There's no real reason for us to leave. We're going to play it day by day. We'll monitor it, but we're pretty optimistic things will be OK. —Steve Abernathy
BOULDER, Colo. — On one side of the street was a muddy driveway that needed hosing off. Across the street, however, there was a gulch and a river where a driveway once stood.
As Utah Task Force 1 — part of the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System — went door-to-door in the mountains of Boulder County Monday, crew members found that there was no rhyme or reason as to which structures were affected by the epic rains, mud and rock slides that have affected the area since Thursday, and those that were barely scratched.
The 75-member team has been in Boulder County since Friday helping flood victims and informing those who had not evacuated isolated mountain areas that they were there providing what may be their last opportunity to leave. Many of the areas have been cut off because of washed-out roads and bridges and the lack of electricity and running water.
Sunday, the team found many damaged homes in the mountains above Boulder in Lefthand Canyon and met residents that needed help getting out. On Monday, the ground crews were sent to the Boulder Heights area near the top of the canyon. Most of the homes there remained intact. There were several flooded basements, according to residents, but no major structural damage.
Still, the Utah team performed assigned tasks by going to each door and documenting the houses by GPS. They noted the houses that were vacant and counted how many people and pets were inside other homes, informing residents that rescue teams may not return again for a long time if they chose to stay.
Twenty-one Utah Task Force 1 members flew to the high Boulder foothills Monday after weather grounded them on Sunday.
The team was flown by a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter and performed rescues and search activities, said Task Force commander Keith Bevan. They assisted in loading people who had been isolated because of washed out roads and bridges onto the helicopter, which then flew them back to the Boulder Municipal Airport where services were made available for the displaced residents.
Nearly 2,000 residents have been airlifted to safety since Saturday in Boulder County alone. On Monday, however, most residents checked by Utah rescuers said they wanted to stay.
"There's no real reason for us to leave," homeowner Steve Abernathy told a crew checking his house. "We're going to play it day by day. We'll monitor it, but we're pretty optimistic things will be OK."
As the Utah Task Force 1 members approached each house, every homeowner initially seemed hesitant, and worried that the team was there to force them out. But the task force members approached each house with a smile and let residents know they could stay if they wanted.
"You can't force them out. It's not a mandatory evacuation. Most of them don't want to leave their homes. They don't see the problem. They've got food, they've got power, they've got utilities right now, so there's no reason for them to leave," said task force member Robert Conder.
At one home, no one answered the door even though the Utah team could see people inside. Crews are required to check for possible structural damage and look inside the windows of each house to see if everything looks OK. If there are no obvious signs of destruction or potential problems, the team documents the house and places a sticker or ribbon on the structure to show they've been there.
Some residents, however, expressed frustration that the only option they've been given is evacuation. Some who still have intact homes said they believe it would be more beneficial if the rescue crews would bring food and medicine up the canyon with them rather than telling residents to leave the area. Once residents pass certain street barricades, they aren't allowed to return to their neighborhoods.
Dee Greenwood's garage and crawl space under her home has flooded twice, and she has small streams of water coming down the hillside in back of her house where there previously had never been any water.
But she said she was not leaving.
"Why would I go down there? What's down there that I don't have up here? I mean, they're in worse shape down there. They're in the flats. It's going to take longer for it to drain down there than it does up here. What's the point of going down there? What am I going to do, rent a hotel? They're all jammed up. Impose upon my friends? They might be flooded. So where am I going to go?" she asked rhetorically.
Greenwood said her husband had been "trying to get up here the past four days and they won't let him up. And he has gas and batteries — and a portable DVD player for me so I can have some entertainment."
"I feel like a prisoner," she said. "Life is basically just at a standstill."
Fortunately, she said, her neighbors have rallied together.
"We've all been working together, doing potlucks. just communicating with one another, being there, supporting one another."
Carole Bruzaga and her friends tried to convince search and rescue workers to allow just one designated person to go down the canyon and return with supplies for everyone. She said many of the residents of Boulder Heights whose homes were spared believe it would be counter-productive to take up hotel rooms that could instead be used by those who are truly homeless.
"We're OK. We need resources. We know there are others in greater need," she said.
On Sunday, the Utah teams hiked in the rain an estimated 14 miles and a couple of thousand feet in elevation, though mud, dirt and water, going door-to-door. While Monday started off with a steady drizzle throughout all of Boulder, by the afternoon the clouds had broken and unlike the day before, the search and rescue teams worked in warm, sunny conditions Monday afternoon.
By midday, the team had cleared about 85 homes.
The canyon road leading to Boulder Heights was accessible by regular vehicles. But there were several spots where part of the road had collapsed and mudslides had taken large trees down with them.
Below the community, near the bottom of the canyon, the crew from Nebraska Task Force 1 went door-to-door in a more heavily damaged area along Olde Stage Road and the appropriately named Wagonwheel Gap Road, where the river had wiped out the road that used to be there, creating a large gap and cutting off access for those on the other side.
Along Olde Stage Road, the water still flowed down the street and down some driveways Monday. Several homes against the mountainside now had boulders where their long driveways once sat. One property had three of its vehicles all pushed together by the roaring water.
At other homes, cars sat untouched in driveways. But part of the driveway was now replaced by a gulch, making it impossible for residents to get their vehicles out.
Utah is one of five urban search and rescue teams from across the U.S. called to assist Colorado. City, county and state officials have estimated that it could be weeks, or months — and years in some areas — before it returns to normal.
Utah Task Force 1 consists of specially trained firefighters and paramedics from the Salt Lake City Fire Department, Unified Fire Authority and the Park City Fire Department.