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Colorado tornadoes fairly common, but tend to be less ferocious

June 3, 2013

Dead trees, the bark ripped from the trunks, are dark reminders of a tornado that roared through downtown Limon 23 years ago.

They are sprinkled around the cemetery.

The day after the tornado hit in June 1990, the devastation was "horrifying," said Lucille Reimer, now 69.

"The tornado hit about 10 minutes after 8 (p.m.)," she said. "It was black, black, black that night. There were no lights, none. The next day, there was everything from broken windows, to a couple of bricks missing off buildings, to complete devastation."

The building she worked in, the Limon Leader newspaper, was destroyed.

The dead trees, said Reimer, now the town's library director, "are all over, but most of them are in the cemetery area, where there were lots of trees."

Colorado is far from immune to tornadoes.

And while they're not generally as destructive as the recent batch that slammed Oklahoma, theycan pack a punch.

Indeed, Colorado, which sits on the western edge of Tornado Alley, is ranked 9th in the United States for the sheer numbers of them.

"There is no immunity," said Stan Rose, forecaster with the National Weather Service in Pueblo. "Limon has had a number of large tornadoes. Even Woodland Park has had a couple of strong tornadoes."

In the last 10 years, more than 500 tornadoes have been reported in Colorado, he said. Only two had fatalities. And only 44 of them reported some kind of damage.

Roughly 95 percent of them hit from along Interstate 25 to the east on the plains where there is more moisture and heat, and occur between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m., according to the weather service.

Typically, they last five to 10 minutes.

Since 1950, Rose said, only 20 tornadoes in the state were rated EF3 or higher with winds in excess of 135 miles per hour.

During that same time period, two EF3 tornadoes landed in El Paso County, neither particularly strong but strong enough to cause damage and injuries, according to the weather service.

One hit in 1977. The second in 1979 raked Manitou Springs and resulted in one injury and significant damage, Rose said.

But the really violent tornadoes, such as those that hit the Oklahoma City area, "are not seen here," he said. "I wouldn't say it's impossible if the right combination of ingredients come together, but it would be an extremely rare occurrence."

In part, that's because the massive rotating thunderstorms that spawn major tornadoes, called supercells, are not common in the state. Tornadoes in Colorado are often called "landspouts" because they're not usually attached to a major thunderstorm. Winds from these smaller tornadoes can range from EF0 to EF1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, with wind speeds from 65 to 110 mph.

The scale runs from EF0 to EF5. The higher numbers represent stronger tornadoes and can cause more damage.

Yet even at the lowest rankings, a Colorado landspout can do plenty of damage.

"They're still tornadoes," Rose said.

The 1990 tornado that plowed through Limon was one of the state's rarities, a tornado with wind speeds of more than 135 mph. There were no deaths, but 14 people were injured and the storm caused $12.8 million in damages. Most of the buildings along the town's main street were destroyed.

The latest EF3 occurred May 22, 2008, when a tornado with winds as high as 150 mph rumbled through Weld and Larimer counties, killing one person and injuring 78. At least 850 homes were damaged.

By comparison, the Oklahoma tornadoes have measured at the high end of the Fujita scale with one EF5 - the most powerful ranking possible - packing winds in excess of 200 mph. That twister devastated Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, and killed 23 people.

Because of the state's drought conditions, peak tornado season has been delayed in Colorado, Rose said.

While it runs from late May through August, the first couple weeks of June is when the state is most likely to get hit, Rose said.

"This whole month we will have to look out for severe weather," he said. "It looks like our chance for severe weather will pick up next week."

Storms are moving through the area Tuesday and Wednesday with the bigger storms forecast for Friday and Saturday, he said.

The best way to deal with a tornado regardless of its size is to be prepared, said Micki Trost, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The weather service uses the phrase "get in, get down and cover up."

That means get inside a sturdy building, get down to the lowest floor or most interior room in that building and cover your head.

Trost suggests signing on to emergency alerts.

"Severe weather is one of the bigger hazards in the state of Colorado," she said. "The best way for citizens to stay safe is to make sure they are signed up to emergency alerts and if they have a smart phone, enable the wireless emergency alert on the smart phone and keep them on. Early notification is what's going to save their lives."


Contact Garrison Wells: 636-0198

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