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Heavy rains hamper attempts to rescue at least 1,000 stranded Coloradans

Chris Schneider / AP

Eric Machmuller, Brian Winn, Mitch Machmuller, and Pat Machmuller, steer a boat down a street to help residents gather pets and belongings from their flooded homes in Longmont, Colo.

The death toll continued to rise Sunday in flood-ravaged Colorado — as even more heavy rains hindered efforts to rescue at least 1,000 stranded residents, officials said.

“Mother Nature’s not cooperating with us today and currently we are not flying,” said Shane DelGrosso, incident commander of rocky mountain incident management team at an afternoon press conference.

He said that about 500 people were rescued on Saturday, but at least 1,000 people remained trapped with no way to get out on Sunday.

Some 17,494 homes have been damaged and 1,502 wrecked in the flood, according to an estimate from the Colorado Office of Emergency Management.

Sixteen helicopters were prepared to deploy in Larimer County but would not take flight until “weather allows them to do so,” said Nick Christensen, executive officer at the Larimer Country Sheriff’s Department.

“Tomorrow (Monday) if we get that opportunity … we have the horsepower to hit it hard,” DelGrosso said. “We need a change in the weather pattern to get a break.”

The delay in rescue operations came after officials had warned that residents who insist on staying in their homes might not get another chance to leave for some time because rescue teams might not have the ability to return for those who change their minds. 

"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 on Saturday.

The grim toll rose to five people confirmed dead in the flooding, on Sunday , with more than 1,250 people unaccounted for statewide, according to Micki Trost, spokeswoman at the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Bu that number is likely to fluctuate, said Trost. Officials are unsure which of those who are unaccounted for are stranded, injured or just have not had the chance to reach out to family and friends because of poor communications in the area.

“We do anticipate that there will be additional fatalities,” said Christensen. “Hopefully it’s not an overwhelming number.”

Two of the five people confirmed dead were identified Sunday as 19-year-olds, Wiyanna Nelson and Wesley Quinlan, according to NBC affiliate, KUSA. The teens were in a car with two other friends but left the vehicle after it plunged into floodwaters, officials said. Their bodies were discovered on a road in Boulder.

An 80-year-old woman and a 60-year-old woman in Larimer County are missing and presumed dead after floodwaters from the Big Thomson River rushed through their houses, according to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.

President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster in the flood-ridden state, the White House announced on Sunday. The declaration allows Boulder County home owners and business owners who are suffering from flood devastation to receive federal funds, including low cost loans and grants for temporary housing.

President Obama also called Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to offer condolences, praise first responders and personally promise federal support.

Meanwhile, the CU-Boulder campus is slated to reopen Monday for classes and business operations, Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano announced late Sunday.

The total area affected is bounded in the north by Fort Collins, the south by Colorado Springs, the west by the foothills of The Rockies, and the east by the Denver suburbs, officials said.

Meanwhile, heavy rain in Boulder continued on Sunday prompting the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning through late afternoon.

A small amount of rainfall could cause flash flooding and mudslides because the ground has been saturated since Wednesday, according to weather.com. "The problem now is relatively little additional rainfall may trigger additional flash flooding," said weather.com senior meteorologist Jonathan Erdman.

In Larimer alone, 482 people are unaccounted for, Christensen said. Some of the presumed missing people might be a result of cross referencing issues among several lists, he said.

“We’ll work hard to whittle down that 482,” said Christensen.

He did concede, “We do anticipate that there will be additional fatalities,” adding, “Hopefully it’s not an overwhelming number.”

Two 80-person search and rescue FEMA crews will disperse on Monday in Larimer to thoroughly search structures individually, DelGrosso said.

“What’s hard to describe until you’ve been there … and you smell it and you feel it … river developed out of nowhere,” Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said. “There’s the potential that people got caught up where it felt safe,” he added.

National Guardsmen in helicopters and truck convoys also warned residents in paralyzed communities that their refusal to leave could be perilous.

Nevertheless, dozens in hard hit Jamestown wanted to stay to watch over their homes.

"I was thinking about staying," special education teacher Brian Shultz, 38, told the AP.  "I have a lot of training in wilderness survival."

He probably had enough beer to last the whole time, he added.

"The people right by the river, their houses were washed away," said Shultz . "Other people thought their houses were going to be OK, and then they started to go. It's just really devastating."

In areas experiencing a reprieve from the flooding, residents got a chance to evaluate their very wet homes.

The Poudre River in Laporte swept through Wendy Clark’s home but has since receded.

"This mud smells disgusting," said Clark. "I don't know how long that's going to be around."

Additional reporting by NBC News' Tracy Connor, Miguel Alamaguer and Daniella Silva, and The Associated Press.



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