By Keith Coffman
DENVER, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Property losses from deadly flooding in Colorado will total nearly $2 billion, about half from housing and half from the commercial and government sectors, catastrophe modeling firm Eqecat said on Wednesday in the first comprehensive estimate of the disaster's economic toll.
State and county emergency management officials have hardly begun to prepare actual damage assessments from flooding that has ravaged thousands of homes and killed at least eight people in a disaster zone in and around Colorado's biggest urban centers.
The projected losses for residential property alone are about $900 million - equivalent to more than $200 for each of the 4 million people who live in Colorado's 17 flood-stricken counties, based on 2012 census data. Most of the overall losses are uninsured, the firm said.
The tally for residential losses includes damaged or destroyed housing, as well as lost furnishings and belongings and costs incurred by displaced residents to live elsewhere until their dwellings are repaired or replaced, Eqecat said.
Another $1 billion is attributed to losses projected for commercial and government property, including roads and bridges, Eqecat senior vice president Tom Larsen told Reuters.
The projection - small compared with Eqecat's initial estimate of $20 billion in total economic losses from Superstorm Sandy last year - came as Colorado was still coming to grips with widespread devastation from floods unleashed by torrential downpours last week.
Eqecat's loss projection for Sandy was later revised upward to $50 million, which Larsen said ended up being in the realm of most final estimates from that disaster.
Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said the Eqecat figures struck her as credible.
'GOOD FIRST SNAPSHOT'
"This is a good first snapshot of the extent of the damage, based on the numbers of buildings damaged and destroyed that we're seeing," Walker said.
She said the recent flooding in Colorado ranks as the state's most destructive natural disaster on record in terms of its geographic scope and severity of property damage.
The stage was set by heavy, unrelenting rains that drenched a 130-mile (210 km) stretch of the eastern slopes of the Colorado Rockies for a solid week, starting last Monday night.
Within three days, torrents of runoff were gushing down rain-saturated mountainsides through canyons that funneled the floodwaters straight into populated areas below. Foothills towns clustered at the base of Colorado's Front Range in Larimer and Boulder counties northwest of Denver bore the immediate brunt of the deluge.
The flooding then progressed downstream and spread onto the prairie along the basin of the South Platte River, submerging large tracts of farmland and pastures, as well as oil and gas production well sites that dot the region.
At least 1,700 homes have been destroyed, most of those in hard-hit Larimer County, and an estimated 16,300 dwellings have been damaged throughout the flood zone, according to preliminary estimates from state and county officials.
Rescue teams in helicopters and military vehicles scrambled again on Wednesday to reach the last pockets of survivors known to have been stranded by the historic floods.
Even as evacuees continued to crowd into emergency shelters, more than 6,400 flood survivors have already applied for federal disaster assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
RAVAGED ROADS AND BRIDGES
The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday offered $30 million in additional flood relief to Colorado to help restore hundreds of miles of washed-out or weakened roads and bridges, though state and county officials say repair costs will ultimately run many times higher.
A preliminary assessment of the state's infrastructure showed damage of $40 million to roads and $112 million to bridges, the U.S. Transportation Department said in a statement.
But repair costs for state and county roads are likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford said.
"This is truly unprecedented, what we're experiencing," she said, citing nearly three dozen state highway closures at the peak of the disaster, along with scores of damaged county roads and 50 bridges that were damaged or destroyed.
She said the full extent of the devastation is hard to quantify just yet because "many of our assets are still under water" or require closer inspection.
"What looks like an OK road now on top might not be underneath," she said.
She said the state's Transportation Commission has just allocated its entire $100 million contingency fund for emergency highway and bridge repairs and would seek reimbursement from the federal government.
In Boulder County alone, another area that bore the brunt of flash floods last week, early estimates put the cost of repairing damaged roads and bridges at $150 million.
Damage to railroad tracks west of Denver has forced both passenger and freight traffic to make detours while repairs are under way.
Passengers riding Amtrak's San Francisco-Chicago Zephyr line will be shuttled on buses from Salt Lake City to Denver, where they can then board eastbound trains for the rest of their trip, spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said.
The Union Pacific has sustained damage to several of its tracks in the flood zone, spokesman Mark Davis said. The largest such disruption is forcing coal shipments on one line to make a 600-mile (965 km) detour through Wyoming and Utah, delaying deliveries by 72 hours, he said.
Sewage treatment plants and other utilities have been knocked out in a number of towns. And standing water left by floods on prairie farmlands east of the Rockies posed the threat of significant damage to crops already planted in the region.