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Polis Plans Disaster Declaration After Mudslides Shut Down I-70

This image provided by the Colorado Department of Transportation shows mud and debris on U.S. Highway 6, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021 west of Silver Plume, Colorado.

Updated at 6:38 p.m.

Gov. Jared Polis said Monday he was planning to issue a state disaster declaration and it could be “a few days to a few weeks” before Glenwood Canyon can be reopened following massive mudslides that blocked Interstate 70, a major transportation corridor between the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast.

Polis said during a news conference that, weather permitting, crews will be working to clear debris and mud from the interstate. Polis hopes to soon have at least one lane in each direction open through Glenwood Canyon.

The interstate through the canyon was closed after flash floods and about 10 mudslides stranded more than 100 people in their vehicles overnight Thursday, including nearly 30 people who took refuge in a tunnel. Lanes in both directions remain blocked by debris that flowed out of the burn scar from a wildfire last year in the Grizzly Creek area.

“We won't be fully aware of the extent of the structural damage until some of the debris is cleared,” said Polis, who also is seeking federal assistance. “There are areas that are under 10 feet or more of mud at this point.”

Photos provided by state officials over the weekend showed sections of the interstate's concrete roadway were smashed by boulders that tumbled from the canyon's steep walls and a long section of steel guardrail had been sheered off.

The governor had planned to tour the damage Monday but couldn't because a helicopter was grounded by rain and hail in the area.

Polis said Glenwood Canyon receives an average of 2.4 inches of rain in July, but the storm that caused the most recent mudslides dropped about 4 inches in five days.

“Unusual monsoon rains on top of the burn scars and debris from the fires is the recipe that has led to the extensive damage and closures,” he said, warning that more rain in the forecast could make matters worse.

Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said drone footage showed debris flows had plunged into the Colorado River and were diverting water to areas it normally would not flow.

“What that means is that it’s diverting up against the highway in some areas, causing more damage, or against the other side of the river that could eventually erode the railway,” he said.

Transportation officials closed a 46-mile stretch of the interstate and advised long-distance truckers to detour north onto Interstate 80 through Wyoming. Meanwhile, motorists traveling between Denver and Glenwood Springs were told to take an alternate route that adds about 250 miles to the trip.

“This is a major transportation artery," Polis said. "So on top of the people who live there and the recreational use, this is also disruptive to trucking and commerce and the flow of goods across Colorado, which is yet another reason why we need to get this fixed as quickly as possible.”

The original story continues below.

Mudslides from heavy rains caused "extreme damage” to Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon and left it blocked with piles of boulders and logs, Colorado transportation officials said Sunday, as forecasters warned of more flash floods in the coming days across the Rocky Mountain and Great Basin regions.

The flood risk was elevated for many areas of the West where recent wildfires burned away vegetation and left hillsides more susceptible to erosion, the National Weather Service said.

The I-70 was closed with no word on when it might re-open after being pounded by flash floods over a three-day period. Lanes in both directions remained blocked by debris that flowed out of the burn scar from a wildfire last year in the Grizzly Creek area.

The torrent of rocks that came tumbling down the canyon's steep walls smashed apart sections of the concrete roadway and sheared off a long section of steel guardrail, photos provided by state officials showed.

More rain was in the forecast for the drought-parched region, triggering flash flood watches for portions of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state.

I-70 is a major transportation corridor between the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast.

An approximately 46-mile stretch of the interstate was closed. Transportation officials advised long-distance truckers to detour north onto Interstate 80 through Wyoming.

Crews were still assessing damage late Sunday. They had been working to clear the highway since Thursday when another flash flood hit Saturday, forcing them to evacuate the area and causing even more damage.

“When we know exactly what the damage is, then we’ll have a better idea" on when it could reopen, said Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson Tamara Rollison.

“It's not just clearing the debris. There's also the damage," she said. “Our engineering staff have never seen anything like this before.”

More than 100 people had to spend the night on the highway Thursday night, including nearly 30 who took refuge in a tunnel following the mudslides in western Colorado.

Mudslides also closed down Colorado Highway 125 near Granby and U.S. Highway 6 over Colorado’s Loveland Pass. Highway 6 was reopened Sunday, Rollison said.

Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Associated Press