WINDSOR, Colo. – Residents awoke Friday to find debris-strewn neighborhoods, houses torn to pieces and trees stripped bare of their spring leaves after a large tornado swept through northern Colorado, killing one person and injuring dozens.
The twister skipped through several towns in Weld County on Thursday, damaging or destroying dozens of homes, businesses, dairies and farms. The storm system pelted the region with golf-ball-size hail, swept vehicles off roads and tipped 15 rail cars off the tracks in Windsor, a farm town about 70 miles north of Denver.
"I dreamed about it last night and I was really groggy, so I thought it had just been a dream. But then I looked outside and I saw that it was real," said Ellen Jenkins, 45, who was sitting in a nearly empty coffee shop.
Jenkins said her home suffered only minor damage to a fence and a couple of trees, but some neighbors lost roofs.
Thirteen people were treated at hospitals, and more than 100 others received medical attention for minor injuries at a Windsor community center, said Jim Shires, a spokesman for emergency responders.
No one is believed to be trapped or missing, he said.
Gov. Bill Ritter toured the area and declared a local state of emergency, but an inventory of damaged homes had to wait until Friday.
Severe storms, some including tornadoes, also ripped through parts of Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and California on Thursday. In northwestern Oklahoma, a truck ran off a road that had been washed away by heavy rain, killing a 14-year-old boy, state troopers said Friday.
Heavy equipment cleared trees, utility poles, and mangled wood and metal from the streets of the east Windsor neighborhood where the most damage occurred. Police enforced an overnight curfew to deter looting and ensure residents' safety in case of natural gas leaks.
Resident Loree Wilkinson, 39, and her children, ages 6 and 9, huddled in a basement and prayed as the tornado passed overhead. She said her youngest child, Kazden, prayed: "Please don't let me die because I just graduated from kindergarten."
The large storm cloud descended nearly without warning, touching down near Platteville, about 50 miles north of Denver. Over the next hour, it moved northwest past several towns along a 35-mile-long track and into Wyoming.
Oscar Michael Manchester, 52, was killed at a campground west of Greeley, about 60 miles north of Denver, said Weld County Deputy Coroner Chris Robillard. Pete Ambrose, caretaker at the Missile Park campground, said Manchester was in a recreational vehicle that was destroyed by the storm.
The Red Cross served food to about 130 people in Windsor who were displaced by the storm, but by nightfall only one family was staying at a shelter at a fairground outside town.
The tornado overturned 15 railroad cars and destroyed a lumber car on the Great Western Railway of Colorado, said Mike Ogburn, managing director of Denver-based Omnitrax Inc., which manages the railroad. Fourteen of the overturned cars were tankers, but they were empty.
The twister toppled tractor-trailers across Highway 85 and cut power to 60,000 customers. Electricity was restored to all but 15,000 early Friday.
"We can't find poles, wires, transformers" where the tornado went through, Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said Friday. "Stuff is gone. There's nothing there."
National Weather Service researchers were examining the path of destruction Friday to determine the strength of the big tornado and how many twisters had hit. Meteorologist Dan Leszcynski said it appeared there were at least two.
Weld County is known as a prolific tornado spawning ground, with about seven typically reported there each year, according to the weather service.
In Kansas, early reports indicated that about 10 tornadoes passed through the western part of the state Thursday evening, said Scott Mentzer, a weather service meteorologist in Goodland.
He said a few barely touched down, but a couple moved along 30 to 50 miles on the ground in Sheridan and Decatur counties. Authorities said the tornadoes destroyed one home and damaged several others.
Officials were trying to verify whether a tornado touched down in Laramie, Wyo., where a storm packing strong winds damaged several buildings, overturned vehicles and knocked out power Thursday afternoon.
Later, a tornado touched down in a rural area near the town of Burns, Wyo., about 10 miles east of Cheyenne, said Rob Cleveland, director of Laramie County Emergency Management. The storm did minor damage to two homes and destroyed a barn, but there were no injuries, Cleveland said.
Elsewhere, a storm system that lashed Southern California on Thursday unleashed mudslides in wildfire-scarred canyons, spawned at least two tornadoes and dusted mountains and even low-lying communities with snow and hail.
Powerful wind or a funnel cloud toppled a tractor-trailer and freight cars, said Riverside County fire spokeswoman Jody Hageman.
California Highway Patrol Officer Alex Santos was watching the wild weather from a highway overpass in Moreno Valley, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, when he saw two tornadoes closing in.
"There was so much dust you couldn't see. Next thing I know I see this big rig getting toppled over," Santos said. He said the driver had to be cut free from the cab and suffered head and back injuries.
About 100 people have died in U.S. twisters so far this year, the worst toll in a decade, according to the weather service, and the danger has not passed yet. Tornado season typically peaks in the spring and early summer, then again in the late fall.