The 1987 Edmonton Tornado

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Things were pretty great if you were a sports fan in Edmonton in 1987.
The Oilers were at the top of the standings in the NHL, and on May 31, the team captured its third Stanley Cup in four years.
Wayne Gretzky, the captain, won four trophies that season and the doom of his departure to the Los Angeles kings was still a year away.
In the CFL, the Edmonton Football Team was on its way to winning the Grey Cup on Nov. 29 over the Toronto Argonauts.
But, before that second shining moment could happen… the city fell into a deep darkness.
July 31, 1987, became known as Black Friday.
The day Edmonton changed forever with a single storm.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!

Weather events have fascinated and terrified humans throughout history.
Hurricanes, floods, blizzards and other unexplained natural phenomena were often justified as the will and action of gods.
As science offered explanation and clarity, our fascination continued, there’s something about being powerless to the elements that makes us all cower.
Yet, nothing seems to capture our imagination, quite like a tornado.
From Dorothy being swept away by one to the magical land of Oz to 1996’s Twister, nothing has quite enthralled us like windstorms. Each year in the United States, 800 to 1,200 tornadoes touch down, primarily in Tornado Alley, the area that stretches from northern Texas to South Dakota.
The most of any country in the world.
Four times more than all of Europe combined.
What country ranks second?
That would be Canada.Alberta and Saskatchewan have the most within the country, with 14 to 20 per year.
The Blackfoot of the Canadian southern Prairies called tornadoes Windsucker.
According to their oral stories, the Windsucker lived in a cave and within his mouth were the many bodies of those he had killed.
The earliest documented tornado struck Port Robinson, in present-day Ontario, in 1792.
In Alberta, the earliest recorded tornado hit on Aug. 14, 1907, near Vermilion, about one hour east of Edmonton.
From 1915 to 2020, 167 tornadoes were recorded in Alberta, the majority being between 1980 and 2020.
That doesn’t mean there were more tornadoes, it just means there were more reported.
June 1 and Aug. 15 sees the hottest temperatures in Alberta which can fuel immense thunderstorms across the province.
The worst Canadian tornado, by death toll, occurred at Regina on June 30, 1912. Known as the Regina Cyclone it was an F-4 twister that cut a five-block-wide swath through the city, killing 28 people, injuring 200 and left 2,500 left homeless.
About 500 buildings were destroyed.

Coming in second is the tornado that struck Edmonton on a hot day in late July 1987.
When the sun rose on July 31, 1987, and newspapers hit the newsstand the front page of the Edmonton Journal, featured an image of a daredevil riding on the wing of a biplane over Red Deer, Alberta.
A story about a one-cent postage price increase and the move by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to halt refugees’ ships filled most of the front page.
The weather forecasted a high of 26 degrees, with some rain and possible thunderstorms.
Throughout the week leading up to that day, a low-pressure system had been sitting over southwestern British Columbia.
That fed a line of warm and humid air into central Alberta.
All week, hot temperatures in Edmonton created near-record dew points.
The dew point measures atmospheric moisture and shows the temperature at which air cools to condense and make clouds.
The higher the dew point, the more moisture in the air and that means stronger thunderstorms.
Three days leading up to July 31, over 300 millimetres of rain fell in the region, causing the water levels in the four major rivers around the city to rise as much as eight metres.
Tennis ball-sized hailstones fell on the western edge of the city during one storm, knocking two people unconscious in the process.
Between July 25 and 30, 14 tornadoes were reported across the province, ranging from F0 to F2.
The scene was set for a perfect storm… pun intended.
(small pause)
On July 31, a cold front developed in western Alberta and collided with the warm, moist air that had lingered over the region.
Weather forecasters predicted that the day could see an elevated risk of severe weather, with potentially vicious thunderstorms.
That turned out to be an understatement.
I have spent most of my life living in central Alberta. In fact, I grew up on a farm just outside Edmonton, although I wasn’t there on this day.
What I can tell you is that whenever we have thunderstorms, they develop at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains about 300 kilometres east of the city and e storms slowly move towards Edmonton and Central Alberta, gathering strength as the heat rises from the ground.
That is exactly what happened on July 31. The first severe weather watch was issued for Central Alberta in the morning, citing a potential for thunderstorms.
A severe weather watch for Edmonton specifically, was issued at 1:40 p.m.
One hour later, it was upgraded to a severe weather warning.
There can be some confusion between what is a watch and what is a warning.
The best way to explain it is by using tacos.
When you have all the ingredients for a taco, you have a taco watch because there is the potential to make a taco.
When those ingredients are made into a taco, you have a taco warning, because now the taco is fully formed.
It is the same with storms.

