BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — In the days right after floodwaters rushed through the Rocky Mountain foothills, the helicopter crews that lifted stranded people to safety were greeted like heroes. Nearly a week later, they are often being waved away by stubborn mountain residents who refuse to abandon their homes.
Caleb Liesveld hiked several miles into tiny Pinewood Springs, midway between Longmont and Estes Park, to try to convince his parents to leave. His mother relented, but his father refused. The elder Liesveld was determined to use heavy equipment from the family’s granite quarry to resurrect an old stagecoach road that would let residents get vehicles in and out.
“He wants to be productive, and I don’t think he’d really know what to do with himself off the mountain,” Caleb Liesveld said Tuesday.
In nearby Lyons, a number of residents were working together to clean rotting food out of abandoned restaurant refrigerators.
“We are a community. We all want to stay here and help,” Molly Morton, who also declined rescuers’ advice to leave or face months of isolation, said Tuesday in a phone interview.
Morton, 44, lives with her boyfriend on a hill overlooking Lyons. They have well water and a septic field, and Monday night she got her power back, allowing her to restart her cleaning business.
Several residents of Lyons moved up the hill to camp on her property in tents, bringing suitcases and coolers filled with as much food as they could salvage from refrigerators and freezers. One of the men had been given house keys by many people who did evacuate, and he had been going around to empty refrigerators and freezers to throw away food before it spoils. He’s also been on the lookout for anyone who might try to take advantage of all those empty houses.
By Tuesday, military helicopters had flown nearly 2,400 people and more than 850 pets to safety in what officials said was likely the largest such airlift since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.
The pace of rescues was beginning to taper off. Crews were shifting from emergency airlifts to more systematic searches of flooded areas. Green tags and flags, bold enough to be seen from the air, were being used to mark properties that had already been checked.
The reluctance to leave was evident during an aerial tour for media Tuesday arranged by the National Guard. As a Blackhawk chopper churned over Jamestown, where slabs of highway were stacked in murky water, two Guardsmen leaned out the open sides and waved to people below. Most waved back and went on shoveling rocks from their driveways or gazing at the debris piled in their yards.
Russell Wade, a Federal Emergency Management Administration safety officer, said when the helicopter he was on landed Monday in Left Hand Canyon “we had two groups of people with pets in tow, in kennels, who were actually running for the helicopter itself.”
But after those 18 people were flown to safety, Wade said, the mission changed.
That’s when the crew went back in with maps, going house-to-house to warn residents it was their last chance to leave or face an extended period with no certainty of further assistance from FEMA, the Guard or the scores of other agencies that have been dropping supplies and ferrying people to safety.
Only one person asked to leave, Wade said, and that man did so because he was out of medication. He said the crews took the names of the people who stayed, then left them to their own devices.
Caleb Liesveld said his father, Dan, has only enough fuel to run his equipment for a day or two “so it’s hit or miss” on whether the road can be made passable. He also said he was a bit worried about the prospect of his father, who is 62, staying on alone.
“He’s not in very good health. I would have preferred he come off the mountain. That being said, at least there is someone over there I can trust,” said Caleb, who lives in Loveland but runs the family business in Lyons.
Indeed, trust and a culture of self-sufficiency seemed to drive the decisions by many to stay.
“These people are hardy,” Niko King, a firefighter from Sacramento who serves as a FEMA spokesman and helped out on Katrina, said Tuesday.
Still, he was surprised by the number of people who declined to leave. He said he thinks some people simply do not understand the magnitude of the flooding.
Many people who were without electricity last week missed heavy television coverage with pictures of the crippling damage. Larimer County sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said helicopter crews were showing reluctant residents aerial photographs in an effort to persuade them to leave.
“We’re trying to show them these pictures to convince them this is a serious matter,” he said. “When it’s a nice day and the road around their house may be fine, they don’t understand that maybe two miles down the road there is no road left.”
Caleb Liesveld’s mother said that was the case with her.
“I just didn’t realize the devastation,” Reggie Liesveld said Tuesday, a day after boarding the last helicopter out with her 8-month-old Akita. “Then I saw some news.”
She added: “I wish Dan had come with me.”