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E. coli, oil spills and airlifts: Fallout from Colorado flooding continues

By Greg Botelho and Elwyn Lopez, CNN
September 21, 2013 -- Updated 0218 GMT (1018 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Airlifts continue Friday to evacuate those stranded in mountain areas
  • E. coli is in a town's tap water; official say it must be addressed before residents return home
  • Over 22,000 gallons of oil are released due to floods, in addition to overturned fuel tanks
  • 7 are confirmed dead, while at least 3 are presumed dead due to floods

(CNN) -- Efforts continued Friday to cope with fallout from flooding that''s rocked the Rocky Mountain state -- including more airlifts of stranded residents, discoveries of oil spills and a plea to one town's residents to stay away until E. coli is cleared from their tap water.

The number of confirmed dead throughout Colorado from the flooding that began last week stood at seven Friday, just as it was a day earlier.

Another three people are presumed dead in Larimer County, which straddles the Wyoming border. Another 82 people there were still unaccounted for as of Friday afternoon, county sheriff's office spokesman John Schulz said.

Then there's the sizable toll flooding has had on buildings, roads and bridges, as well as the natural surroundings that in many ways define Colorado.

Railroad tracks washed from their path by floodwaters are seen in Longmont on Thursday, September 19, 2013. Massive flooding has left at least six people dead and damaged thousands of homes around the state. Railroad tracks washed from their path by floodwaters are seen in Longmont on Thursday, September 19, 2013. Massive flooding has left at least six people dead and damaged thousands of homes around the state.
Deadly floods hit Colorado
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"We're about to embark on a rebuilding effort that is truly epic in scale," Gov. John Hickenlooper said Thursday.

This includes oil and gas that leaked in lakes, rivers, streams and more as the floods rolled in.

Colorado's Oil and Gas Association, the industry's trade association, said no fracking operations were underway when the floods hit -- meaning "no fracking fluids, no chemicals associated with fracking, nor equipment were on sites at the time of the flooding."

Yet as of Friday morning -- at which point about 70% of the impacted area still hadn't been assessed -- state authorities were tracking 11 locations with a sheen or other evidence of leaked oil and gas.

This is in addition to at least five sizable releases of oil, including two recently confirmed into the South Platte River near Evans, state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Todd Hartman said Friday.

Four of these instances (the other is still being assessed) involved the release of about 22,000 gallons of oil, according to Hartman.

Moreover, production equipment at one PDC energy location was "largely washed away," though authorities don't yet know how much fuel went with it. And a Colorado Oil and Gas Conversation Commission aerial survey conducted on Thursday found as many as two dozen fuel tanks overturned.

Tap water has been turned off for Lyons, a town of about 2,000 people located some 17 miles north of Boulder that was decimated by the floods, after tests showed the bacteria Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli. While most E. coli strains are harmless and live in healthy humans and animals' intestines, the bacteria can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, pneumonia and other illness when passed through contaminated water or food, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There has been a breach, and we don't want you using any of the water," Lyons town administrator Victoria Simonsen said at a public meeting Thursday. "... It's critical we get that back up and get it disinfected before we would ... want any of you to be back."

Such environmental issues, as well as the personal impact on thousands of families, stem from a torrential rains that fell September 12 in mountainous areas north of Denver -- more than nine inches, in some places. Such downpours persisted for several more days, adding up to 18.1 inches in parts of Boulder County and 15.6 inches in Adams County, Hickenlooper's office said.

The heavy rainfall spurred flash floods that turned picturesque canyons into funnels that deluged towns downstream and left hundreds stranded.

More than a week later, many remained marooned Friday -- cut off from the rest of the world thanks to floodwaters that wiped out roads and bridges.

Rescuers resumed airlifts Friday to pluck out those stuck in their homes, according to Schulz. He didn't have a number of those flown out for the day. But on Thursday, Nick Christensen -- also with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office -- said nearly 1,200 people had been airlifted out of the mountains, with nearly 200 more choosing to stay put.

More than 5,300 people total have been evacuated by floods that impacted nearly 2,000 square miles across 17 countries, Colorado's emergency management office announced in a Friday update.

And, according to preliminary estimates, nearly 1,900 homes have been destroyed and another 16,000 suffered damage. Floods also taking a toll on 50 bridges and 200 miles of road; the cost to start repairs on these have been estimated at $135 million.

Hickenlooper signed an executive order Friday authorizing $20 million in state funds -- on top of $6 already OK'd -- to help deal with the many issues brought about by the floods.

What we learned from Vermont's epic flood

CNN's Matt Smith contributed to this report.

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