Many Colo. flood evacuees returning home to heartbreak

Local residents help salvage and clean property in area inundated after days of flooding in Hygiene, Colo., Sept. 16, 2013 AP

HYGIENE, Colo. The rains finally stopped, allowing many Colorado flood evacuees to return home -- to toppled houses and upended vehicles - and the realization that rebuilding their lives will take months. Search crews, meanwhile, rescued hundreds more people stranded by floodwaters.

As many as eight people were believed to be dead, according to state officials, and hundreds were still unaccounted for. But that number has been decreasing. The state's count fell Monday from just more than 1,200 to about half that. Officials hoped the number would keep declining as rescuers continued working and those stranded got in touch with families.

After days of heavy rain, clearing skies and receding waters enabled crews to intensify their search efforts and assess the damage of the historic floods.

Twenty-one helicopters fanned out over the mountainsides and the plains to drop supplies and airlift those who needed help.

In Boulder County, some people used rocks to write "SOS" and "Help" in their yards, reports CBS Denver station KCNC-TV.

As the choppers landed one after another, the relief could be seen washing over the faces of survivors, KCNC says. Some needed wheelchairs, while others emerged with pets. Entire families, some with young children, were among those who were rescued after being stranded for days.

Residents of Hygiene, a small community east of the Rocky Mountain foothills, returned home Monday to find homes destroyed and mud blanketing roads. The St. Vrain Creek left trucks in ditches and carried items as far as 2 miles downstream.

"My own slice of heaven, and it's gone," Bill Marquedt said of his home.

Residents set to sweeping, shoveling and rinsing, but the rebuilding task was overwhelming.

"What now? We don't even know where to start," said Genevieve Marquez. "It's not even like a day by day or a month thing."

"I want to think that far ahead but it's a minute by minute thing at this point," she added.

State emergency officials offered a first glimpse at the scope of the damage, with counties reporting about 19,000 homes either damaged or destroyed. Those preliminary figures are certain to change as the waters continue to recede and roads are cleared and enable crews to access more areas.

Air crews rescued more than 100 people in Larimer County Monday. Once the evacuations end, officials said it could take weeks or even months to search through flood-ravaged areas looking for people who died.

In the mountain towns, major roads were washed away or covered by mud and rock slides. Hamlets like Glen Haven were reduced to debris and key infrastructure like gas lines and sewers systems were destroyed.

Hundreds of homes around Estes Park, next to Rocky Mountain National Park, could be unreachable and uninhabitable for up to a year, town administrator Frank Lancaster said.

The town of Lyons was almost completely abandoned. Emergency crews gave the few remaining residents, mostly wandering Main Street looking for status updates, a final warning to leave.

Most of Lyons' trailer parks were completely destroyed. One angry man was throwing his possessions one by one into the river rushing along one side of his trailer on Sunday, watching the brown water carry them away while he drank a beer.

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