At 2:50 p.m., the first line of storms hit the Edmonton area and one violent cell was rapidly developing ahead of it.
Like a monster in the water looking for a victim, the storm turned northward towards Alberta’s capital city.
To prepare for this episode, I asked my Twitter followers to share their experiences of Black Friday. I received over 80 responses.
Barbara Larochelle said she looked at the sky, and saw the clouds were a sickly green. She described the air as heavy and strange.
Most of the responses mentioned how odd the clouds looked, and how you thought it strange that the sky was green, that you had never seen it like that before.
Meanwhile at 2:52, the Weatheradio Canada emergency tone was activated, and the Edmonton transmitter sent out a signal that severe weather was approaching.
At 2:59 p.m. as this monster storm passed east of Leduc, 15 minutes south of Edmonton, the first tornado was reported.
It briefly touched down before it dissipated.
Local resident Tom Taylor heard clunking on his roof as the storm passed.
He went outside to see what was happening, and saw a funnel cloud moving over his house, heading towards the city.
He said, quote.
“As I watched to the northeast towards Beaumont, the belly of the cloud slumped down and it spit out a huge funnel, much larger. It was dense, you couldn’t see through it.” end quote.
Two minutes later, the tornado touched down again near Beaumont, 10 minutes south of Edmonton.
It had grown in size, and several granaries and farm equipment were tossed around like toys.
The beast was moving closer to the city and getting stronger with every passing second.
At 3:04 p.m., Edmonton was put under a tornado warning as a massive multi-vortex tornado touched down at the city limits.
At the time the southeast corner of Edmonton was known as Millwoods.
When the tornado hit the neighbourhood, it was registering as an F2 or F3.
Based on the Fujita Scale for tornadoes, an F2 can cause considerable damage with wind speeds between 181 to 252 kilometers per hour.
When upgraded to an F3 it can cause severe damage with winds between 254 to 331 kilometres per hour.

After the tornado touched down in the neighbourhood and moved on, firefighters rescued 20 people from collapsed buildings.
A total of 32 homes were damaged, and hail measured 10 centimetres in diameter.
The tornado now turned its sights on the Sherwood Park Freeway.
(small beat)
The freeway was jammed with traffic as people made their way early to enjoy the summer long weekend.
As the tornado crossed over it, it picked up several cars and tossed them.
Dale Campbell barely escaped with his life.

The fact that the freeway sunk into the ground under the monster storm’s force likely saved many people.
This is why you always go into a basement or ditch if a tornado is approaching.
Your best chance for survival is to be out of the wind, and out of way of flying debris. As the tornado left the freeway in its wake, it moved towards Refinery Row, the industrial part of the city.
By now it was a monster F4 with wind speeds of 333 to 418 kilometres per hour.
As it approached it picked up rail cars and oil tanks and tossed hundreds of feet in the air before they landed.
Several industrial buildings were completely levelled, and various trailers were thrown kilometers away.
At Central Fabricators, a company specialized in oilfield equipment and repair, a ten-minute tornado warning saved the workers at the site who fled into the steel framed building, for protection.
At the Stelco Steel Mill, the overhead cranes were thrown around, and the building itself was severely damaged.
Byers Transport lost several buildings and dozens of trucks were destroyed but employees were spared by taking cover in a sub-basement.
Over at Lee Mason Tools, the three-sectioned reinforced concrete block building collapsed with the workers still inside.
Thankfully, the large machine tools in the building held the roof above the floor, saving the employees lives. But others weren’t so lucky in Refinery Row, 12 people were killed.

Machine shop worker Glen Petruk said that after the tornado passed, it looked like a giant spade shovel had dug up the industrial area and turned it upside down.
Analysts looking at the grass scouring, and windrow debris believe the tornado may have briefly been an F5.
An F5 is the most severe tornado with wind speeds over 420 kilometres per hour.
Canada had never had a recorded F5 tornado before
Since 1987, there has only been one verified F5 tornado to ever hit Canada.
It hit on June 22, 2007, near the rural area of Elie, Manitoba and because of it there were no casualties.
During Black Friday, the tornado weakened slightly as it passed over the North Saskatchewan River, but it still had the intensity of an F3 intensity, and the worst was yet to come.
The beast was moving towards the city and hit the Clareview area at around 4 p.m., causing extensive damage to homes in the Kernohan, Bannerman and Fraser neighbourhoods.
It damaged 463 homes, destroyed 37 and left 10 people injured. A man and two women had to be rescued out of a collapsed building.

