DENVER (Reuters) - Disaster teams in flood-ravaged foothills of Colorado narrowed their search on Friday for 82 people still unaccounted for a week and a half after torrential rains began, and officials said some of the missing would most likely be added to the death toll.
The search was focused in Larimer County, an epicenter of flooding that swept the eastern slopes of the Rockies and prairie farmlands downstream, causing property losses across 17 counties estimated at $2 billion, including the destruction of at least 1,800 homes.
The confirmed death toll from the flooding stood at seven people on Friday, plus three others who were listed as missing and presumed dead after their Larimer County homes were washed away. Their bodies have yet to be recovered.
Another 82 people remained unaccounted for - down from about 140 a day earlier - in largely rural Larimer County, northwest of Denver, the only county reporting residents whose whereabouts remain unknown in the floods’ aftermath.
That number has fallen significantly from the estimated 1,200 people who were unaccounted for statewide days ago, as families were reunited, evacuees registered at shelters and rescue teams reached areas initially cut off by the floods.
“They expect that list will continue to get whittled down over the next couple of days” as search teams press on, Larimer County sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said.
“We certainly expect that a number of people on that list will be listed as missing rather than unaccounted for and will turn up dead. We hope that will be a low number.”
County officials said disaster crews searching homes and businesses door to door in flood-stricken areas plan to check the address of each person on the unaccounted-for roster over the next few days.
Meanwhile, special teams with search dogs combed for a third day through a large debris field near the town of Loveland in the Big Thompson River canyon, site of a 1976 flood disaster that claimed more than 140 lives.
Schulz said the area was littered with wreckage from buildings, vehicles, hunks of roadway, boulders and trees washed downhill when floodwaters roared off rain-soaked mountainsides last week through canyons that carried torrents of runoff into populated areas below.
Some 12,000 people were initially left stranded across the flood zone. Nearly all have since been rescued, many of them by helicopter airlifts or hauled out in military vehicles.
A relative handful of residents have opted to stay put rather than join the evacuation, despite the fact that sewage, fresh running water and other utility services in their areas have been knocked out by the disaster.
In the small Weld County town of Evans, at the confluence of three rivers swollen by runoff from a solid week of rains that started September 9, a mobile home park was left in shambles and partially submerged in stagnant, fetid water teaming with flies.
Trailers were swept off their foundations, one carried into a muddy field about a quarter mile away from its lot. Telephone poles stood listing from the greenish muck, wires dropping in the air. One woman seated in a plastic lawn chair beside her wrecked home sobbed quietly as she talked on a cell phone.
Johnnie Kibel, 30, who lives nearby but arrived at the mobile home park last Friday to check on his parents just as floodwaters were swamping the park, recounted looking up to see a “wall of water coming at me.”
“It looked like the tide was coming in,” he said.
Floodwaters spread out onto the plains east of the Rockies, inundating farmland along the engorged South Platte River as well as oil and gas production sites in the region, creating a toxic stew of industrial contaminants and wastewater.
Farmers in the northeastern corner of the state were particularly worried about their No. 1 cash crop, corn, which could be lost if water that has swamped low-lying prairie fields fails to drain away before the October harvest.
Transportation in the region has been hit hard with extensive damage to highways, bridges and even some railroads.
Reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andrew Hay