Tornado rocks El Dorado Hills

TWISTER! This tornado touched down south of the El Dorado Hills Business Park Tuesday, doing a small amount of damage and sending Doug Veerkamp Construction and Grace Foundation employees running for cover. Photo courtesy of Doug Veerkamp Construction

The last time anyone saw a tornado touch down in El Dorado County was 1972, the year Hewlett Packard introduced the first scientific hand-held calculator.

El Dorado Hills construction engineer Doug Veerkamp and a couple dozen of his employees reset that calendar Tuesday afternoon. At about 1:17 p.m., while they worked inside the company’s headquarters at the end of Wetsel-Oviatt Road, south of the El Dorado Hills Business Park, sheets of marble-sized hail descended on the steel-roofed office building — all that’s left of the old lumber mill that once occupied the site.

The racket chased Veerkamp and the office staff outside, where they witnessed Mother Nature flexing her muscles. Ominous dark clouds swirled above them and a funnel cloud bobbed behind the hills to the west. The funnel dissipated then reformed, moving steadily eastward, directly toward them.

“It dropped into that pasture over there … and all the sudden the surface moisture just rose up out of the ground; it was a water spout,” said Veerkamp the following day.

Veerkamp employee Chuck Sept of Placerville also saw the anomaly.

“As it came over the hill you could see it sucking the water up out of the pasture,” he said.

The funnel advanced on the building, the clouds got darker and the winds became more violent. Most of the employees retreated to a workshop structure across the parking lot.

“I was worried those power lines were going to touch,” said Veerkamp employee Jim Pinhiero. “Sure enough they did, twice.”

A power pole snapped and even more sparks flew.

High winds loosened two of the metal roof panels atop the office building. “It pulled them straight up in the air,” said Pinhiero.

The inside of the building suffered minor damage. A couple ceiling panels were pulled off, letting the wind blow papers around a couple offices.

“We can’t find Toto, but everything else is OK,” said office manager Kathy Gregg on Wednesday, between calls from media outlets, all wanting to talk to her boss.

“It went straight across the top of the roof, sucking that portion of the roof right off,” said Veerkamp. “Those big pieces of metal were lifted a couple hundred feet in the air. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As of last Wednesday afternoon, the crumpled roofing still lie in a field several hundred feet away. The winds also moved an old 6,000 pound water tower on a nearby hilltop a couple inches.

After hitting the Veerkamp property, the twister crossed Latrobe Road, where motorists pulled over and took cell phone photos. An old valley oak tree south of The Grace Foundation fell victim to the winds.

MOTHER NATURE FLEXES HER MUSCLE, giving Doug Veerkamp Construction employees clear views of the first tornado in El Dorado County since the '70s. Photo courtesy of Doug Veerkamp construction

Dave Fulton, Grace Foundation operations manager, pointed to large dimples in his pasture. “That was the hail,” he said. “It was crazy for a while, then it got totally still.”

Fulton and the other foundation staff hunkered down in their trailers when the storm hit. More than 100 rescue horses did the same in their barns as the eye of the storm passed a couple yards south of the complex.

“If it had come through here it could have been devastating,” said Fulton.

LOCAL CONSTRUCTION ENGINEER DOUG VEERKAMP stands near his company's office building, which suffered the only structural damage done by Tuesday's tornado. Photo courtesy of Doug Veerkamp Construction

The tornado was listed as an “EF1” by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist Kathy Hoxsie, who conducted the damage assessment. Tornadoes are ranked on a rising severity scale from EF0 through EF5. Wind speeds inside an EF1 tornado range from 86 to 110 miles per hour.

No injuries were reported. The tornado apparently petered out before reaching Marble Valley. The damage to Veerkamp’s office building was estimated at $1,000.

Was Veerkamp worried as the tornado bore down on him? “All of us Californians were out here trying to take pictures of it,” he said with a grin. “The guy from Nebraska went straight to the mill’s old concrete safe.”

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