Hundreds of N. Colo tornado victims to return to their homes |

Hundreds of N. Colo tornado victims to return to their homes

WINDSOR ” Residents of a northern Colorado farm town ravaged by a large tornado are expected to return to their homes Saturday in an area officials had deemed unsafe because of the massive destruction.

Windsor officials were meeting with residents to plan their return to a part of town some have not seen since Thursday, said incident management team spokesman Dan Hatlestad.

“There may be some damage, and with no power it may be an unpleasant place to live, but it’s up to the homeowners,” Hatlestad said.

Natural gas leaks and the threat of explosions had kept hundreds of anxious residents from assessing the damage to their homes on Friday, a day after a large tornado tore through a 35-mile stretch of northern Colorado, killing one person and injuring dozens.

“You can go anywhere you want until you run into a policeman,” emergency services coordinator Bill Easterling said to several hundred residents of Windsor during a Friday meeting. Many at the meeting had been displaced by Thursday’s storm. “We’re going to keep your property safe until you can go in and see for yourself.”

Police and more than 100 National Guard troops had 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.”

Miller was able to see her home before being ordered out Thursday. She said she 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.

There were 596 homes damaged, with 102 deemed unsafe to occupy, when the tornado bounced along a 35-mile-long swath that began near Platteville, about 50 miles north of Denver, Hatlestad said. 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.”

A preliminary damage survey Friday by the National Weather Service showed the tornado that hit Greeley was likely an E-F3, with speeds from 136 mph to 165 mph. The one in Windsor was an E-F2 or E-F3, with wind speeds between 111 mph and 165 mph. Meteorologist Dan Leszcynski said it was unclear whether the twisters were one and the same.

Thursday’s storm 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.

Threatening skies, high winds and another tornado warning Friday forced workers to temporarily suspend cleanup and residents to scurry to shelter. At least two tornados were reported in the plains east of Windsor. No damage was reported. The National Weather Service received reports that a third tornado near the Nebraska line downed four power lines, snapped a fence and overturned a stock trailer.

U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave toured the Windsor tornado area and said she had asked President Bush for federal help.

“I think it’s just miraculous that there hasn’t been more loss of life,” said Musgrave, whose mother and daughter live near Windsor and were unhurt.

Garry Briese, a regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, inspected a neighborhood of gutted homes. At one, a clock hung on the only remaining wall, still ticking and keeping accurate time.

About 6,000 customers were still without power, and 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.”

State Farm insurance, which claims a 25 percent market share in Colorado, expects at least $52 million in homeowner and auto claims, said spokeswoman May Martinez Hendershot.

Colorado’s most costly tornado caused $20 million in damage in Limon on June 6, 1990, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. A July 1990 hailstorm caused $625 million in damage.

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.

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.

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