shane Del Grosso said.
Authorities Sunday issued instructions to stranded residents via news and social media how to flag down one of those helicopters.
“Wave a sheet, put a sheet on the roof, fire off flares, even use a small fire so we can see the smoke,” said Ben Pennymon, spokesman for the Boulder County Office of Emergency Management.
He also recommended using a mirror to reflect sunlight.
“And we’re asking people to be ready to go,” Pennymon said.
Medicine, clothes any other critical items should be in “go bag,” he said.
Off the field, into the kitchen
The University of Colorado’s football players, whose home game against Fresno State was canceled Saturday, instead served lunch to about 800 evacuees.
The food had been delivered to the stadium for the canceled game, and university officials didn’t want it to go to waste.
Many of the recipients had been displaced from student housing, the university’s athletic department website reported.
“Tragedies like this can make you feel really separated from the rest of the world,” said Sarah Stith, a resident manager of a school apartment complex. “And it’s things like this that just make you realize what a great community we have.”
Students from several school athletic teams dished out food, cleaned tables and entertained children by signing autographs and taking photos.
Wide receiver D.D Goodson said the water was waist-high in his own room.
“I lost my sofa, my television and some of my shoes and other necessities. It’s nice to help these evacuees because I know what they are going through,” Goodson said.
In Evergreen, about 15 miles west of Denver, many of the 9,000 residents are so eager to help that the fire department had to issue a “Thanks, but no thanks.”
First, the Evergreen Fire Rescue Department tweeted, “Thank you for donations of food but please no more. If you want to help, go to (Station) 2 for sandbagging tonight.”
Forty minutes later, came another tweet: “Thank you Evergreen neighbors! EFR has plenty of help sandbagging.”
No government gridlock here
Sen. Mark Udall was on a helicopter reconnaissance mission with Hickenlooper and other elected officials Saturday that twice was diverted to pick up groups of stranded residents.
“That dog and the cat and those seven people on those two helicopters didn’t ask us whether we were Democrats or Republicans,” Udall said.
He promised a bipartisan push in Congress for federal aid for flood recovery.
Hickenlooper got a call Sunday from President Barack Obama, and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate will arrive Monday. A joint National Guard-U.S. army command and hundreds of FEMA workers are already in the state.
Boulder County alone will need an estimated $150 million to repair 100 to 150 miles of roadway and 20 to 30 bridges, county transportation director George Gerstle said.
According to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management, the floods have destroyed 1,502 residential structures and damaged 17,494.
David Simpson reported and wrote from Atlanta; Ana Cabrera reported from Boulder, Colorado.
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