Colorado Search and Rescue: Helicopters Grounded

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Helicopter search teams have been grounded until clouds lift in Colorado, where more than 1,000 people are unaccounted for following massive flooding.

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The search teams are part of a coordinated effort between state personnel and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is sending two 80-person search-and-rescue teams to assist with continuing rescues in Larimer County and providing aid to other communities following massive flooding that began Wednesday along the Front Range. Large military vehicles were attempting to get up the mountain roads, but the key component of the search effort, helicopter crews flying out of Boulder, were suspended early Monday.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told ABC's "Good Morning America" that 16 or 17 helicopters were to resume searching for stranded residents Monday. Noting that many people have been without any kind of phone or Internet communications since the middle of last week, he says the focus of the effort is to make sure everyone in harm's way gets "out of there."

Emergency officials say four people are confirmed dead and more than 1,200 people have not been heard from. Hickenlooper says while the death toll is expected to rise, he's hopeful that the vast majority of those people are "safe and sound."

Residents are being encouraged to use white sheets, reflective mirrors, flares and signal fires to attract the attentions of the pilots and told to have a bag of medications, clothes, and other important items ready for when help arrives.

Elsewhere, emergency officials say at least 1,000 people in Larimer County were still waiting to be rescued from the floodwaters, but adverse weather conditions had grounded helicopters and supply drops.

Type 2 Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team commander Shane Del Grosso said Sunday that many people had made contact with requests for evacuations, but authorities were in a “waiting game” due to the rain.

Nearly 15 inches of rain had been dumped on parts of Colorado since Monday. After clear weather gave rescuers a break Saturday, Sunday brought more rain — up to 4 inches of rain in Larimer County — and low-hanging fog.

At one point Sunday afternoon, 51 Colorado National Guardsmen, first responders, and civilians had to be rescued when the tactical trucks they were riding in were halted by rising waters in the town of Lyons, Colo. Thirty-six members of the group were picked up in helicopters by U.S. Army aviators before the weather turned bad enough to halt the rescue operation. The remaining 15, all first responders and Guardsmen, were waiting out the flood on higher ground, according to a statement from the Colorado National Guard.

The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said 16 helicopters had been brought in to assist rescue efforts, but only ground crews were able to operate Sunday. Air crews were hoping to provide airlifts to residents stranded in Longmont, Fort Collins and Weld County.

The flooding has impacted parts of 15 counties in Colorado. Emergency management officials said 17,494 homes were damaged, 1,502 homes were destroyed and 11,700 people were ordered evacuated.

As of Sunday night, 1,253 remain unaccounted for, but officials said the number fluctuates as stranded residents re-establish communication with family, friends or authorities.

Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Micki Trost told the Associated Press that the numbers were reported by affected counties and compiled by the state agency.

The Larimer County Sheriff’s office said that FEMA is bringing in two 80-person search and rescue teams to help with operations.

Rescue teams are warning people in some Colorado towns isolated by the flooding against remaining there, telling them that they could face weeks without basic supplies, including running water and electricity.

Helicopters and truck convoys of the National Guard carried the admonition Saturday into paralyzed canyon communities where thousands of stranded residents were eager to escape the Rocky Mountain foothills. But not everybody was willing to go. Dozens of people in hard hit Jamestown wanted to stay to watch over their homes.

Authorities made clear that residents who chose not to leave might not get another chance for a while. Rescuers won't go back for people who insist on staying, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.

"We're not trying to force anyone from their home. We're not trying to be forceful, but we're trying to be very factual and definitive about the consequences of their decision, and we hope that they will come down," Pelle said.

The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said Sunday it had a report of an 80-year old woman in Cedar Cove who was injured and unable to leave her home when floodwaters were rising. When friends returned with help for the woman, the home was reportedly washed away.

Another 60-year-old woman in the area was reporting missing and presumed dead on Saturday. If confirmed, the two deaths would bring the total number of fatalities to six since Wednesday.

"I expect that we're going to continue to receive reports of confirmed missing and confirmed fatalities throughout the next several days," Larimer County sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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