Last year, a tornado decimated a small Colorado town and one unfortunate family. Now the residents of Holly are slowly rebuilding their homes and lives the only way they know how—by looking ahead instead of revisiting the past.
Rosemary Puga was one of two fatalities caused by the tornado that ripped through Holly, a southeastern Colorado agricultural community of about 1,000 people, on March 28, 2007. Around 8 p.m.—the lazy stretch between dinner and bedtime good for flipping channels and playing board games—the twister touched down. Within two minutes, 150 mph winds damaged and destroyed homes, crushed cars, and severed power lines before churning beyond town limits and eventually dissipating into the plains.
Today, a simple homemade memorial, adorned with colorful flowers and a cast of the Virgin Mary, marks the spot where the tree beside the Puga home once stood—a tree that held so much pain for the family that they had it bulldozed within days after the tornado. Repaired railroad tracks lie across the uneven street, the only border between the town and the rolling plains that stretch to the southern horizon, where the twister tore through the open fields, gathering its deadly momentum. Overgrown brush has cropped up behind the small altar, sitting 20 feet from the still-outlined foundation of the Puga home.
Renewal and rebirth have become the focal points of Holly's recovery mission, but its remoteness has hindered progress. The town has one grocery market, one convenience store, and two taverns, and folks drive the half-hour west to Lamar or 20 minutes east to Syracuse, Kansas, to dine out, shop, or see their doctor. Holly's lone claim to fame is as the hometown of former Governor Roy Romer.
If Holly ever had a boom, it came and went with the Gateway racetrack, where horse racing once drew reasonable revenue before the state lottery arrived. Once gambling became as easy as walking to the corner store, the track shut down. Anderson, 43, is one of several horse trainers who live in the area but travel frequently to wherever the races dictate. "This place is like a black hole," he says. "All the radars pretty much miss it."
Some Holly residents are ready to push forward; others can't get past what used to be and remain skeptical about a comeback. The tornado was, after all, just another setback, coming soon after the biblical December blizzards that hurt the area's cattle supply and much of the region's economy. "We are isolated," says town administrator Marcia Willhite, a farmer's daughter herself. "It's sometimes hard for people to grasp what is possible for us. They've just learned to do with what they have for so many years."
The Holly Recovery Task Force, formed after the storm, organizes relief efforts, provides mental health services, and coordinates low-interest loans for residential victims. The tornado destroyed 48 structures, damaged another 114 buildings, and temporarily displaced 58 families. As of press time, 10 of those families had left Holly to start over in Lamar or Kansas. Sixteen families still were waiting to return to permanent dwellings, either living in FEMA trailers or staying with family. "People are still willing to stay here, even through the hard times," says Mary Rushton, a task force case manager. "It's been slow for some, but they just keep saying, 'We're gonna make it.'"
Colorado's Department of Local Affairs, helped by grants and corporate and private donations, is funding about $7 million of new projects. These include water and sewer pipe repairs, new zoning regulations, moving the Main Street electrical system underground so streetlights won't have wires hanging overhead, and a first-ever building code that recommends storm shelters for certain public facilities. Willhite empathizes with residents who are frustrated by the state's response time. "It's amazing how quickly we've moved forward, but the public doesn't know all this," she says. "It takes time for everything to come into play, get approved, and be engineered. The bureaucracy at the state level got a little overwhelming. It was horrifying—it didn't move. Every day people aren't in their houses, they're making plans to leave Holly. And in a little town, you lose one family and you notice."