The roads and homes might be gone, he said, but "inch by inch, mile by mile, community by community, they are taking this stuff back."
Smith spoke of firefighters who pulled signs out of the mud and residents using their ATVs to rescue neighbors.
He recalled "hearty people" who didn't wait for officials to reach them but who are "finding roads out." He said he'd heard reports of people hiking out of canyons.
In recent days, rescues in hard-to-reach areas have taken extraordinary measures. On Saturday a Chinook helicopter piloted by the Colorado National Guard picked up 78 children who got stranded while on a field trip.
Smith's hopeful tone was echoed by Boulder native Jake Koplen. His family nearly evacuated as floodwater surrounded his home. He snapped photos of the scene and posted them to CNN's iReport.
Now his family is beginning the slow work of cleaning up. But they won't do it alone. Koplen says his phone has been ringing non-stop with offers of food and assistance.
Still, authorities worry that any additional water on ground that's already soaked by up to 15 inches of rain will cause more flooding and dislodge mud and debris.
Smith said he couldn't begin to estimate the scope of the damage. "I've known these areas for 25 years," he said "I don't recognize some of them."
Damage worth millions
Boulder County alone will need an estimated $150 million to repair 100 to 150 miles of roadway and 20 to 30 bridges, county transportation director George Gerstle said. The repair bill will be "10 to 15 times our annual budget," he said.
A helicopter surveillance mission Saturday carrying Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and members of Colorado's congressional delegation was diverted twice to pick up people waving to be rescued.
After the officials' delayed arrival at a Boulder airport, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall promised a bipartisan push in Congress for federal aid for flood recovery.
President Barack Obama signed a major disaster declaration for Colorado on Sunday and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in Boulder County.
Hickenlooper said he spoke by phone with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who "was adamant that the $5 million that was released Friday was just the beginning" of federal assistance.
"We're going to come back and rebuild better than it was before," the governor said.
Already some are doing their own math. Barb Vacek doesn't know the dollar amount but she's taken stock of the emotional cost.
Her family is exhausted, their home and many of their mementos, gone. "I did lose my family slides from my parents who are deceased," she said. "I was the person entrusted with them, so my childhood is wiped out."
Right now, she says, her guilt outweighs her grief.