LYONS, Colo. (AP) — Heavy rains sent walls of water crashing down mountainsides Thursday in Colorado, cutting off remote towns, forcing the state's largest university to close and leaving at least three people dead across a rugged landscape that included areas blackened by recent wildfires.
After a rainy week, up to 8 more inches fell in an area spanning from the Wyoming border south to the foothills west of Denver. Flooding extended all along the Front Range mountains and into some cities, including Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins, Greeley, Aurora and Boulder.
Numerous roads and highways were washed out or made impassable by floods. Floodwaters poured into homes, and at least a few buildings collapsed in the torrent.
Boulder County appeared to be hardest hit. Sheriff Joe Pelle said the town of Lyons was completely cut off because of flooded roads, and residents were huddling together on higher ground. Although everyone was believed to be safe, the deluge was expected to continue into Friday.
"It is not an ordinary disaster," Pelle said. "All the preparation in the world ... it can't put people up those canyons while these walls of water are coming down."
President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration Thursday night, freeing federal aid and allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
Jason Stillman, 37, said he and his fiancee were forced to evacuate their home in Lyons at about 3 a.m. after a nearby river began to overflow into the street.
Stillman, who was staying at a friend's house on higher ground, went back to his neighborhood in the afternoon and saw how fast-moving water had overturned cars and swept away homes at a nearby trailer park.
"From what I could tell, my house is sitting in Class 3 rapids," he said. When he returns, "it's going to be a sobering experience."
By mid-afternoon, some high-clearance vehicles were on their way to the town, where the Red Cross said about 200 people sought shelter in an elementary school. National Guard rescue helicopters were grounded by fog and low visibility.
To the north, residents along the Big Thompson Canyon in Larimer County, scene of the deadliest flash flood in state history, were also evacuated. The Big Thompson River flooded in 1976 after about a foot of rain fell in just four hours, killing 144 people.
Water roaring across U.S. Highway 36 south of Lyons prevented residents from leaving the Crestview subdivision, so Howard Wachtel arranged for someone to meet him at a roadblock for a ride to a gas station. He needed more gasoline to keep his generator running so he could pump water out of his basement.
"This is more like something out of the Bible. I saw one of my neighbors building an ark," he joked, over the sound of the rushing water.
Firefighters performed a daring rescue of two men trapped in vehicles in Rock Creek, east of Boulder. After rushing water collapsed a section of road, rescuers used a raft to reach the men, broke the car windows and lifted them to safety.
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