Neighborly kindness erupts out of tornado devastation for Colorado veterinarian

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Jun 02, 2008

It was 65 degrees, pleasant, and sunny last Thursday in Englewood, Colo. Dr. Robin Downing remembers the weather vividly as she walked out of a meeting and to her car. Two minutes after shutting the car door, her cell phone rang. It was her associate, who was on duty at Windsor Veterinary Clinic in Windsor, Colo. Dr. Downing is co-owner and director of the hospital. "I'm not sure what just happened," the associate said. "I think a tornado just came through."

The twister
The May 22 storm produced seven tornados and damaged more than 800 homes in the area to the tune of an estimated $147 million. There was little warning, Dr. Downing says. Tornados aren't much of a problem in the region, so there aren't tornado sirens. But even if there were sirens, Dr. Downing says only a few minutes passed between the first tornado and the one that hit Windsor. Some residents and business owners received a reverse 911 call telling them to seek shelter. It happened so fast that no one at Dr. Downing's clinic got the call.

When Dr. Downing drove into her clinic's parking lot at about 1:30 p.m.—roughly an hour after the tornado touched down—police officers, EMTs, and fire trucks were already all over town and had set up at a command center at the local fire station.

The damage was stunning. About 150 yards from Windsor Veterinary Clinic, two of three brick-laden stories of an old mill were torn away. Next door, sheet metal had been sheered off of a five-story granary. Just 100 yards to the south, 100-year-old trees had been uprooted and thrown onto the collapsed roofs of nearby homes.

But Dr. Downing's clinic survived.

The clinic
"The tornado just seemed to hop over us," Dr. Downing says. She was relieved to find that no one was hurt—animal or human. In fact, moments before Dr. Downing showed up her associate had sent a client home—safe and sound—who had been caught at the clinic during the storm. Team members who left in the next few hours were lucky too: Their homes only had minor damage.

Windsor Veterinary Clinic's roof was damaged by high winds and hail, but the damage was temporarily covered from any more rain after a few days. Now Dr. Downing is just waiting her turn to meet with an insurance adjuster.

But another veterinary hospital in the area wasn't so lucky. Dr. Downing says her colleague, the team, and the pets inside Garden Valley Veterinary Hospital huddled together in the most secure area of the building as the tornado ripped away the roof and walls. No one was injured, but the hospital was demolished. That veterinarian plans to rebuild, Dr. Downing says. Only one pet went missing from Garden Valley during the storm. According to news reports, after a couple hours of digging through the rubble, rescuers found the 14-year-old cat named Sassy injured, but alive.

The aftermath
Dr. Downing's voice shakes with emotion when she talks about the community response to the disaster. The mayor, the police and fire chiefs, and the rest of the town's leadership set up a recovery plan within hours. The National Guard watched over debris-strewn neighborhoods so residents could gather valuables from damaged homes. Police from 50 miles around worked in shifts to patrol the streets of Windsor. Local grocery stores gave away bottled water and dry ice to keep food in unpowered refrigerators fresh.

But the most touching response for Dr. Downing was that of her own clients. When they couldn't get through on the phones in the first few hours after the storm, they drove to her clinic to check on her and her employees. "Do you need help?" they asked. "Do you need dog food or supplies for pets who would be housed at the clinic?" "Do you need us to house any pets?" The clinic was closed for the next few days, but Dr. Downing lives on the second floor of the practice building. The microwave wasn't working and she couldn't use the stove because of gas leaks. So clients brought her food. "They said they couldn't leave us without food," she says.

The clinic's land line was down for days, so Dr. Downing transferred calls to her personal cell phone. Family, friends, and veterinarians from neighboring towns called to volunteer to provide supplies or house pets for the temporarily homeless. Dr. Downing was overwhelmed.

"We take these things, these relationships, for granted," she says. "Things like this remind us how important those relationships with other people are. The magnitude of compassion and concern here in our community is staggering."

Dr. Downing points to the Red Cross disaster relief as proof. Hours after the disaster, the Red Cross prepared food, water, and beds for more than 300 families—the number displaced by the storm. Only five people showed up for the aid. The rest were immediately absorbed by neighbors, friends, and family.

Dr. Downing, who grew up in big-city Chicago, thinks this incredible compassion for neighbors and friends is simply part of that "small-town, Western ethic."

For pictures and local news reports on the tornados, read these:

> "Sassy the Cat Survived Colorado Tornado"

> "Hundreds of North Colorado Tornado Victims Return to Their Homes"

> "Tornado Crisis Fund Total Mounts"