The tornado sighting that set off alarms and frightened passengers at Denver International Airport Tuesday afternoon was a startling reminder that Colorado is indeed twister country.
Since 1950, only six other states have experienced more tornadoes than the 1,948 documented here, an I-News examination of federal weather data found.
A tornado touches down at Denver International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, June 18, 2013. The Nation Weather Service rated it as an EF1 that registered 97 mph winds sparking the evacuation of the airports common areas, but no injuries were reported.(Jen Milazzo/Special to I-News Network at Rocky Mountain PBS)
Two of the state’s fastest-growing counties – Weld and Adams, which surrounds DIA – had the most tornadoes during that 63-year span. Combined, they accounted for 410 tornadoes, more than one of every five. In addition, the Weld County town of Windsor experienced the most destructive twister in state history.
And then there’s the airport sitting on the high plains 25 miles from downtown Denver. On an average day, DIA sees about 145,000 passengers, and at any given time as many as 20,000 people may be in the terminal and concourses. Officials there are keenly aware that the airport could become a tornado bull’s-eye at any given time.
Two separate table top exercises conducted earlier this year for just such an eventuality became show time reality Tuesday.
“We followed protocol and everything went very smoothly,” Laura Coale, director of Media Relations at DIA, said Wednesday. There were no reported injuries, damage or calls for paramedics, she said. The tornado was preliminarily rated an EF1 by the National Weather Service and touched down between two runways on the airport’s east side.
Even in practice scenarios that assumed backed-up traffic at DIA with larger passenger loads, the airport has a safe place for everyone. In addition to the bathrooms and stairwells, the airport can evacuate people to the underground baggage tunnels if necessary, officials have said.
On May 8, 1975 – long before DIA was even conceived – an F3 tornado touched down near 56th Avenue and Picadilly Road and tracked to the northeast. It was on the ground for four miles and was a quarter-mile wide.
FILE – In 1975, a quarter-mile wide F3 tornado touched down southwest of where Denver International Airport stands today and traveled about four miles. It would have crossed present day Pena Boulevard, a runway and the West terminal parking lot, as shown in this composite from a U.S. Geological Survey aerial photograph.(Joe Mahoney/The I-News Network at Rocky Mountain PBS)
Back then, the area was farmland, and the twister did no damage. But if that historic tornado had been the one to hit Tuesday, it could have been a different story. That tornado’s track went directly across present-day Pena Boulevard, across a runway and into the west-side parking lot next to the main terminal.
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