BOULDER, Colo. — Weather-weary Coloradans faced another day of nature-driven mayhem Thursday as pelting rain and flash flooding wreaked havoc statewide, washing out roads, closing businesses, isolating mountain towns and causing at least three deaths.
The fourth straight day of rain dumped more than 7 inches within hours Thursday morning, turning a state normally known for difficult winters into a late-summer nightmare. Swollen rivers, submerged cars and mudslides stranded residents on rooftops.
The rustic communities of Lyons and Jamestown were cut off, with businesses flooding and residents keeping vigil inside their homes. The National Weather Service warned of an "extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation," and Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a disaster declaration.
Images posted on social media showed a state at the mercy of Mother Nature: Roads cut in half by rising floodwaters, upside-down cars washed downstream like children's toys; residents riding bikes through raging waters that covered their tires; walls of water pouring off pedestrian bridges like a western Niagara Falls.
One death was reported in Jamestown, one in Colorado Springs and one in Boulder.
Along the hilly streets west of the University of Colorado-Boulder campus, residents worked in drenching rain to build makeshift dams, using sheets of plywood, upturned coffee tables and bags of garden mulch to try to divert the rushing water.
Oliver D'Orazio got a call from his panicked girlfriend, Hannah Tighe, a little after noon. "She was freaking out," he said, with her basement apartment flooded and water still rising.
When D'Orazio arrived, he was not prepared for what he saw: "It was like a river coming down Seventh Street."
Tighe, a University of Colorado junior, had been visiting her parents in Denver on Wednesday. When she got back to Boulder, water was blocking her front door. She and her parents slipped in the side door and began hauling out furniture and belongings.
"I was just in shock," she said.
In nearby Lyons, the flooded St. Vrain River cut off the town. Bob Okun thought he would take the highway into Boulder to go to work but stopped at the sight of rising water.
"Wow," he thought, "there really is no way out."
For Thursday and probably at least two more days, he and his family planned to hunker down, live off the groceries in their pantry and boil water because authorities warn that the town's water supply is not safe to drink.
"I guess we're stuck," he said.
Sue Wright, owner of the five-room Aspen Leaf Motel in Lyons, said she was fully booked by residents who had to flee their homes. She said three high-clearance armored vehicles had arrived in the mountain community by Thursday afternoon. The Red Cross said about 200 people had taken shelter in a school there.
"You can't get in or out of town — the only people who can get here are the National Guard," Wright said.
South Boulder resident Sherri Parker said she took her daughter to Barnes & Noble late Wednesday
under a steady drizzle. Half an hour later, when she emerged from the store, there were 8 inches of standing water in the parking lot.
Her husband, Shawn, said the town's emergency sirens sounded about 11:30 p.m. and he got an urgent alert on his cellphone that said: "Wall of water coming down Boulder Canyon. Stay away from Boulder Creek. Seek higher ground immediately."
"The city of Boulder is just overwhelmed with water," said Barbara Halpin, a spokeswoman for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. "I've heard from people who say they have lived here for 25 years and have never seen anything like it."
Boulder artist David Grojean said his studio was flooded under 5 inches of water. "My artwork is all around," said the painter, 65. "I had to get paintings off the ground and onto tables. Some got wet. None seem to be destroyed. But it's still raining."
TV news reported foothill residents stranded in trees and huddled on rooftops, with emergency workers unable to reach them. There were reports of 8-foot debris walls with more than 6 feet of water behind them. Yet a few hardy souls stood in the rain, filling bottles with silt and, they hoped, gold.
The once-tranquil creek that snakes through Boulder resembled the Mississippi River. Boulder Creek flowed at 1,800 cubic feet per second, nearly 10 times its usual 200 feet per second, said Sarah Huntley, a spokeswoman for the city. Overnight, it was roaring at 3,200 cubic feet per second.
The creek flooded a recreation area with rushing rapids that overturned picnic tables, submerged small trees and bushes and approached the bottom of the park's volleyball nets.
"We're dealing with a disaster that is broad in scope and damage," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle told reporters. "We are likely to find more victims. We're bracing for the worst."
Bronson Hilliard, a spokesman for the University of Colorado-Boulder, said 351 graduate students and staff members were evacuated overnight from graduate and family housing apartments on campus adjacent to Boulder Creek. An additional 13 underclassmen were evacuated from two other residence halls.
The university was closed Thursday and will remain shut Friday. Students living on campus were urged to stay in their dorm rooms.
And the rain kept falling, the rushing water given free passage across forestland scarred by recent wildfires.
A somber Sheriff Pelle voiced trepidation about Friday.
"It doesn't look very good," he said of the storm. "It's far from over."
Deam, a special correspondent, reported from Boulder. Glionna reported from Las Vegas. Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun