Highlands Ranch tornado cleanup begins following massive storm

Jeff Ruden had just pulled into his garage Thursday afternoon when he got the alert: a tornado had been spotted over Highlands Ranch.

Less than 10 minutes later, the hail started. And after the raging winds pulled the first tree out of the ground, Ruden and his family hunkered down in their basement for shelter.

“You could feel the whole house shake, your ears were popping, you knew something came over,” he said. “We were literally in the direct line of what came through. I have six 20-year-old trees that are on the ground. There’s no more shade for the house.”

Friday morning, Ruden was among the residents working to repair damage and clean up debris strewn along the tornado’s 6.3-mile path through Highlands Ranch — trees uprooted, windows broken, roofs and siding beat up from the hail.

Nobody was seriously injured in the storm, which the National Weather Service said was on the ground for a 15-to-20-minute span as it traveled south of C-470. Meteorologists gave it a preliminary classification of EF-1, meaning it had winds from 86 mph to 110 mph.

“It was surreal to come out and see the aftermath,” Ruden said. “I grew up in Iowa, so this was nothing new. But being in Colorado for over 20 years, I don’t think I ever would’ve expected a tornado in Highlands Ranch. Now it’s just a matter of clean-up.”

Looking around White Bay Drive and the rest of his neighborhood, Ruden said his house was in the direct line of Thursday afternoon’s tornado. With six uprooted trees in his yard, he enlisted the help of a group of landscaping friends to break down and transport the downed trees to dump locations.

Just two miles away, in the Brookfield neighborhood, the Sheets family started repairs on their own tornado aftermath.

Randy Sheets and his wife were at work when the storm hit its peak Thursday — and when the 100-foot cottonwood in their front yard crashed through their house.

“It came in through the living room, took out a couple windows and now the right side of the house is slowly coming down,” Sheets said. “We’re speaking to insurance to figure out what we can clean up now and what we have to hold off on.”

Sheets said the tree also took out his brother’s room upstairs, though they luckily have a spare room for him to sleep in. The rest of the house was relatively undamaged.

Friends and family reached out after the storm, looking to help, and the group was planning to tackle what debris they can carry off the property while they wait to hear back from the insurance company.

However, that may not be their only wait. Tree removal companies across the area are now booked out for weeks.

“Usually we’re about a week out on jobs that we need to do,” said Alex Loula, a supervisor at SavATree. “As of this morning, when we got in, the jobs that they already had called in had us three to four weeks out already. We have about four times our normal workload, and that’s just storm damage, not even regular tree work.”

The Kims, who hired Loula to remove two trees late Friday morning, were able to call the night before and get the service booked for the next day.

“We were just going down a list of companies until we got to one that would answer,” Ho Kim said. “They called us back at 9 a.m. and, luckily, happened to have a crew down the street working already.”

Compared to other families around them in the Eastridge Terrace neighborhood, damage to the Kims’ house was minimal.

Ho Kim’s wife, Susan, said there were several sections of fencing down in the backyard and possible roof and siding damage from the hail, but no major structural damage to the house.

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” Susan Kim said. “Right now it’s the trees, then we call the fence people, the insurance, the painters. I’m just grateful it wasn’t worse.”

Outside of the neighborhood, Douglas County crews continued to clear tree debris from sidewalks and major streets Friday, starting with the hardest hit area between Highlands Ranch Parkway and C-470 and from Broadway to Colorado Boulevard.

According to a Friday news release, crews are evaluating every street in Highlands Ranch. They’re asking residents to report damaged traffic signs and downed traffic signals online.

Broken, leaning and downed streetlights should be reported to Xcel Energy, according to the Highlands Ranch Metro District.

The company already has received 50-odd reports of damaged light poles and began removing them Friday, Sturgeon Electric foreman Tom Johnson said.

Johnson said he is unsure when the removed streetlights will be replaced.

“The county has issued a disaster declaration to open the door for state support,” Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon said in a Friday news release. “In the meantime, we are working with the Highlands Ranch community to provide tree debris drop-off sites.”

Any debris larger than a typical trashcan load should go to the drop-off sites at Highland Heritage Park at 9651 S. Quebec St. and Redstone Park at 3280 Redstone Park Circle. The Highlands Ranch Metro District does not allow fencing to be dropped off at either site.

The drop-off sites opened Friday morning and will remain open indefinitely.

Redstone Park is open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Highland Heritage Park is open from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset.

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