"We never get tornados here." That was the proud boast of Edmontonians before July 31, 1987. On that Friday, a category five twister ravaged an industrial area of the city before demolishing a trailer park in the northeast.
Though I wasn't an eye witness to the tornado, I clearly remember the events of that day. Like previous mornings, the weather was warm and sunny. As I sat on a park bench in the Legislature grounds at noon with my bag of sandwiches, The sky grew cloudy. Throughout July, we had thunderstorms roll through every afternoon. I assumed this would be just another storm.
I was wrong. The thunder rolled continuously for twenty minutes at the height of the storm. I had never heard that sort of continuous rumbling before but a woman from Hong Kong had. She said that it was like that during typhoons.
At three o'clock, a man from another government department rushed into our office and announced, "There's a tornado in the south side. I just heard it on the radio." We listened in stunned silence as the newscaster described the destruction.
A half hour later, the senior supervisor of Transport Canada's Airports department announced that we should all go home. The streets were so congested that my ten-minute bus ride home lasted for ninety minutes. The rain fell so hard that it was like being in a shower.
I switched on my portable amateur radio transceiver as soon as I arrived at my rented suite. Hams relayed emergency messages between the Red Cross and concerned loved ones. They also assisted in relaying messages between medical personnel, the police, and hospitals. As in other emergency situations, the phone system became overloaded with frantic callers from other parts of the province and beyond as they tried to contact their loved ones. Radio stations also broadcast warnings to citizens not to use the phone unless it was an emergency.
By six o'clock, the brunt of the storm had passed. As rain continued to fall, I watched the news reports of the devastation in shocked silence. Industrial sites and the trailer park looked like they had been bombed. I can't recall off hand how many people died and were injured but everybody felt stunned at the carnage. This had never happened to the city before.
According to Environment Canada, the province of Alberta has 350 to 400 tornados in an average summer. Almost all of these touch down in rural areas. Edmonton's Black Friday twister occurred as a result of the wetter-than-usual July and a cold front that pushed its way into the area from the northwest. As a result of that twister, Environment Canada now announces tornado watches and warnings whenever conditions are right for possible severe weather. It's a shame that people had to die and others lost their homes before these measures were implemented. The pride of Edmontonians was crushed that day and the citizens learned a painful lesson from that traumatic experience.