Agonizing wait for hundreds of northern Colorado tornado victims
WINDSOR, Colo. (AP) ” By hand and with chain saws, tornado survivors in northern Colorado sifted through their homes to rebuild their lives Friday ” but hundreds in one hard-hit northern Colorado town faced an agonizing wait to see what, if anything, was left because of the threat of natural gas explosions.
“You can go anywhere you want until you run into a policeman,” emergency services coordinator Bill Easterling told several hundred anxious residents of Windsor who were displaced by Thursday’s storm. “We’re going to keep your property safe until you can go in and see for yourself.”
That could take another day ” and likely more, Easterling said.
The National Weather Service said at least one tornado was reported Friday afternoon about 20 miles east of Windsor and 50 miles northeast of Denver. There were no immediate reports of injury or damage.
Police and more than 100 National Guard troops cordoned off the square-mile area so utility crews could check each home for gas leaks, repair gas mains severed by uprooted trees, remove downed power lines and clear streets of shattered glass and debris.
“I think at this point it’s pretty much hit me,” said a dejected Cindy Miller, a 46-year-old high school teacher. “I’m not going home for a while.”
Before being ordered out Thursday, Miller found a wall gone, insulation, glass, water and debris everywhere. Two two-by-fours penetrated a bathroom wall and smashed a mirror. A trampoline was in a neighbor’s yard.
At least 100 homes were damaged and another 100 damaged when the tornado bounced along a 35-mile-long swath that began near Platteville, about 50 miles north of Denver. A 52-year-old man was killed at a campground near Greeley. More than 100 people were treated for mostly minor injuries.
“This tornado moved through here in three to five minutes,” Windsor Police Chief John Michaels said. “It’s going to be much longer to put everything back together again.”
U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave toured the area Friday and marveled that there weren’t more casualties.
“I think it’s just miraculous that there hasn’t been more loss of life,” said Musgrave. She said she and fellow Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard have asked President Bush to declare the area a disaster to free up federal aid.
Musgrave’s mother lives about 20 minutes east of Windsor, and her daughter lives south of the town. Her mother doesn’t have electricity but is all right. Her daughter’s house might have some damage, Musgrave said.
The tornado struck six towns in sprawling Weld County, damaging or destroying dozens of businesses, dairies and farms. It pelted the region with golf ball-size hail, swept cars and trucks off roads and even tipped 15 rail cars off the tracks in Windsor, about 70 miles north of Denver.
The storm cut power to 60,000 customers. About 6,000 were still without power Friday, but Xcel Energy said it could be a week before they are back on line.
“We can’t find poles, wires, transformers,” Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said. “Stuff is gone. There’s nothing there.”
In Gilcrest, 15 miles southeast of Windsor, a farm silo was toppled over, debris from metal sheds was strewn across fields and tall cottonwoods were uprooted, their branches snapped and their bark stripped off.
In Windsor, insurance agent Rick Best said he had received at least 100 claims from homeowners by midday Friday. About a quarter of them had damages of $100,000 each.
“Some of the people I’ve talked to this morning have lost three-quarters of their house. It’s probably going to be cheaper to just replace them,” he said.
Search crews combed the cordoned-off area of Windsor three times overnight and found no additional victims, said Windsor Fire Chief Brian Martens. He noted several of his firefighters live in the area.
On residents’ minds was the threat of more severe weather later Friday, with hail, strong winds and thunderstorms in the forecast. A tornado watch was in effect east of the area.
“Safety is first and foremost,” Windsor Mayor John Vazquez told evacuees. “We don’t want people in there trying to do cleanup and have another storm hit and then have other casualties.”
The Red Cross served food to residents and cleanup workers at Windsor’s community center, set up a hot line for families looking for relatives, and installed an animal shelter for strays.
Cleanup continued along the heavily damaged main business district, and an old flour mill, a town landmark, was likely to be torn down. Three of its brick walls had collapsed.
The storm dealt a severe blow to Weld County’s economy. Its agriculture is the seventh most productive in the nation measured by cash receipts, averaging $67 million a year, said Fred Peterson, executive director of the county Extension Service.
Aside from the mangled barns, farm equipment and large irrigation systems, hail pummeled prime farm and ranch land. The tornado cut a wide swath through newly planted wheat, barley, onions and sugar beets. Helicopter video showed cattle milling inside a collapsed barn.
“There have been some reports of cattle deaths,” said state agriculture department spokeswoman Christi Lightcap. “It’s just too early to have any specifics.”
Conditions converged in just the right way, time and place to produce “a pretty remarkable tornado,” said Greg Carbin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
Those conditions included a large low-pressure system over the West on top of a smaller low-pressure system along Colorado’s Front Range. The storm system tapped a plume of moisture over Kansas and Oklahoma and pulled it back to Colorado, setting up the clash between cooler, moist air and dry, warm air.
Carbin, the agency’s warning coordination meteorologist, said he thought the tornado was likely at least an E-F2, with winds of 110 mph to 135 mph. He added that can be determined only by evaluating the damage.
Some of the same conditions were forming Friday, although Carbin said there seemed to be less moisture and the boundary between the cool and warm air was farther to the east.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.