Colorado tornado victims return to homes |

Colorado tornado victims return to homes

The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Garry Briese, FEMA region 8 administrator talks on the phone as he surveys damage caused by a tornado in Windsor, Colo., Friday, May 23, 2008. The tornado struck the area Thursday afternoon. Natural gas leaks and the threat of explosions 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. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

WINDSOR, Colo. ” Residents of a northern Colorado farm town ravaged by a large tornado returned to their homes Saturday to find varying degrees of damage.

“Our house is not too bad,” said Courtney Schinner. “Our roof is gone, a lot of windows are blown out, but the interior is OK.

“We got really lucky compared to a lot of people,” she said as she gathered her valuables and prepared to move into a hotel while her apartment is repaired. Most of the trees in her complex were gone or knocked over, but she described one sturdy, remaining tree looking “like a light pole with twigs sticking out of it.”

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 the town.

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, said Dan Hatlestad, an incident management spokesman. A 52-year-old man was killed at a campground near Greeley. More than 100 people were treated for mostly minor injuries.

Residents surveying the neighborhood Saturday found color coded placards on their homes from inspectors who rated the damage from green ” meaning the house is livable ” to bright orange ” meaning the structure is unsafe.

“What did you get,” a neighbor asked Cindy Miller as she moved furniture and other belongings out of her house. “We’re bright orange,” Miller responded. “We’re completely destroyed.”

Downed trees, boards, siding, shingles, nails and other debris littered the neighborhoods damaged the most by the tornado. Wads of yellow, pink and brown insulation speckled the remaining trees, houses and cars.

“My garden was almost perfect to where I wanted it, but I had this tree knocked down on it,” said Polly Shattuck, also describing how the fiberglass from the insulation made her itchy. “I had about 30 strawberries I wanted to pick.”

Before Saturday, police and more than 100 National Guard troops had cordoned off the square-mile area before so utility crews could check for gas leaks, repair gas mains severed by uprooted trees, remove downed power lines and clear streets of shattered glass and debris.

Access to the neighborhoods was restricted to residents, but those restrictions were lifted by nightfall. Incident management team spokeswoman Lisa Stigall told residents to concentrate Saturday on collecting valuables before moving on to repair.

“I feel much better now that I’ve been able to go to my house and just see it,” Schinner said.

Twenty-four hour patrols of the area will continue indefinitely.

“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.

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 Weld County. It pelted the region with golf ball-size hail, swept cars and trucks off roads and tipped 15 rail cars off the tracks in Windsor, about 70 miles north of Denver.

About 6,000 customers were still without power, and Xcel Energy said it could be a week before they are back on line.

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. Carole Walker of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association said Saturday it would be days before they could get estimates from other companies.

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

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.

Windsor Community Church’s building was destroyed by the tornado and was condemned, pastor Dan Harty said. The congregation of about 240 people planned a service outdoors in a park Sunday with another church whose pastor lost his home, he said.

Harty said neighboring churches have offered to share their buildings with his church.

“I can’t believe how many people from all across the country are wishing us well and praying for us,” he said. “We can all learn something about serving our neighbors throughout this disaster.”

A community service was planned for 4 p.m. Sunday at the high school.