At least one tornado — and possibly a few other, smaller tornadoes — swept by Laramie on Wednesday night, taking weather and emergency officials by surprise, knocking out power for some and causing significant damage to at least one house.
No injuries or fatalities were reported.
Jim and Debbie Wheat were at White’s University Motors — a fair, safe distance from their house in the Antelope Ridge subdivision — when the main tornado tore through their garage, pushing the structure over and onto the Wheats’ pickup.
Unable to return home until the area was deemed safe, they knew the tornado was in their subdivision because of a phone call from a neighbor. They saw photos of their wrecked garage before arriving home to see it for themselves.
Jim Wheat said there is not much you can do coming home to a sight like that.
“I’ve lived in Laramie all my life; I’ve seen a couple of tiny tornados that looked like a pencil — nothing like this one,” he said. “You just walk around and say, ‘Man, look what happened there.’”
Thursday morning, representatives from a host of public and private agencies responded to downed power lines north of the city.
Carbon Power and Light Director of Operations David Cutbirth said about 1,000 people likely lost power because of the tornado, though by late morning Thursday, all but about 20 saw their power restored.
“We lost about 30 power poles in the tornado last night, so we’re trying to restore power to the northern part of this area,” he said.
The tornado came as a surprise to Emergency Management Coordinator Aimee Binning, who was on the scene Thursday morning with the National Weather Service, Albany County Assessor’s Office and Farm Service Agency as Carbon Power workers set about repairing downed lines.
“The unique part of this storm is that on the radar, it looked like a severe thunderstorm and it quickly, rapidly turned into that tornado event,” Binning said. “It’s funny how fast those clouds turned.”
Tornadoes are categorized by the amount of damage inflicted on structures, trees and agricultural goods, on a scale from EF0 to EF5 — with the EF5 being the strongest category, representing incredible damage.
The Laramie tornado’s ranking will not be clear until a damage survey is completed, which Binning said might not be available until next week.
“Most of the damage came to the rural and agricultural areas,” she said. “We had two main subdivisions right now that are reporting damage, Aliquot and Antelope Ridge. We’re still trying to get a damage assessment cost — there are fences blown down, and there’s outbuildings that have damage.”
In the meantime, residents with storm-damaged cars or houses are encouraged to report those damages to Binning’s office. The county’s Emergency Management website advises people to assess and document all debris and damage they find, and to contact their auto or house insurance companies as soon as possible.
Sheryl Hunter, the county executive director for the Farm Service Agency, encouraged people who suffered livestock or fencing losses, or are in need of debris removal, to contact her agency. She added no producers had yet reported livestock losses, though some had lost fences.
“We’ve got several different programs that we can hopefully try to help them offset some of their expenses,” Hunter said.
Richard Emanuel, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Cheyenne, said it had been just more than 10 years since the last major tornado came so close to Laramie.
“It’s usually more common on the other side of the Laramie range, out here in the plains,” Emanuel said. “It’s kind of rare over there in the Laramie part, but they do happen from time to time.”
It was a clear, hot day Wednesday before the tornado formed, touched the ground and started gathering a wide funnel of condensation, red dirt and dust. The stark imagery of a clearly defined and massive tornado drew many Laramie residents out into the street to film, photograph or gaze upon the force of nature — despite tornado sirens and National Weather Service warnings advising them to seek shelter.
Emanuel said everyone should be prepared to find shelter when a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch is issued — and immediately head to a place of safety once the more localized and imminent tornado warning is issued.
“Basements are the best, any place underground … otherwise, an interior room in a well-structured building,” he said. “You don’t want to be in a mobile home or a trailer or something like that because they typically don’t stand the winds too well at all. You want to get as inside as you can and as low as you can.”
While many did take shelter, several, it appears, did not. Throughout the duration of the tornado warning, social media was ablaze with photos and videos of the storm from all angles and distances. Local and national media — including Time, the Washington Post, the Weather Channel and Forbes — picked up shots of the storm, documenting the tornado for a wide-ranging audience.
After the tornado passed through, and the Wheats began to take stock of their crushed garage, a “mob of cars” drove through the Antelope subdivision, stopping to snap pictures.
“You just don’t think of a tornado coming through Laramie, but they do,” Debbie Wheat said. “When you hear the warnings, take cover. Don’t go out and look for them because they’ll get you.”
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