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Washed Away
Dramatic photos from the Colorado flood show that even in the land of soaring peaks, higher ground proved hard to find.

Mother Nature has finally stopped pummeling central Colorado with rain, even as rescue operations continue for those people in and around Boulder who remain trapped in difficult-to-access areas. The record-breaking rainfall sent flash floods crashing down mountains and dumping into valleys over a 4,500-square-mile area—a swath of land about the size of Connecticut. At last count, the flooding was responsible for seven confirmed deaths, though at least 200 individuals are still unaccounted for. Nearly 12,000 people had to be evacuated, and more than a thousand homes have been destroyed—many, if not most, of them uninsured in the event of flooding.

The images that have come out of Colorado this week are startling: state highways ripped in half, quaint mountain villages reduced to rubble-filled shantytowns, suburban streets turned into canals (as in the photograph above, of a neighborhood in the city of Longmont). In the days and weeks to come, as the water retreats, people will set about grimly assessing the damage to their homes—assuming those homes are still there—and grapple with the complicated economic, logistical, and emotional math that attends the task of rebuilding.

Photo: Brennan Linsley, AP

On September 13th, in the small town of Lyons (about 15 miles north of Boulder), Brennan Linsley took this portrait of homeowner Fred Rob dangling his legs off of the steep drop where his house’s entrance used to be. To me this photo perfectly captures the second type of horror that afflicts natural-disaster victims, typically seizing them shortly after the physical impact of the initial event has dissipated: the horror of realization, of clear understanding, of damages tallied and costs estimated, of a future that will never be the same. (Brennan Linsley, AP)

Photo: Paul Talbot/23rd Studios

Photographer Paul Talbot took this previously unpublished photo in Boulder at about 11 p.m. on September 11th, after what would prove to be the first full day of a nearly weeklong deluge. The man stepping into the ambulance had only moments earlier been pulled out of his immobilized car by first responders, and sustained a head injury during the ordeal. His expression seems to be one of shock and bewilderment more than pain, however: in his eyes we see the fear that must have gripped everyone in the community as the water began to rise so quickly and relentlessly. (Paul Talbot/23rd Studios)

Photo: Dennis Pierce, AP/Colorado Heli-Ops

From a helicopter above Fort Collins, Dennis Pierce spied herds of cattle seeking dry ground as their pens were transformed into lagoons. A flood of this magnitude, of course, isn’t just a human tragedy but an entire ecosystem tragedy; a photograph like this one suggests the enormous logistical efforts that must go into moving a herd of frightened cattle through flood waters to safety. (Dennis Pierce, AP/Colorado Heli-Ops)

Photo: Brennan Linsley, AP

The town of Manitou Springs lies downstream of the area that was ravaged by last year’s Waldo Canyon wildfires. Much of the vegetative ground cover between these two areas burned away, leaving Manitou Springs that much more susceptible to flash flooding. Understanding the relationship between these two events makes a photo like this one (taken by Brennan Linsley) even more compelling: we get a sense of how connected our natural disasters can be in an era when climate change seems to be increasing the rates of, and intensifying the degrees of, calamity. (Brennan Linsley, AP)

Photo: Dennis Pierce, AP/Colorado Heli-Ops

It’s hard to imagine how a quaint country stream could swell into a torrent capable of ripping a highway in half. This photograph, taken by Dennis Pierce on September 13th, is an indelible reminder that our sturdiest structures and infrastructures—our “best-laid plans,” if you will—are no match for mercurial nature at its most agitated. The soil- and debris-filled water almost appears to be boiling as it cascades and crushes along Highway 34, near Estes Park. (Dennis Pierce, AP/Colorado Heli-Ops)

Read more OnEarth coverage of the Colorado floods.

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image of Gail Henry
Gail Henry is OnEarth's photo editor. She was previously the dIrector of photography for Yahoo Internet Life and has worked for other national magazines, including Golf, Men's Health, and Sports Illustrated. MORE STORIES ➔