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Thursday February 11th, 2016 8:08AM

Colorado evacuees return to find more heartbreak

By The Associated Press
HYGIENE, Colo. (AP) -- Clear skies and receding floodwaters have allowed many Colorado flood victims to return home to submerged houses and upended vehicles with the realization that rebuilding their lives will take months. And rescue crews said Tuesday that emergency calls were dropping after they rescued hundreds more people stranded by floodwaters.

As many as eight people were believed to be dead, according to state officials, and hundreds were still missing. But that number has been decreasing, with the state's latest count below 650 people. Officials hoped the number of missing would continue declining as the stranded got in touch with families.

The death toll was expected to increase but officials said it could take weeks or even months to search through flood-ravaged areas looking for people who died.

By Tuesday, the number of emergency airlifts was tapering off and helicopter crews methodically searched for those who still need help in the areas that remained inaccessible by ground. More than 2,300 people and 850 pets have been airlifted to safety by Tuesday, according to the Colorado National Guard.

"They've kind of transitioned from that initial response to going into more of a grid search," Colorado National Guard Lt. Skye Robinson said.

Residents of Hygiene, a small community east of the Rocky Mountain foothills, returned home Monday to find homes destroyed and mud blanketing roads. The St. Vrain Creek left trucks in ditches and carried items as far as 2 miles downstream.

"My own slice of heaven, and it's gone," Bill Marquedt said of his home.

Residents set to sweeping, shoveling and rinsing, but the rebuilding task was overwhelming.

"What now? We don't even know where to start," said Genevieve Marquez. "It's not even like a day by day or a month thing."

"I want to think that far ahead but it's a minute by minute thing at this point," she added.

State emergency officials offered a first glimpse at the scope of the damage, with counties reporting about 19,000 homes either damaged or destroyed. Those preliminary figures are certain to change as the waters continue to recede and roads are cleared to allow crews to access more areas.

In the mountain towns, major roads were washed away or covered by mud and rock slides. Hamlets like Glen Haven were reduced to debris and key infrastructure like gas lines and sewers systems were destroyed.

Hundreds of homes around Estes Park, next to Rocky Mountain National Park, could be unreachable and uninhabitable for up to a year, town administrator Frank Lancaster said.

The town of Lyons was almost completely abandoned. Emergency crews gave the few remaining residents, mostly wandering Main Street looking for status updates, a final warning to leave.

Most of Lyons' trailer parks were completely destroyed. One angry man was throwing his possessions one by one into the river rushing along one side of his trailer on Sunday, watching the brown water carry them away while he drank a beer.
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