WELD COUNTY, Colo. — With winds racing at 165 mph, the Windsor tornado of 2008 crashed across northwest Weld County exactly 15 years ago, leaving extensive damage in its path.
While Weld County is the most tornado-prone county in the United States, the community saw little to no warning that day before the sky darkened and a funnel formed in the sky.
The EF3 tornado touched down around 11:26 a.m. on May 22, 2008 northeast of Platteville and ran northwest to the Timnath area — about 35 miles away, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). At one-mile wide at times, it was a sight that residents struggled to wrap their heads around.
"It took me a second and then I realized, 'Man, that's a tornado. And that thing is big,'" one resident recalled to Denver7 in 2018.
The tornado flipped tractor trailers across Highway 85 and broke more than 200 power poles. As it raced across the eastern plains, the storm produced hail the size of baseballs.
It finally lifted about six miles northwest of Wellington at 12:08 p.m., the NWS said.
After assessing the damage, experts found pockets of EF3 damage, especially around the Missile Silo Park Campground and in eastern Windsor. Farms within and around the storm's path reported extensive damage to crops and irrigation equipment, according to the NWS.
It also flattened Windsor's main feedlot and destroyed a dairy barn. Most of the 400 cows in the barn were killed in the storm.
The storm injured 78 people and killed a man when he tried to escape his motor home, the NWS reported. Since 1950, Colorado has seen five tornado-related deaths, including this man.
“It looked like a war zone,” one neighbor said, recalling the destruction to Denver7 in 2018. “I’ve been to Vietnam and it looked like that.”
The director of Windsor Public Works said it wiped out 90% of a subdivision, ripping roofs from homes and smashing garages.
After the tornado passed, the Town of Windsor — with a population of about 17,000 — worked to help anybody in need of medical attention, safety and shelter. Then-Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. designated the tornado-impacted area a state disaster.
Neighbors, volunteers, organizations and members of the local, state and federal government worked alongside the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and United Way to help those impacted. A committee called the Northern Colorado Tornado Long Term Recovery Team was created to focus on the long road ahead, according to Windsor's final report on the tornado.
Based on estimates from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), about 850 homes were damaged and 300 were either significantly damaged or destroyed. The Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association reported $1 million in damage to its electrical lights. About 60,000 people lost power in the storm.
Insurance costs from 24,000 vehicle and homeowner claims added up to $193.5 million, excluding commercial claims from businesses, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, which made this Colorado's most expensive tornado.
The U.S. Small Business Administration approved more than $3 million in disaster loans to individuals and businesses in the county.
In the months and years since the tornado, the Town of Windsor has worked to rebuild. The following year, it was named a finalist for the 2009 All-American City Award, which celebrates partnerships and community collaboration.
Buildings that were destroyed were rebuilt with energy-efficient systems thanks to a $72,000 grant from the state's energy office. The local Chimney Park was re-created with $1.2 million in community donations. The town hall, built in 1910, was repaired and remodeled.
"Windsor has rebuilt bigger, better, and greener," the city's website reads.
Tornadoes in Colorado are most common in May, June and July. While they almost always happen on the eastern plains and places like Weld County, on rare occasions, they touch ground in the mountains, such as the July 28, 2012 storm on Mount Evans.
Colorado weather in-depth: 7 infamous tornado events that touched the state
Colorado is on the edge of Tornado Alley, so it typically sees 45 to 50 tornadoes a year, though most of them barely register on the Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF Scale).
As explained by Denver7's Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson, Colorado has different kinds of tornadoes — not just the classic big ones, like a supercell tornado. Colorado has smaller ones called landspout tornadoes, which are weak storms that don't last for long and generally don't cause much damage.
You can read more about Colorado tornadoes and what to look for by clicking here.