Hugo’s little-known Tornado

The Hugo Municipal Pool

It was a dry, hot day on our farm on the high plains of eastern Colorado, the kind of day that could produce a tornado. The weatherman said it was going to be over 100°F, with a small chance of afternoon rain. We felt lucky, because we were heading over to Hugo, the county seat of Lincoln County, for a wonderful, relaxing afternoon swimming in the cool waters of the Hugo Municipal Pool.

However, first we needed to stop in the small town of Flagler, about 14 miles from our farm, to pick up a friend of Kenny’s, Ted Moore. Then it was a drive about thirty five miles to get to the pool in Hugo.

We boys got in the pool and had a great time. Then, after a long swim, and diving off the high and low diving boards, and racing to see who was fastest or who could stay under water the longest time, and of course watching the girls (after all Ted Moore, a well-known Romeo, was with us) it was time to leave.

I got out of the water and got dressed right away. But Kenny and Ted lingered in the pool. So I was the first to get out to the car. Mommy came over to the driver’s side of the car, and opened the door to get in. I was standing by the passenger door talking to my mom over the top of the car.

A storm approaches

The storm looked very much as this one when it approached, except for a whirlwind right before the first down shaft of rain. Photo via Good Free Photos

We had been watching a small storm approaching from the south west. It did not look menacing but there was a strange whirlwind that was going just in front of it. It seemed to be very ordinary, nothing to be concerned with, but I had never seen a whirlwind this close to a storm. We have many whirlwinds on the high plains all the time. So Mommy and I both thought it was nothing to worry about.

As the storm got closer, we saw the whirlwind crossing the railway tracks, about half a block from where we were standing. When a small summer whirlwind hits you, it is a refreshing break from the heat on the high plains, so we were not concerned. Plus it was half a block away.

Then the whirlwind crossed US 40. It was heading straight for a large metal building. When it hit the building, sheets of corrugated metal started flying in every direction and the tornado abruptly changed directions. IT WAS COMING DIRECTLY TOWARDS US! I just stood there with my eyes wide open, staring at it for what seemed an eternity. I could not believe that the whirlwind was actually a tornado, and that it could change directions so fast.

The tornado hits like a sledgehammer

The wind abruptly began to blow harder and the gravel picked up from the parking lot began pelting us. Mom screamed at me above the din to get into the car, as she herself was climbing in.

I grabbed the door latch and fought to get the door open wide enough to get inside the car. Finally I got inside and I felt a little safer. Mommy noticed another young person about my age who was trying to get behind our car for some protection. She had me roll down the window and ask him to get in also. By now the car was rocking like a ship in a storm. The young man gladly climbed in.

picture of a similar tornado to the one we experienced in Hugo.
As the tornado departed, it appeared like this photo. Except you could see the 50 gallon drum and other debris floating in the spout.

And then suddenly, just in a moment, everything settled down. The car was stable. But the whirlwind was now near the swimming pool. A few 50 gallon drums (which had once held pool chemicals but were now merely trash cans) were being tossed about like beach balls, rising high into the air. Umbrellas had been ripped from their masts, and it looked as if the fence might be collapsing.

My perception of time was starting to return to normal. When the tornado was approaching, time had seemed to slow down. What felt like minutes was in reality just a few seconds. Now, time was normal again.

Kenny and Ted were still in the dressing room area. I assumed they were totally oblivious to the mayhem that was going on outdoors. They later said that the power went off momentarily, but that was all. Obviously, the changing room building at the swimming pool had been built like a fortress!

Reunited after the tornado

When the boys came out of the changing room, they were able to see all the damage that had been done by the tornado. As they came to the car, Mommy and I were still watching the storm go up the hill north of town, and the 50 gallon drums were still floating in the air. (The young person who had taken shelter with us had left by then.) Finally, when everyone got in the car, we headed home.

As we left Hugo, a small thought sneaked into my head. “If I had my driver’s license, I would be chasing that tornado!”

But of course my mother was a very responsible adult driver, and she certainly did not want to follow that tornado! She came from Kansas, the heart of tornado alley, and wanted nothing to do with them. Many decades earlier our barn had been hit by a tornado and removed the shingles on the west side.

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1 thought on “Hugo’s little-known Tornado”

  1. It is understandable that Gary, the author of the above story, would think that Ted Moore and myself, Ken Pickens, knew nothing of the tornado as he stood out there bravely trying to stare down the swirling dirt rampaging directly at him.

