Mudslides stranded more than 100 people overnight-closure of highway from mud slides continues
By Noelle Phillips
The Denver Post
Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon is expected to remain closed through the weekend after a fast-moving storm blew through the area, causing flash floods and mudslides that stranded 108 people overnight Thursday into Friday.
Workers are racing to clean debris and abandoned vehicles off the interstate before the next round of storms moves across the mountains this weekend. The amount of work needed to clear the interstate combined with more potential flash floods led CDOT to close the interstate at least through the weekend, Shoshana Lew, CDOT’s executive director said Thursday afternoon in a call with the media.
The interstate will remain closed until further notice between Exit 87 at West Rifle and Exit 133 at Dotsero, a CDOT news release said.
About 3:30 p.m. Thursday, CDOT and state troopers led a caravan of cars eastbound through the canyon from the Bear Ranch Rest Area, where an estimated 60 to 75 people spent the night in their cars after getting stuck on the interstate. An additional three vehicles, including a semitrailer with mud up to its wheel wells, remained abandoned on the interstate late Friday.
Highway crews are trying to clear about 10 spots through the canyon where the road is damaged or where mud and debris are blocking the path. In some places, rocks, mud and trees are 10 to 12 feet deep. In other areas, debris is scattered for 200 yards. And falling rocks knocked down a parapet on the westbound lanes in one place, Mike Goolsby, CDOT’s northwest region director, said.
Two people were able to walk away after debris destroyed their cars.
“I’m knocking on wood that no one was injured,” Goolsby said. “We try not to have people in the canyon when there are warnings. This is the best-case scenario that we could have.”
CDOT first closed I-70 through the canyon at 4:30 p.m. Thursday after the National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch. That watch expired at 6 p.m., and the interstate reopened about 45 minutes later.
The second flash flood warning happened quickly, giving CDOT little time to close the interstate. Once the interstate is closed, it takes about 40 minutes for cars to clear the road between Rifle and Dotsero.
About 9 p.m. Thursday, the second flash flood warning was put in place as fast-forming storm cells built in the mountains. Within a few minutes of the warning, mudslides sent debris onto the inter-state.
“Sometimes the warning comes about the same time the water does,” Goolsby said. “That’s unfortunately what happened last night. This snuck up on all of us.”
An estimated 29 motorists trapped on the interstate stayed in the Hanging Lake Tunnel overnight and were evacuated Friday morning after Garfield County rescue workers led a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus into the tunnel to carry people to Glenwood Springs. A few people were able to drive their cars out of the tunnel, Walt Stowe, a sheriff’s spokesman, said.
The tunnel is well-lighted, and CDOT runs an operations center in the tunnel that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It ordered employees to evacuate and take shelter when the flood started.
“The people weren’t in a dark cavern or anything,” Stowe said.
So far, the latest flash flood and mudslide did not affect the railroad that also passes through the canyon. But transportation officials said the Colorado River was flowing about 2 feet below one bridge because debris has dammed the water, causing levels to rise.
The stretch of interstate was one of the most difficult to build in the country, and interstate closures through the canyon have occurred frequently this summer because of flashfloods and mudslides across the 32,000-acre Grizzly Creek fire burn scar.
The detour around this stretch of I-70 extends for more than 100 miles and takes travelers through far northwest Colorado. CDOT is working with counterparts in Utah and Kansas to divert commercial traffic and to ask other travelers to detour around Colorado via Interstate 85.
If people are traveling in Colorado, CDOT asks westbound motorists to exit I-70 at Exit 205 in Silverthorne and travel north on Colorado 9 toward Kremmling. Travelers will continue west on U.S. 40 and south on Colorado 13 to complete the alternate route and return to westbound I-70 at Exit 90 in Rifle. Eastbound travelers can detour using the same route in reverse. Noncommercial motorists can use Colorado 82 over Independence Pass.
CDOT warns against using smartphone applications to look for alternate routes.
Officials also ask that if you are caught in adverse conditions, wait for the road to clear and do not leave your vehicle unless necessary.