(BOULDER, Colo.) — On the first day of flood rescues in Larimer County, Colo., last week, a trained National Guard helicopter crew descended onto a mountain and Sgt. Nick Cornelius lowered himself in a hoist basket to the ground, where he found a family of three and their pet German shepherd.
Cornelius took the humans up first into the hovering chopper, and then descended again for the dog, part of this week’s statewide rescue effort dubbed “no pets left behind” by one National Guard spokesman.
“After (Hurricane) Katrina, FEMA and first responders realized that people are more hesitant to leave if they can’t take their pets. So if a person is going to leave only with their dog, we’re going to take that pet, whether it’s a dog or chicken or goat,” Cornelius told ABC News.
Pet rescues have numbered in the thousands during the Colorado flood crisis that began last week with torrential downpours in the mountains there. National Guard chopper crews have rescued nearly 900 family pets from mountainous regions, including dogs, cats, chickens, goats, birds, and a tank full of fish.
“The governor made it very clear, that it would be carte blanche to do anything we could to get citizens help, including transfer of animals and a limited amounts of bags,” said National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Steve Isaacs, a crew member on a rescue helicopter that has been helping to get people and pets off the mountains for the last week.
Isaacs described how crews have had to land helicopters precariously on flood-soaked mountains where patches of road are likely to give way to sand and water beneath them in order to load people and their pets onto the aircraft. When landing is impossible, pilots hover the aircraft over devastated areas, balancing between power lines and tree branches, while crew members hoist families and their animals in baskets hundreds of feet from the ground to the aircraft.
“Yesterday an elderly couple did not want to leave the mountain, and rescuers were not convincing them of anything unless we got their animals down,” Isaacs said.
He and other crew members went back down the mountain and found a veterinarian to come up with them and ensure the couple that their dogs would be able to withstand the flight.
“We took her (the vet) up and took her off the aircraft and she assessed that the dogs would be fine and she made the family at ease with that,” Isaac said. “There were five dogs and one cat. These are some people’s only family members to be honest with you.”
Isaac said that he’s had difficulty convincing people to leave, including one belligerent resident who began throwing rocks at the aircraft until they had to back away. He’s made more than 120 rescue trips in the last week, and brought down between 40 and 50 animals, he said.
“They don’t really grasp hold of the situation they’re in until they get on mountain and see it will be inaccessible for six months or a year,” he said. “There are no roads. It’s actually gone. For miles, whole sections of roads are gone. They would have to build it piece by piece back.”
Meanwhile, authorities in more rural farmland have had to move dozens of cattle, horses, and other livestock as water rushed over flat land near Weld County.
“Most animals we rescued, we knew where we were taking them from. They were fenced-in properties just being taken over by water,” said Steve Reams, spokesman for the Weld County sheriff’s department. “Everything you can imagine a farmer would have out on their property we’ve helped to move around over the last few days: horses, cattle, llamas, donkeys, all your agricultural varieties.”
One horse in Weld County became the focus of public concern after it was seen from a news helicopter standing alone in a flooded field, braving the rising water by himself next to a patch of fence being overtaken by water.
The news crew that spotted the horse named Socks later found that the horse and others on the farm had been moved to safety a short time later, according to WUSA.
“That horse was [shown] numerous times on the news,” Reams said. “A day and a half later the farmer was able to get back to its horse and remove it from the property and it was fine.”
Reams said the rescue efforts in the rural parts of Colorado have been mostly made up of volunteers working with the mounted posse of the Sheriff’s Office to go to flooding properties and load livestock onto horse trailers, move them to an arena where the posse practices, and then find temporary homes for them until the water recedes.
“They’re in foster care,” Reams said. “A lot of the animals are already going back (to their owners). Most will be back there within the week. Some places they won’t be able to go back because the houses are uninhabitable and the homeowner needs to find a place to go, too.”
In all, Reams said he’s tallied 16 long horn cattle, 12 bucking bulls, six cows, three cows that had a calf, 10 goats, a pig, 32 horses, and five ponies or colts that have been rescued in Weld County. As of Tuesday, 13 of those animals had been reunited with owners, and he expected that number to already be on the rise, he said.
Donations of animal feed have poured in, he added, since owners lost much of their livestock food in the floods.
Currently, the number of people still unaccounted for in the flood rescue is down to 82.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Jamie K. White, CNN
Matt Egan, CNN
Kelsey Schwab, Deseret News
Sarah Anderson, Deseret News