The 1987 Tornado

On July 31, 1987, Edmonton was struck by a tornado. It killed 27 people and injured hundreds. I am thankful that neither I--nor anyone I knew--was directly affected. Like many Edmontonians, I have vivid memories of that day (whether they are accurate is another matter).

At the time, I was a typical university student, working during the summer. It had been a hot few days, and thundershowers were in the forecast. I noticed the storm clouds brewing that afternoon. It was hard not to notice them.They were an ugly, greenish-gray. More eloquent people than me have described them as looking like the colour of a bruise. That dark, sickening colour was what attracted my attention in the first place, and then I noticed something even stranger. The clouds were...turning.

Maybe clouds rotate sometimes, but if they did, I never noticed. Not only were they turning, but they were turning pretty quickly. It was mesmerizing to watch--but in the back of my mind, I had a prickling sensation of this can't be good. Then the rain started.

Pelting, hammering waves of rain pounded the the house; the rain turned to hail, and I was sure a window would break. We had guests visiting from Germany; they weren't familiar with prairie storms, and sought shelter in the basement. Soon my parents and I joined them, but we could still hear the howling wind, rain, and hail. And then, it stopped.

Emerging blinking out into the day, we saw the yard covered with an icy layer of hail. I went outside and found one as big as a baseball. I put it into the freezer, where it eventually sublimated away to half its size. I should have taken a picture of it.

There were bits of pink insulation strewn around the neighbourhood, hanging from power lines, and there were bits of what looked like construction materials scattered around. We didn't know it then, but we were seeing the detritus of destroyed houses from miles away. There were choirs of sirens wailing in the distance. And I had to go to work at Superstore (customer service agent, first class!). I took my mom's Chevette, which didn't have a tape player, so I had to make do with the radio. That's how I first learned that there had been a tornado.

The roads were relatively devoid of the normal late-Friday-afternoon traffic, and the store wasn't busy at all. I wasn't at work long before there was an unexpected glitch: the power went out. This had never happened before, and no one had prepared us for this. The managers told us to get the customers out--they had to leave their carts and just get out. But then word spread that another funnel cloud had been spotted. (Likely this was misinformation--some news reports said there were two tornados, one on the south side, one on the north side.)

No one wanted to leave the store. The customers were milling around, looking dubiously at the sky. I was awfully nervous standing at the front of the store, where there were a lot of huge windows. And going into the store didn't seem like a good idea, either. I imagined a maelstrom of flying cans, bottles, and, for some reason, nectarines. But there was no second tornado. And the managers eventually let us all go home. So I sat glued to the radio, and then the TV as the news coverage started.

The strongest emotion I felt was shock. A tornado? Edmonton doesn't get tornadoes. No hurricanes, typhoons, tropical storms, or tornadoes. But we found out that tornadoes are actually not uncommon on the prairies after all. So when there are hot summer days, and the forecast says there are severe thunderstorms with a risk of tornadoes developing, many of us are going to be watching the skies for clouds that turn around.

Why aren't you studying?


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