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Originally published September 19, 2013 at 5:57 PM | Page modified September 20, 2013 at 6:32 AM

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Colorado flood evacuees return home to muck and ruin

The number of people unaccounted for in Colorado’s flooding has plunged to about 140.

The Associated Press

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LYONS, Colo. — Residents displaced by last week’s flooding in the Colorado canyon town of Lyons were allowed past National Guard roadblocks Thursday to find a scene of tangled power lines, downed utility poles, mud-caked homes and vehicles, and work crews furiously clearing debris and trying to restore power, water and sewer service.

Under tight security, hundreds of Lyons evacuees were given two hours to check on their homes and leave. On Sept. 9, the St. Vrain River destroyed dozens of homes, a trailer park, two bridges and sections of the only road in and out of the picturesque town of 1,600 framed by sandstone cliffs.

Evacuees had to clear several roadblocks to get in. Boulder County sheriff’s deputies roamed the community, checking residents’ IDs.

Bob Ruthrauff, 84, found his home intact but was repelled by the odor of rotting food when he opened his door. He spent his two hours getting rid of the spoilage but was grateful. “We’re very lucky. We came home to a dry home,” Ruthrauff said.

Brenna Willis found huge mounds of mud in her yard and a foot of stagnant water inside her house. In her shed, two mountain bikes were covered with muck. Her winter clothes were muddy rags.

“It’s frustrating. I want to start drying the house out because everything’s wet. It’s wet in there and it’s starting to smell,” Willis said.

The body of another flood victim also was found near Lyons, bringing the flood death toll to seven. Three people in neighboring Larimer County were missing and presumed dead.

Boulder County authorities identified the latest victim as Gerald Boland, 80, a retired teacher and basketball coach. Neighbors said Boland took his wife to safety Sept. 12 but defied a mandatory evacuation order and tried to go back to their home amid the flooding.

The number of people unaccounted for has plunged to about 140, thanks to rescues and restored communications.

Authorities were studying how to accommodate the thousands of displaced, now that search-and-rescue operations have tapered off.

“Right now we’re just moving from the lifesaving mode to the life-sustaining mode,” said Kevin Kline, director of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, describing the transition from rescues to getting people into safe housing.

In a sign of things to come, Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park — a key supply route to the flood-ravaged town of Estes Park — was temporarily closed because of snow Thursday. The high-elevation road normally shuts down in October for the winter.

Officials urged residents in stranded towns to leave before the snows hit but acknowledged hundreds are determined to stay.

The flooding also shut down hundreds of natural-gas and oil wells in the state’s main petroleum-producing region and triggered at least two spills, temporarily suspending a multibillion-dollar drilling frenzy and sending inspectors into the field to gauge the extent of pollution.

Besides the possible environmental impact, flood damage to roads, railroads and other infrastructure will affect the region’s energy production for months. Analysts warn that images of flooded wellheads from the booming Wattenberg Field will increase public pressure to impose restrictions on drilling techniques such as fracking.

Two spills were reported by Anadarko Petroleum: 13,500 gallons along the St. Vrain River near Platteville and 5,250 gallons into the South Platte River near Milliken, federal and state regulators said. The St. Vrain feeds into the South Platte, which flows across Colorado’s plains and into Nebraska.

The environmental damage still was being assessed, but officials in Weld County, where the spills took place, said the oil was just one among a variety of contaminants caught up in floodwaters washing through communities along the Rocky Mountain foothills.

“Everybody is (talking about) oil and gas, but our concern from the county is raw sewage,” spokeswoman Jennifer Finch said.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, found some tanks that shifted or moved off pads but said most tanks and well pads were intact.

The state’s northern plains took the brunt of the flooding after record rains pounded the Rocky Mountain foothills to the west. The area is home to Colorado’s top oil patch, the Denver-Julesburg Basin, which includes the Wattenberg Field. The once largely rural area has become more populated as the state has grown. As drilling has moved closer to homes and schools, many residents have been pushing for more government oversight of drillers.

Amtrak, meanwhile, said its Chicago-to-San Francisco California Zephyr train will be detoured through early October because of track damage in the Front Range foothills.

Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, are expected to survey recovery efforts in Colorado on Monday.

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