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September 16, 2013
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Gypsum-based helicopter crews helping Colorado flood victims

EAGLE COUNTY — Maj. Tony Somogyi turned his tired eyes to the gray, drizzling skies over Colorado’s Front Range as he and the rest of the High Altitude Army Training Site (HAATS) crew pulled on their helmets and went about the business of doing what needed to be done … which is still everything.

Colorado National Guard aviators from the HAATS are among almost two dozen military crews flying rescue missions, or trying to. Heavy rain grounded them for much of Sunday.

It was still raining late Monday morning.

“If we can get out of here we’ll be pulling people out all day long,” said Somogyi, HAATS executive officer.

On Saturday, helicopter crews pulled out more than 600 people. The local HAATS crews rescued 207 people, 45 animals and delivered 7,000 pounds of cargo — water, food and medical supplies.

“This is what the National Guard should be used for,” Somogyi said.

No one balked when they requested approval to fly longer Saturday than their allotted eight hours.

While they were flying rescue missions along the Front Range on Monday, HAATS crews were also running a search and rescue operation near the Frying Pan River, trying to locate a couple lost hunters. That one was their 23rd search and rescue this year, Somogyi said.

Rescuing the rescuers

Back on the Front Range, the rains returned Sunday, and a few Colorado National Guardsman and first responders were added to the list of flood evacuees.

Flood waters in Lyons rose so high and fast that even the half-dozen Light Medium Tactical Vehicles couldn’t ford them. The vehicle is the military’s go-to high-mobility truck for ground search-and-rescue efforts.

When the weather broke briefly on Sunday, aviators headed out to rescue 51 people still stranded in Lyons. Of those 51, there were 15 first responders and guardsmen, waiting out the flood on higher ground.

“People didn’t realize how bad it was, so some of them stayed,” Somogyi said.

In one flight to rescue a husband and wife, the wife had to evacuate because she was running out of medicine. The husband stayed and told guardsmen he’d be fine if they’d bring him some food and water.

He’s on the list, but by Monday morning pilots hadn’t been able to get back there.

The HAATS crews are at Christman Field in Larimer County, part of a Larimer County Sheriff’s Office operation. At 6 p.m. Saturday the Federal Emergency Management Agency took over rescue operations.

“They’re pulling resources from wherever they can get them,” Somogyi said.

Crews are working every second they can, carrying medical supplies and pallets of food and water in one direction, and the people they rescue in the other, Somogyi said.

Seven people have been killed and 1,000 others remain unaccounted for, meaning they have not communicated with friends or relatives, officials said.

More than 19,000 homes have been damaged and parts of roads and bridges in Boulder and Larimar counties have vanished.

Disaster recovery

Local disaster recovery companies hit the Front Range late last week. Steammaster and Service Master have both been there since Friday, working to help people dry out and dig out.

“Our industry is inundated right now. It’s hard to see people going through this,” said Raj Manickam, with Steammaster.

First responders save people and animals, then second responders like recovery companies roll in, Manickam said.

“We get a call from one person in a neighborhood and when we go over three or four people will run out of their homes shouting, ‘Hey! Come to my house!’”

Sometimes they’ll leave equipment with people and show them how to run it, then check back later to see how they’re doing, Manickam said.

Because it’s still raining, it’s hard to pump things out, said Christine Thurston, with Service Master.

There’s so much water that even if it’s pumped out, it sometimes seeps back in through saturated cement, Thurston said.

“There are some communities we still can’t get to,” Thurston said.

A break in the weather

The weather pattern that caused all this is finally moving away, according to forecasts by Accuweather.

Boulder was deluged with more than 10 inches of rain since Sept. 8. That’s 26 times the normal rainfall for the week. Some Colorado communities were hit with twice that amount.

Some areas will still get the afternoon thunderstorms that are common this time of year, but dry air is filtering in from the west, said Elliot Abrams, Accuweather’s chief meteorologist.

The spotty storms can still cause incidents of flash flooding, but most streams and rivers will recede this week, Abrams said.

Heavy rainfall will hit south of us, in Texas and the southern plains, Abrams said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Sep 16, 2013 10:10PM Published Sep 18, 2013 11:50AM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.