By Michael Pearson and Ana Cabrera, CNN
Entire communities cut off, firefighters huddled on the side of a mountain after water swept their truck away, and — with rescue helicopters grounded — no way to reach them.
This is the scene facing authorities Thursday in Boulder County, Colorado, in the wake of what Sheriff Joe Pelle called a “devastating storm” that dumped more than half a foot of rain on the region during a 19-hour period.
The widespread flash flooding washed out roads, pushed dams to their limits and beyond, and killed at least three people along Colorado’s Rocky Mountain range, from Boulder south to Colorado Springs.
The worst of the reported damage has come in Boulder County, where the National Weather Service reported that a 20-foot wall of water roared down a mountain canyon north of the city, temporarily trapping a firefighter in a tree.
Lyons, a small town of 2,000 near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, was cut off by what city officials described as a 500-year flood. They took to Facebook to urge residents to prepare for up to three days on their own.
“We ask you to conserve resources during this time,” the city said on its Facebook page. “We are currently not able to get water or food into the town.”
People were using the city’s page to search for loved ones, hunt for medicine and even ask for pet food while waiting for rescuers to arrive.
Elsewhere, homes collapsed onto residents and a dam in Larimer County broke, flooding some homes and leaving three people trapped, a county spokesman said.
Pelle said emergency crews were worried about a Lyons Fire Department crew stuck on a mountainside near a washed-out road. Hypothermia from the cold, wet conditions was of particular concern, he said.
And with so much uncertainty about what had happened in the middle of the night, Pelle said the death toll could well rise.
“This was a devastating overnight storm in the area, and I anticipate that as the day goes on, we are likely to find other people who are victims of this storm,” the sheriff said Thursday. “We are bracing ourselves.”
As dawn broke over the region, Pelle said he was “amassing a large-scale effort” to rescue those who are trapped, reach those who are stranded and deliver much needed aid to places like Lyons, where floodwater overtopped several dams protecting the town near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Boulder County has requested Colorado National Guard vehicles capable of fording deep water as well as rescue helicopters, which are currently grounded because of fog, low clouds and rain, he said.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency urban search-and-rescue team was on the way, he said, with some members already working on the scene.
Despite the efforts, rescuers had been constantly frustrated overnight by debris, impassable roads, mudslides and darkness in their efforts to reach those affected by the flooding.
“This is not your ordinary disaster,” Pelle said. “All the preparation in the world, all the want-to in the world, can’t put people up those canyons while debris and walls of water are coming down.”
The rain started falling in earnest about 6 p.m. Wednesday and continued into Thursday, sometimes at the rate of about an inch an hour, according to radar estimates. That added up to about 6 to 7 inches of total rainfall.
“The rain, it almost feels like hail, the drops are so thick,” University of Colorado Boulder student Ryan Colla told CNN affiliate KUSA. “It just keeps coming and coming, and when you think it’s going to subside, it starts to rain down harder.”
The sudden influx of water turned Boulder Creek — which runs through the campus and other parts of the city bearing its name — into a high, fast, muddy and dangerous torrent, Colla told the station.
“It freaked us out,” he said.
At its peak, Boulder Creek was flowing at 16 times its normal rate for this time of year, city spokeswoman Sara Huntley said.
But that was not the only stream causing trouble, Pelle said. Unlike the last devastating flood in Boulder in 1969, this storm caused virtually every waterway in the area to overflow, he said.
And rain is likely to continue to pose problems, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
“I don’t see it stopping anytime soon, at least a few more hours,” he said Thursday morning.
And, he said, if it does stop, it’s likely to flare up again in the afternoon as moisture-laden air being carried toward the mountains is pushed up the slopes, forcing the vapor to turn into rain and fall onto already waterlogged ground.
“It could rain again all night,” he said.
Dams threatened, roads washed away
Several roads washed away, including one near Lafayette — about 12 miles southeast of Boulder — where rescue crews staged the dramatic rescue of a man from an overturned, partially submerged car.
The rescue — captured live on television — nearly went awry when the car, which had been pulled up so that it was on its side, turned back onto its roof in the swift water just as the man was preparing to climb through a window broken open by his rescuers.
The man and two others whose cars went into the water near a washed-out road were taken to a hospital for treatment of minor injuries, according to fire officials.
About 20 miles north of Boulder, in Lyons, water was flowing over the tops of five dams, Boulder County spokeswoman Gabbie Boerkircher said. The dams had not broken, but emergency officials were monitoring them very closely, she said.
The town of Lyons had lost power, water and sewer service, and residents were huddled on high ground awaiting rescue, Pelle said. Four deputies stranded with the residents reported no known injuries, he said.
The extent of the damage was widespread but difficult to pin down, Pelle said.
“We’ve lost roads, we’ve lost bridges, cars, homes,” he said. “And we are just now trying to assess the scope of the damage.”
‘Not a day to travel’
While at least one shelter was filling up, emergency officials said they had asked few people to evacuate because of the danger of driving through floodwater.
Pelle urged the rest of Boulder County’s 305,000 residents to stay home.
“This is no day to travel,” he said. “It’s a good day to hunker down and watch the news and find out what’s going on.”
Many roads in the county were closed or impassable, and city and county offices, schools and even the university were closed Thursday.
At the university, school officials had to move more than 400 graduate students and research faculty members from family housing units because of flooding, a spokesman said.
The school also had to relocate 13 undergraduates from two residence halls, the spokesman said.
No injuries were reported on campus.
Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta; Ana Cabrera reported from Boulder, Colorado; CNN’s Sara Weisfeldt, Tina Burnside, Shawn Nottingham and Sherri Pugh also contributed to this report.
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