Helicopter rescue teams were on standby early Monday after bad weather prevented them from reaching more than 1,200 people still trapped across Colorado, five days into record flooding which has killed five people and wrecked 17,500 homes.
The disaster has prompted the largest aerial response in the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina. Helicopter teams from the National Guard and other agencies were waiting for conditions to improve before they could take off. About 15,000 people are in the evacuation zone.
“There are air operations planned for today but it is still raining so we will have to assess that in the morning to see if they can go ahead,” Micki Trost, spokeswoman for the Colorado Office for Emergency Management, said early Monday. “Much of the state is still very much in the response and recovery stage and at the moment we are hoping for the rain to stop so we can start looking at what the total damage is."
Search and rescue teams from Utah, Nebraska, Nevada, Missouri and California were already in Colorado or en route to join the rescue effort.
The flooding has affected an area almost the size of Delaware.
Shane DelGrosso, of Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, said Sunday that around 500 people had been rescued. However about 1,200 were still unaccounted for across the state, according to officials.
Governor John Hickenlooper is hopeful that most of the missing would be found alive.
“We have got to remember a lot of these folks lost their cell phones and landlines several days ago so I’m hopeful that the vast majority of these people are safe and sound," he said. "But we do not have any illusions that there could well be more casualties."
The Colorado Office for Emergency Management announced Sunday that 12 counties had been added to the presidential disaster declaration. With three counties already on the list, it meant the number of Coloradans living in counties eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance rose from 1.2 million to more than four million.
In Larimer County alone, 16 helicopters from the National Guard and other agencies were on standby and prepared to help with the rescue operation, said Heather Kaump, emergency communications officer at Larimer County Sheriff's Office. She said officials were hopeful a full aerial rescue would go ahead Monday.
"The weather is supposed to break so hopefully the helicopters will be able to carry out there work," she said.
Rain was expected to taper off by Monday afternoon, National Weather Service meterologiest Kyle Fredin told Reuters.
Some areas along Colorado's urban corridor have measured 17 inches of rain in the six days.
Firefighters from California were among emergency services joining the rescue efforts from other states. Two firefighters from Los Angeles were due to fly to Colorado to set up an alert system which would allow their colleagues in California to mobilize and join them quickly if needed.
In Boulder County, search and rescue crews conducted house-to-house searches for stranded people.
U.S. Army and National Guard troops have rescued 1,750 people cut off by washed-out roads in the mountain canyons of Boulder and Larimer counties, Army spokesman Major Earl Brown said in a statement.
The new counties which can apply for FEMA assistance comprise almost 2.8 million people. They are Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Clear Creek, Denver, Fremont, Jefferson, Morgan, Logan, Pueblo, Washington and Weld counties. Boulder, El Paso and Larimer counties – with a combined population of almost 1.2 million -- were already eligible.
Some 17,494 homes have been damaged and 1,502 wrecked in the flood, according to an estimate from the Colorado Office of Emergency Management.