September 14, 2013 Updated: September 14, 2013 at 9:50 pm
BOULDER - As rescuers broke through to flood-ravaged Colorado towns, they issued a stern warning Saturday to anyone thinking of staying behind: Leave now or be prepared to endure weeks without electricity, running water and basic supplies.
By mid-day the death toll of the flooding had reached five and a massive rescue effort had ferried hundreds of people stranded by rising floodwaters in many locations. The swollen tributaries of the Platte River delivered the inevitable surge to the Platte itself, forcing evacuations east and downstream of Greeley.
National Guard helicopters and truck convoys carried the admonition into paralyzed canyon communities where thousands of stranded residents were eager to escape the Rocky Mountain foothills. But not everybody was willing to go. Dozens of people in the isolated community of Jamestown wanted to stay to watch over their homes.
President Barack Obama granted a disaster assistance request on Friday from Gov. John Hickenlooper and as a result, active-duty Army helicopters and crews from Fort Carson have supporting evacuation efforts.
About 100 Fort Carson soldiers aided the Colorado National Guard on Saturday during search and rescue operations in areas around the state ravaged by floods. The soldiers with their Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters pulled more than 700 people, including 85 Denver fifth-graders, from flood zones, officials at Fort Carson said.
Authorities made clear that residents who chose not to leave might not get another chance for a while.
"We're not trying to force anyone from their home. We're not trying to be forceful, but we're trying to be very factual and definitive about the consequences of their decision, and we hope that they will come down," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.
Special education teacher Brian Shultz, 38, was torn about leaving his Jamestown home.
"I was thinking about staying. I could have lasted at least a year. I have a lot of training in wilderness survival," he said, adding that he probably had enough beer to last the whole time.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch throughout and there is a 70 percent chance of rain for the Pikes Peak region.
Flood awareness was heightened Saturday afternoon as gray clouds hung around the mountains west of Colorado Springs.
By mid-evening El Paso and Teller counties were virtually unscathed by the light rains.
At about 3:30 p.m. Colorado Springs crews were working near Cheyenne Creek in the southwest part of the city. Two workers monitoring the channel near Cheyenne Boulevard and Evans Avenue said rain hit the area upstream at about 2 p.m. and caused the creek to swell about a half inch in 10 minutes.
The water level eventually went back down.
Condition were much more extreme in the northern part of Colorado.
Across the foothills, rescuers made progress against the floodwaters. But they were still unable to go up many narrow canyon roads that were either underwater or washed out.
On Saturday, the surge of water reached the plains east of the mountains, cutting off more communities and diverting some rescue operations.
Hundreds of people have not been heard from in the flood zone, which has grown to cover portions of an area nearly the size of Connecticut.
Some of those who are unaccounted for may be stranded or injured. Others might have gotten out but not yet contacted friends and relatives, officials said.
Police expected to find more bodies as the full scope of damage emerges.
A woman was missing and presumed dead after witnesses saw floodwaters from the Big Thompson River destroy her home in the Cedar Cove area, Larimer County sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said.
"I expect that we're going to continue to receive reports of confirmed missing and confirmed fatalities throughout the next several days," he said.
By midday Saturday, nearly 800 people had been evacuated, National Guard Master Sgt. Cheresa Theiral said. More than 700 people spent Friday night in shelters, according to the Red Cross.
A helicopter taking Gov. John Hickenlooper on a tour of the flooded areas stopped to pick up four stranded people and their two pets. The governor tweeted about the impromptu rescue, and spokesman Eric Brown confirmed it but did not have any details.
Above the plains of Larimer County, rescue crews planned to fly as many missions as possible while skies were clear. Crews used inflatable boats to pick up families and pets from farmhouses. Some evacuees on horseback had to be escorted to safe ground.
Near Greeley, 35 miles east of the foothills, broad swaths of farmland had become lakes, and the raging South Platte and Poudre rivers surrounded more homes.
For those awaiting an airlift, Guardsmen dropped food, water and other essentials into the winding, narrow canyons. With supplies dwindling, residents of Lyons barbecued their food before it spoiled.
The Gazette contributed to this report