GOSHEN COUNTY – Steve Foster told his wife, Diane, she might not even want to come home.
That’s how she got the news an EF2 tornado that produced winds up to 130 m.p.h. tore through their ranch 10 miles north of Fort Laramie last week. It destroyed natural windbreaks decades in the making, uprooted a pine tree that was undoubtedly one of the biggest on Ridge Road and made a steel building where the Fosters stored tractors and four-wheelers disappear, leaving nothing behind but a single twisted panel wrapped around a blue Ford tractor.
“It looks like a war zone,” Diane Foster said. “We lost one building that we parked tractors and four-wheelers in. We’ve got a big Quonset building, it blew the door out of it. There’s a couple of pretty good size holes in the roof.
“I have huge cedar trees and pine trees. It demolished them. It got the majority of them. We had a pine tree that was in the front yard that stood probably a hundred feet tall.”
‘Had’ being the operative word.
Reed Timmer, a storm chaser and extreme meteorologist, was able to capture the tornado on video. It shows the storm destroy some property, and it shows the storm tear through the high plains.
But it doesn’t show the aftermath. Soon after Timmer and the other professional and amateur storm chasers moved on chasing the next potential disaster, that’s what the widespread, but tightknit, community north of Fort Laramie is dealing with now.
The storm blew through more than a week ago, but the Fosters and their neighbors are still working to clean up the mess. Timmer’s video shows the Fosters’ neighbor lose his roof. Others lost livestock.
“It is really going to change this place,” she said.
A complex supercell
Goshen County Emergency Management Coordinator Shelly Kirchhefer surveyed the damage alongside meteorologists from the National Weather Service the morning after the storm. No one was hurt in the storm, but there was extensive damage to property, livestock and wildlife. According to her, it was an abnormally strong storm – and it was even more out of the norm for this time of year.
“It was very strange to have these kinds of warnings in September,” she said. “I don’t recall ever having a tornado warning, or an actual tornado touch down, in September.
“This was more of a complex supercell. A lot of the storms we get here, they’ll get to that stage of a supercell and give us our larger hail and heavier rains, but they seem to dissipate a lot faster. This was a perfect storm – everything came together to form that major supercell, and it produced a tornado, unfortunately.”
Kirchhefer said the storm probably produced multiple tornadoes, and the biggest touched down multiple times on its track across the northern part of Goshen County.
“We do have it tracked,” she said. “It went from the absolute western edge of the county line, and it tracked north of Fort Laramie. It did cross 85, it took out power poles along 85. We did have reports north on 159. That basically takes it across the whole county. Was it on the ground the whole time? Probably not.
“It would pulse across the county. Lift up, gather itself, and set back down.”
According to the National Weather Service in Cheyenne, the storm resulted in peak winds of 130 m.p.h. The exact width and length of the storm are still undetermined, but the first reports of a tornado came in from the Goshen County and Platte County line, and the twister cut a “discontinuous path” for the next two hours.
The storm also produced hail the size of softballs, according to the NWS. Kirchhefer said the hail had a huge impact on property and wildlife.
“We did not lose any houses,” she said. “They did sustain roof damage, window damage, siding damage – mainly the roof was from higher winds, and some of the window and siding damage was done by hail.
“We did lose some out buildings and barns. Some of those structures, they’re basically tin and they’re going to be destroyed. We lost fencing, power poles.”
The impact on animals – both domestic and wild – is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the storm. According to Kirchhefer, two horses, an unknown number of cattle and an entire herd of pronghorn antelope were among the casualties.
“We had impacts to livestock,” she said. “I do not have a final count on the loss of cattle. I did have Game and Fish come up yesterday, and unfortunately, they hauled off 16 deceased antelope. With the wildlife situation, a lot of these animals are running in herds, and there was one right in the area.”
There’s no preliminary estimate as to what damages will cost the homeowners, but Kirchhefer and Diane Foster both said insurance adjustors were in the area the day after the storm.
“I can’t put a monetary figure on it, but I do know that most everybody we visited, their insurance companies were out there right away,” Kirchhefer said.
“We are lucky”
On the way to Fosters’ home on Ridge Road, it becomes apparent how destructive the storm was.
Wyrulec linemen were setting new utility poles to replace ones carried away by the storm. A mangled grain bin, wadded up like a paper ball, was caught on a fence a few hundred yards off the road. Bits of debris, ranging in size from a few scraps to entire sheets of galvanized steel, make a path to the worst of the damage.
A corral is reduced to splinters and fuel for a bonfire. A horse trailer is on its side, partially flattened and likely destined for the scrap heap. In some places, the only remnants of the fences that once kept cows out of Kaspierre Road are strands of barbed wire.
Closer to the Foster’s place, the house featured in Timmer’s video sits in a yard full of detritus, with pieces of the home’s roof and outbuildings strewn throughout the property. Beside the house, a pair of campers – including an Airstream – are in shambles.
The force of the storm bent steel panels around t-posts in the Fosters’ driveway. Branches from cedar and black walnut trees cover the ground near their house, and a destroyed grove of cottonwoods sits behind it.
And the mess, according to Diane Foster, is the result of a lucky break. As the tornado skipped its way through northern Goshen County, it would lift for hills – and the Fosters’ homestead is nestled against one.
“The guy from the weather service said we are lucky,” Foster said. “We didn’t get a full hit. You said it was looking to go over the hill. I said ‘Wow, I’d hate to see what a full hit looks like.’”
Diane Foster said she was in Scottsbluff, Neb., when the storm tore through her home, but Steve was closer. He left the house to run an errand, and came face-to-face with the storm.
“He had left and he saw a tornado south of our neighbor’s house,” Diane said. “My husband was on his way to town. He got down by Pine Ridge and he got a bad feeling. He sat there and he said he wasn’t going to come back until it cleared out. He said it was ugly.”
When he returned to the ranch, that’s when he told Diane she might not even want to come home.
“After it went through, he went back to the house and he called me and said ‘you don’t even want to come home,’” Diane Foster said.
“I just wanted to cry. But I had forewarning. I didn’t just drive up on it like my husband. I could tell it was bad by the sound of his voice.”
The Fosters, and the other hearty folks along the path of the storm’s destruction will rebuild – and they’ve already started. The felled giant pine was mostly gone by noon Thursday, and there were piles of cedar and black walnut limbs waiting to be hauled away. The Fosters’ driveway was full of cars; and those cars had lined the drive of the neighbor who lost his roof the day before.
Foster said the damage to her property was devastating – but the people who live in the wide open plains north of Fort Laramie have come together, and proven it takes more than a late summer supercell to dampen their sense of community.
“You just don’t know what to say,” Diane Foster said.
“You stand there and think ‘where do I start?’ Thank God for neighbors and the church.”