Search and rescue operations were expected to get a boost from Mother Nature on Monday as the storms that have pummeled much of Colorado's Front Range begin to subside.
More than 1,250 residents remain unaccounted for, many isolated in the mountain communities where scores of bridges and roads have been washed. Telephone, cellphone and Internet service have been disrupted for several days.
Sixteen rescue helicopters were grounded Sunday after some parts of flooded areas got up to 4 inches of new rain. After seven straight days of rains, some regions have gotten up to 20 inches of rainfall, as much as falls in a typical year.
The National Weather Service expects warmer, drier conditions in the state by mid-day Monday with rain ending at night. Yet officials warned there is still potential for flash flooding in and near the foothills late Monday afternoon into early evening, as lingering air moisture combined with warmer temperatures could case scattered thunderstorms.
Colorado's Office of Emergency Management said the weather is expected to be clear enough to allow stepped up helicopter rescue of flood victims. The air rescue operation is already one of the nation's largest since Hurricane Katrina, but has been hampered by steady rains and foggy conditions. As the weather breaks, officials urged those unable to communicate by phone to signal helicopters with sheets, mirrors, flares and signal fires.
Flooding even trapped the first-responders trying to assist victims. In Lyons 15 miles north of Boulder, the Colorado National Guard said 15 rescuers, including members of their unit, were stranded. The National Guard said more than 50 state Guardsmen, rescuers and civilians were stopped by rising waters that left them cut off during a land evacuation Sunday. Army helicopters were able to rescue most of them before bad weather halted operations for the day.
W. Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is expected to arrive in Colorado Monday to help coordinate the federal government's recovery efforts. Fifteen counties have been flooded. Boulder County, the hardest hit in the state, as well as Adams, Weld and Larimer counties, qualify for FEMA aid. Arapahoe, Broomfield, Clear Creek, Denver, El Paso, Fremont, Jefferson, Logan, Morgan, Pueblo and Washington counties are considered disaster areas and still qualify for emergency aid from the state.
Boulder County, with four of the state's five flood-related fatalities and widespread damage from flooded creeks, still has at least 235 residents unaccounted for.
"Things look better today - the sun is coming out today,'' said Boulder Mayor Matthew Applebaum. "But there is a huge amount of cleanup and repair that people will deal with for a long time. We still haven't entirely gotten a handle" on the damage.
About 1,500 homes were destroyed by flooding, an additional 17,500 were damaged, according to initial estimates.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said it's likely that the death toll could rise as rescue operations expand and intensify.
FEMA is sending two 80-person search-and-rescue teams to assist rescue efforts.
In Estes Park, town manager Frank Lancaster said floods coated the downtown area with mud, washed out many roads and destroyed a large part of the town's sewer system. Raw sewage is flowing into creeks and downstream into the Big Thompson River, which flooded in 1976 and killed over 140 people.
Some roads are so badly destroyed that several neighborhoods, including the Fish Creek area, may have to remain evacuated over the winter. He said residents who have been evacuated cannot return anytime soon, and workers can't even get into the town. Lancaster said some residents have been joking their town has found itself inside the restricted area of the TV show The Dome.
Floods totally destroyed Highway, the main access route to Estes Park at the gateway to the popular Rocky Mountain National Park.
The shortest vehicle route into Estes Park now requires a 140-mile detour. Lancaster said the Estes Park region is heavily dependent on tourism: Its year-round population of about 11,000 swells to 50,000 during the summer and fall.
"The biggest thing we need is to get that road fixed," he said. "We need to get back on the map. We need that road. We don't want to be the tourist town nobody can get to."
Contributing: KUSA-TV in Denver; Associated Press
Gary Strauss and Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY