COLORADO SPRINGS — The fusillade was over in a matter of minutes, but by then 14 people had been hurt, numerous animals killed, 538 cars totaled and virtually every roof in the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo destroyed.
“It was like someone dumped a batting cage from heaven,” zoo CEO Bob Chastain said. His staff, which recently received initial damage estimates from the zoo’s insurance carrier of $4.5 million, is still mourning the creatures lost, including a peahen named Katy Perry. “One person’s watch exploded when it was hit by hail, and another got hit so hard in the head it dented their hard-hat. Someone at the hospital said without that they would have suffered severe injuries.”
The mile-high plain along Colorado’s Front Range sits within a region known colloquially as “hail alley,” which extends from Texas and Oklahoma up into the Dakotas. This is ground pounded year after year by the highest frequency of large hail in North America, and as the metropolitan areas nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains here keep growing, the potential for greater and more costly destruction keeps growing, too.
This year is lining up to be the 11th in a row in which hail-pummeled homeowners incur at least $10 billion in losses, which represents almost 70 percent of insured property losses from severe storms annually. The mounting sums have prompted a renaissance in hail research, with scientists trying to comprehend what causes these cataclysmic tempests and if they could worsen as the planet warms. The impacts are outpacing advances in forecasting, detection and mitigation.
Compared with tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes, hailstorms are underrated and little-understood. Yet they are a climatic phenomenon responsible in this country for causing about as much damage in an average year as hurricanes.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” said Andreas Prein, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who studies severe thunderstorms and climate change. Based on data from high-resolution models that test how hailstorms might behave by the end of the century, he expects they will unleash larger rather than smaller stones. “There is a real threat that climate change will increase the hazard quite a lot.”
What is already clear is that extreme storms capable of spawning hail are becoming more frequent and more intense, said Prein, who presented his research at a first-of-its-kind hail conference in Boulder just one week after Colorado Springs was battered. The huge financial losses recorded to date reflect not only the booming population in hail-prone communities but also what people are constructing.
Ian Giammanco studies the effects of severe weather on the built environment as lead research meteorologist at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. “Places that were open fields and farmland 20 years ago are now dense suburban areas,” he noted recently. And the houses going up, which in the early 1980s were about 1,700 square feet, exceeded 2,500 square feet in 2015: “With large homes, you get bigger roofs, and more material that has to be replaced when a hail event happens.”
Colorado ranks third in the nation for the fastest-rising auto and homeowners’ insurance rates, largely because of the “catastrophic cycle of year after year of record-breaking hail storms,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. In some cases, customers’ premiums rival what Californians may pay for earthquake insurance.
The state’s most expensive insured disaster is a $2.3 billion hailstorm that hit suburban Denver neighborhoods on May 8, 2017. It pulverized an entire mall, forcing scores of businesses to close and putting thousands temporarily out of work.
The previous year in hail alley, millions of people in Texas had suffered $6.1 billion in home and auto losses from hail and wind, with insured hail losses amounting to two-thirds of all homeowner claims that state residents filed in 2016, according to a spokesperson for the Insurance Council of Texas.
In Colorado Springs, about an hour’s drive south of Denver, residents had scarcely recovered from what some called a 25-year hail event June 13 when the Aug. 6 storm hit the zoo and the surrounding area. About 50,000 homes were besieged by both storms.
“There was hail in peoples’ living rooms — it punched through the shingles and the plywood,” said Michael Moore, owner of Divine Roofing. “It exposed asbestos and lead paint, leaving some families to live in hotels for three or four months while their homes are remediated.”
The one-two punch also left more vehicles damaged than not and forced some lower-income residents to spend payouts they received for damaged roofs on new cars just to get to work. Some residents had just purchased a new car after the first storm, only to have it totaled by the second.
“It’s like vehicles got rolled in a ditch,” said James Bishop, owner of the Ding Guy, who has appointments booked into February. “The repair tickets are huge — in the $15,000 to $20,000 range.”
The Denver metropolitan area, which has mushroomed to 3.5 million people, has hardly been spared. “Machine-gun” hail wiped out suburban farmers’ crops in early spring and then again in August. Those smaller operations don’t qualify for crop insurance, and several have turned to online fundraising campaigns to stay afloat.
“Everything in the area that had leaves lost at least half of them,” wrote Erin Dreistadt and Jason Griffith, co-owners of Aspen Moon Farm, on their website. “Small sprouts and shoots were essentially pounded flat. Our beautiful sugar snap peas looked like they had been trampled by a herd of wild horses.”
Some homeowners in the suburb of Aurora are replacing roofs for the fourth time in seven years. And even before the sidewalks were dry after an August hailstorm there, roofing companies guided by apps that pinpoint damaged homes descended on neighborhoods in droves. The unsolicited door-knocking went on for days, prompting one family to tape a sign in the front window: “Do Not Knock On Our Door — Unless You’re Selling Girl Scout Cookies.”
The Greater Denver and Central Colorado Better Business Bureau logged 283 complaints about roofers in 2017 and 290 so far this year, said Ezra Coopersmith, its investigations coordinator.
“Every storm, we have more fraught cases, more scams and more consumers getting hurt,” said Jeff Johnston, president of the Colorado Roofing Association, who acknowledged that hundreds of companies soliciting do not carry proper insurance and charge customers upfront, only to do shoddy work or disappear.
Back in Colorado Springs, Divine Roofing’s Moore said he is already fixing leaks in roofs replaced by contractors that did not respond when homeowners tried to inform them of problems. He expects such work to escalate as winter descends.
“We haven’t seen the end of it yet,” Moore said. “Some people are going to be waiting well into next year to get their roof done.”