LYONS, Colorado (AP) — By air and by land, the rescue of hundreds of Coloradoans stranded by epic mountain flooding was accelerating as food and water supplies ran low, while thousands more were driven from their homes on the plains as debris-filled rivers became muddy seas inundating towns and farms miles from the Rockies.
For the first time since the harrowing mountain floods began Wednesday, Colorado got its first broad view of the devastation — and the reality of what is becoming a long-term disaster is setting in. The flooding has affected parts of a 4,500-square-mile (11,655-square-kilometer) area.
National Guard choppers were evacuating 295 people — plus pets — from the mountain hamlet of Jamestown, which was isolated by flooding that scoured the canyon the town sits in.
Helicopters continued to fly in and out late into the night. National Guard truck convoys to rescue residents of the town of Lyons to the northeast resumed Saturday morning and helicopters were headed back to the mountain communities.
The Guard had evacuated a total of 518 people by ground by Saturday morning, and additional helicopters were going to be put in the air to aid with the rescue efforts, Master Sgt. Cheresa Theiral said.
"We're going wherever we're being tasked," Theiral said. "We have the ability to go whenever, wherever."
The outlook for anyone who'd rather stay is weeks without power, cellphone service, water or sewer.
"Essentially, what they were threatening us with is, 'If you stay here, you may be here for a month,'" said 79-year-old Dean Hollenbaugh, who was evacuated by Chinook helicopter from Jamestown, northwest of Boulder.
For those awaiting an airlift, Guardsmen dropped food, water and other supplies in Jamestown and other small towns in the winding, narrow canyons that dot the Rocky Mountain foothills.
Thousands of evacuees sought shelter from mountain communities to downriver towns where the rivers were still swelling and spilling over their banks Saturday.
One was Mary Hemme, 62, who displayed a pair of purple socks as she sat outside the Lifebridge Christian Church in Longmont. They're a memento of the more than 30 hours she spent in an elementary school in the flood-stricken mountain town of Lyons. Many evacuees — eventually rescued by National Guard trucks — got socks because most of them had wet feet, Hemme said.
She recalled the sirens blared at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.
"Mary we have to go, this place is flooding," she recalled her friend Kristen Vincent saying as they clambered out of a trailer.
Soon the trailer, like others in the park where she was staying, was submerged.
Hemme said she walked up a hill at daybreak and surveyed the trailer park.
"The most terrifying thing was when I climbed up on that cliff and looked down. It was the meanest, most — I mean, no wonder it carries cars like toys," Hemme said. "I was so afraid that I was going to die, that water came so fast."
The days-long rush of water from higher ground has killed four people and turned towns on Colorado's expansive eastern plains into muddy swamps. Crews used inflatable boats to rescue families and pets from stranded farmhouses. Some evacuees on horseback had to be escorted to safe ground.
Boulder County officials said Friday night that the number of people unaccounted for had risen to 172, according to local television and newspaper reports. The officials said earlier that the unaccounted for figure doesn't necessarily represent missing people.
"It means we haven't heard back from them," county spokesman James Burrus said.
The city of Boulder reported late Friday that the rushing waters had caused "a significant breach in its main wastewater pipeline" to the treatment plant, but officials said it would not affect drinking water.
Near Greeley, some 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of the foothills, broad swaths of farmland had become lakes, the Greeley Tribune reported.
Hundreds of roads were closed or damaged by floodwaters, and a 70-mile (113-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 25 was closed from Denver to the Wyoming line.
Rocky Mountain National Park closed Friday, its visitors forced to leave via the 60-mile (96-kilometer) Trail Ridge Road to the west side of the Rockies.
It will be weeks, if not months, before a semblance of normalcy returns to Lyons, a gateway community to the park, where 2,500 residents were being evacuated. The town, surrounded by sandstone cliffs, consisted of six islands Friday as residents barbecued their food before it spoiled. Several people set up a tent camp on a hill.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said recovery would be long and expensive — similar to wildfires the state is more familiar with.
"Please be patient. This is an unprecedented event," Pelle said.
Neary reported from Longmont. Associated Press writers David Martin in Boulder, Mead Gruver in Fort Collins, and Colleen Slevin and Thomas Peipert in Denver contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
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