    To the contrary, I was still out in the pool area, trying to help to tie things down as the tornado approached. We had one person yelling at us to get inside, and we had another person yelling at us to stack up the chairs and move them against the wall, or they were going to blow away. Suddenly a huge gust of sand and dirt flew in my face, and there was no decision left, except to make a dive into the men’s dressing room, which was about 5 feet from where I had been standing. Inside the dressing room the tornado sounded like a train headed directly toward the buildings. There were several huge claps of lightning, and then suddenly the windows in the dressing room started exploding. The windows were probably 8 foot above the floor, and about 2‘ x 5‘ in size. As I watched, the glass would just pop out of them or would crash into small pieces, depending on what hit them.

    About that time, I decided that the only safe place in the room was under the seats they had made for changing your clothes. The closest one was a board about 12 inches wide and and 8 feet long. On each end, a round pipe was sunk into the cement in the floor of the dressing room to hold up the plank that you were supposed to sit on.

    I am here to tell you that, in not much longer than a nanosecond, I was underneath that seat and had my hands over my head. The tornado had sounded like a freight train rumbling toward the swimming pool. As it got closer, the windows had first started popping out onto the parking lot next to the building. Then suddenly it became really quiet. You could have heard a pin drop in the room, and somebody asked plaintively, “Is it all right to get out?”

    As the voice trailed off, we were by hit another gigantic blast of wind. It sounded even worse than the first for a few moments, and then it finally started tapering off and the wind started dropping down.

    It occurred to me that I had heard that there is a quiet eye in a tornado and that must’ve been why the wind stopped and then picked up again. So in this second period of quiet, I decided that it was safe to go outside. I stepped through the door that I had entered from the swimming pool into the men’s room, and I stared in total shock at what I saw. The chairs that we had stacked so that the wind would not blow them away were gone, nowhere to be seen. The 8 foot fence around the pool was only chain-link, and I did not think that there would be enough resistance for the wind to affect it very much, but it was laid flat on the ground and the posts were laid over on their side as if some person had run over them with a Caterpillar blade.

    The trash buckets, which were gallon oil drums with the lids cut off, had blown off and were no place to be seen. All that was left in the swimming pool area was the water, things that had blown into the water, and the hot concrete. The highest diving board had been ripped off its supports and blown away. I have no idea where it had gone. In the years after that, to my knowledge, they never replaced the high diving board which was destroyed by that tornado.

    Suddenly my heart sank, because I had not looked to see if Mama and Gary were all right. As I turned around they were in the car waving at me. I walked over to the car and stood on the driver’s side to talk to Mama. It suddenly dawned on me that on the west side of the car, all the paint had been sandblasted off. I told her that, but she didn’t want to get out of the car and look.

    Gary was braver and he immediately jumped out of the car and started telling Mama in detail how lucky she was with just the paint gone. It suddenly dawned on me that where she had parked the car it was parallel parking. The Chrysler had originally been lined up north and south. But now the front end of the car was facing northwest and the back end of the car was facing southeast. A Chrysler is a very heavy car, and it really sunk in at that point just how dangerous the storm had been.

    The next day the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain news described our tornado as not a real tornado (because real tornadoes had to be much worse than that one). Our storm had to be a mere whirlwind, more commonly known as a dirt devil. As I was reading both of the newspaper accounts and listening to the television station on that next night, it seemed to me that they were making light of the fact that those of us who were actually in it thought it was a tornado. They spent a lot of time explaining that tornadoes are far more vicious and dangerous and than what had happened in Hugo.

    It made me mad that they were describing it as just a dust devil. They were not in that dust devil, and they probably had never been in a dust devil, much less a tornado, and everything they were saying was making the farmers and the real people I knew look stupid and making the the city “experts” look smart.

    A few days later we drove to Burlington, Colorado to let the adjuster see the wind damage to the car. When he was all done he said that because the paint on the car was already four years old he could not pay us to have a car repainted but out of the goodness of his heart he would allow us $200 for the damages. My folks inquired at a number of places and each one said that since our Chrysler had metallic paint they could not match it unless they repainted the entire car, which was going to cost over $1000. So finally my parents selected the body shop that promised that they would do their best to make the new paint match the old paint, and we left it there for a week.

    When we picked it up, half of the car was a beautiful metallic purple. And the other half that had been left as sun-faded as it originally was. And from that point on the people never knew what car they were seeing on the interstate. If they saw us heading in one direction, we were a purple car and if we were running in the other direction we were a pink car… and that’s the end of the story.

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