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Gas leaks keep some away in CO

At least six tornadoes damage homes, many residents unable to return due to gas leaks

BY VICKI DESORMIER | WINDSOR, CO | May 23, 2008

Rare, but not unheard of tornadoes, ripped through northern Colorado and southern Wyoming on Thursday, killing at least one person and forcing hundreds of people from their homes. By Saturday, while most of the residents were cleaning up, hundreds of residents of this town were unable to return home due to gas leaks.

Reports of the heaviest damage came from the small isolated community around Windsor, CO, where houses were reduced to rubble, vehicles were flipped into the air and smashed to the ground and where one man was killed at a campground at the outskirts of town.

According to Public Information Officer Polly White of the Colorado Division of Emergency Management, six separate tornadoes touched down in the rural community where many people live and go to work in Denver, about 50 miles to the south. She said the largest of the funnel clouds was almost a quarter of a mile wide and touched down in Plattville around noon before touching down again in Johnstown about 10 miles away and again in Windsor, where it stayed on the ground damaging more than 100 homes.

"We don't have a real accurate assessment yet," she said. "We're working on an aerial look right now and in the morning we'll start looking at things from the ground."

She said law enforcement personnel were going from home to home making sure everyone in the community was accounted for. Initial estimates were that 2,000 to 3,000 people had been displaced by the damage and while most were able to find temporary housing with family and friends, several hundred were in temporary shelters Thursday night.

Larimer County, where the storms did the most damage, is the most active area in the state for tornadoes, she said. Colorado as a whole is ranked ninth in the nation for the number of tornado touchdowns.

"But because there aren't so many people and houses out there, most people usually don't notice," she said.

The Wyoming Office of Homeland Security reported the damage in Laramie, WY, was not as extensive as previously thought. According to Kelly Ruiz, public information officer for the department, one apartment building and one house could be confirmed to have sustained damage. She said a more extensive assessment would be done on Friday.

She noted that early news reports had said there had been damage to a high school in Laramie as well as to some government buildings and to a large retail store, but she had been told that none of those buildings had been damaged.

"At this point, we haven't even determined officially if it was a tornado that touched down," she said.

Meteorologist John Griffith of the National Weather Service in Laramie said an assessment team would go out Friday to make the official confirmation on the storm. He said they have to examine the evidence before they can confirm if a tornado actually touched down.

Many roads, including Interstate 80 near Laramie, were shut down because of storm-related debris causing travel hazards.

In Colorado, some 60,000 customers of Xcel Energy were without power in the hours following the storms, officials said. By evening, electrical service had been restored to all but about 15,000 homes.

White said the tornadoes devastated the communities where they struck, but suggested they could have been much worse had the area not been so isolated. She said the goal Thursday night was to make sure all residents were safe and had a safe shelter for the evening. On Friday, a more thorough assessment of the damage to homes and property would take priority.

"We lost one life and that's one too many," she said, "but such a large storm could have been much worse."


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