Denver weather: Tornado in Highlands Ranch, painful hail at Red Rocks

Severe weather walloped metro Denver over the last two days, with a tornado uprooting trees and damaging property across a 6-mile path through Highlands Ranch on Thursday — less than 24 hours after hail the size of golf balls pelted concertgoers at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, sending seven people to the hospital.

Emergency responders in Douglas County said widespread tornado damage could be seen across Highlands Ranch and into Lone Tree late Thursday afternoon, and residents reported downed trees, torn-up fences, natural gas leaks and roof damage.

South Metro Fire Rescue’s Eric Hurst said there were no reports of significant weather-related injuries, aside from some minimal hail-related injuries at the storm’s outset.

Much of the damage was reported south of C-470 between Lucent Boulevard and South Quebec Street, according to South Metro Fire Rescue — whose own Station 17 sustained heavy tornado damage to its roof, according to an emergency alert.

“The most damage that we have seen are trees down across roads, trees down into homes and some roofs damaged, some homes damaged and some structures damaged,” Douglas County sheriff’s spokeswoman Deborah Takahara said during an evening news conference.

As the storm moved out, recovery and clean-up efforts began Thursday evening, with deputies out surveying the damage, Takahara said.

Mid-afternoon, the National Weather Service in Boulder warned of a “confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado” over northeastern Highlands Ranch, moving southwest at 15 mph. Paul Schlatter, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, said the tornado was on the ground for a 15-to-20-minute span.

The weather service said its preliminary assessment showed the tornado traveled a 6.3-mile path through Highlands Ranch south of C-470. Meteorologists are still evaluating photos to determine the tornado’s strength and said they may conduct a survey of damage on Friday.

The late-afternoon thunderstorms Thursday that sparked the tornado in Douglas County were preceded by National Weather Service emergency alerts across metro Denver warning of “destructive” baseball-sized hail.

Schlatter said the severe weather resulted from a snowball effect of moist, unstable air. Thursday’s thunderstorms at least struck earlier in the day than the pummeling hailstorm on Wednesday night.

“If you’re caught outside in this kind of hail, serious injury can happen,” Schlatter said. “We saw that last night at Red Rocks.”

“It was just stunning”

The hail that fell on the famed amphitheater in Morrison late Wednesday night struck as some 6,000 fans waited to see a concert by former One Direction member Louis Tomlinson. Between 80 and 90 people were treated for cuts and bruises by paramedics at the venue, while seven others were hospitalized with lacerations and broken bones, according to West Metro Fire officials.

“It was just insane,” said concertgoer Susan Samol, who took shelter along with dozens of other people in a men’s restroom after she was struck in the neck by hail.

At the Denver-owned venue, west of the city in mountain foothills, opportunities to take cover are limited, typically requiring 10-minute treks, sometimes longer, to reach vehicles parked in peripheral lots. Rideshare transportation can mean no shelter is available.

After an initial weather delay around 8 p.m., the event resumed and ticket-holders flocked back to their seats as storms continued to develop overhead in the clouds. Heavy hail began falling around 9:30 p.m. By then, it was too late to shield thousands of concertgoers from heavy rain, the golf-ball-sized hail, and potentially deadly lightning strikes.

Videos on social media showed a frantic scramble, and scores of people crammed into restrooms, backstage and a visitor center seeking shelter. It wasn’t until 10:25 p.m. that Red Rocks officials declared an official postponement.

“Tonight was the scariest night of my life,” a woman who identified herself as Nicole wrote in a posting on Twitter at 9:47 p.m. “It started pelting people with hail at Red Rocks and my sister and I luckily found shelter under a sign. I am bleeding and have huge bumps on my head from the hail. Hoping everyone made it out safely.”

Samol said she saw people fleeing into the bathroom who were sobbing, panicking and covered in welts. Some worried they had suffered a concussion. Samol and a friend were crammed near the urinals while others were jammed inside the bathroom stalls to make room for as many people as possible, she said.

Samol said everyone hid in the bathroom for about 20 minutes. Then someone came into the restroom and said there was a break in the storm and that if they wanted to leave, they better go now.

“We walked out, and it was just stunning,” she said.

Hail was piled up inches thick across all surfaces, Samol said, as people slipped, fell and clung to the stair railings to descend to the parking lots.

After a slippery descent, Samol said it was clear most of the cars parked at Red Rocks suffered extreme damage. Her Jeep Cherokee is totaled, she said.

“There isn’t one panel on that car that doesn’t have pockmarks on it,” Samol said.

“Venue managers are not meteorologists”

Red Rocks is run by Denver Arts & Venues, a branch of the city government. Red Rocks managers say they rely on a contactor, called Skyview, for guidance based on National Weather Service forecasts — which on Wednesday afternoon warned of potentially severe storms.

Red Rocks officials posted a red emergency evacuation warning on a display screen at the venue advising everyone to take shelter about 10 minutes before the hail hit, Kitts said.

“Our response was immediate, as soon as they (the contractor) said, ‘This is serious,’” Kitts said. “Venue managers are not meteorologists. We rely on this type of advice.”

Red Rocks officials also were looking into allegations that concession workers mocked and took videos of people scrambling for shelter.

“We saw what was posted and we have reached out to that person hoping they will tell us where that concession stand was,” Kitts said. “If that happened, it is absolutely not what you want to hear about your colleagues doing in a situation like that. But we don’t know where that concession stand was or what the extent of that was. We don’t have verification yet.”

On Friday, some “normal” Colorado thunderstorms are expected to roll through the Denver metro, but the NWS’s Schlatter said they were not forecast to be severe. Small hail may accompany them and flood concerns are much less than they were on Wednesday and Thursday, he said.

The weekend is likely to be dry and warm, Schlatter said.

“This is the time of the year to get big hail in Colorado,” Schlatter said. “Baseball-sized hail in Denver occurs every two to three years, so this kind of storm is kind of unusual in that sense.”

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