Leanne, one of my Twitter followers, was visiting cousins in Clareview for a family get-together when she saw the green sky.
One of her cousins thought her uncle was throwing ice off the balcony but they quickly realized it was hail.
As they ran into the basement, the tornado tore through the upstairs of the home.
Another woman named Jody Zenko came home to find a boat had been thrown into the side of her house.
As the tornado continued its path to the northeast it struck the Evergreen Mobile Home Park.
This is where the storm was the deadliest.
Over 200 mobile homes were destroyed, dozens of people were injured and 15 people were killed.
A one-week-old baby named Kristen was torn from her grandfather’s arms by the winds.
She miraculously survived and was found by a stranger l.
Meanwhile, Kristen’s mother Monique was frantically looking for her daughter.
Hours later, her friend Marin told her that she had seen a man walking out of the destruction with a baby.
Monique eventually found her daughter at the hospital, where she remained for two weeks, Iwas unable to find if Kristen’s grandfather survived.
With the worst of the destruction behind it, the storm moved out of Edmonton and began to dissipate.
The tornado’s path covered 37 kilometres and lasted for over an hour, 10 times longer than the average.
It killed 27 people, injured 600 and adjusted to today’s funds it caused $400 million in damage.
This included flooded streets and basements, ruptured gas lines and fires across east Edmonton.
With so many injuries, hospitals were quickly overwhelmed.
On Twitter Mike told me that his mother was a nurse working on that day. Everyone was called in to help.
His father was a truck driver and without cell phones, his mother didn’t know if her husband and children were okay.
As she helped patients, she asked them what part of the city they came from so she could determine if the tornado had been anywhere near her family.
Thankfully, everyone was okay. And that is really a miracle because this monster tornado wasn’t the only one to strike the Edmonton area that day.
There were FOUR F0 tornadoes, with wind speeds of less than 135 kilometres per hour.
That is on top of one F1 and two F2s, which caused minimal damage in the outlying areas.
In total there were seven tornados reported on Black Friday.
Throughout the city, underpasses were flooded out, and phone lines were down.
Most residents couldn’t reach their loved ones.
They turned to the radio for news as TV and power was off for most of the city.
There was no social media and no way to get real-time information, so the lack of information was difficult for many residents.
Kathy said on my Twitter that she had no power for three days, without battery power or hand cranked radio she couldn’t even listen to the radio.
For hours she had no idea how badly the city was damaged, and her extended family couldn’t reach her for over a day.
Walton said he was 12 and was heading out of the city with his aunt and uncle as they watched the sky go dark out the back window.
The reception on the radio cut out and they found an old transistor radio to listen to updates on the storm.
Sandy said she was living in the Sherbrooke area of and was left with no power. She had no idea what happened or that a tornado had hit the other side of the city.
It wasn’t until 7 p.m. that night when Sandy’s mother-in-law called from Prince Edward Island to check on the family that Sandy realized the size of the devastation.
Justin told me his dad was a milkman who delivered in the Clareview area. Thankfully he was okay, but the family didn’t know it on the day of the storm.
Justin and his mother nervously sat in the car and listened to the radio, As they sat there, baseball sized hail fell around them.
The Canadian Red Cross quickly mobilized and opened its phone lines to those who needed assistance and brought in 1,300 registered volunteers to help.
They processed 11,000 inquiries within a day and quickly distributed food and beverages to displaced families, and organized housing for 89 families.
A Victim Assistance Centre was set up on Aug. 3 for 842 families.
The Canadian Armed Forces also mobilized.
At nearby CFB Edmonton, the Department of National Defence put helicopters and ambulances into action to help recovery and rescue efforts.
The disaster response lasted for three weeks.

Following the tornado, an investigation was launched to determine issues with the warning and response systems.
The report found that:
Radio traffic was a major concern, summarize the issue here.
It also found that rescue operations were hampered and there was a need for a better system for registering injured and missing.
It also recommended that all rescue personnel have an emergency flashlight, possibly on the helmet and that search crews should carry tape to avoid searching areas already searched. After the dust settled from the storm a new system was implemented that has likely saved the lives of many Canadians since.

In response to the tornado disaster, the Emergency Public Warning System was developed.
This system breaks into private and public broadcasts on radio and television to alert of disaster hazards that may strike with little or no warning.
Today, the system is the Alberta Emergency Alert and broadcasts directly to cell phones. It also issues Amber Alerts.
The tornado also resulted in the first implementation of the Doppler weather radar concept in Canada.
This system was developed in the early-1990s and the Carvel radar, located just to the southwest of Edmonton, was one of three Dopplers to be implemented in Canada at the time.
It provided real time views of approaching storms, with far more accuracy than satellite imagery.
By 1998, the Canadian weather radar network had been completely Dopplerized, creating a clear look at the weather patterns of the country.
If you have a weather app on your phone, and you can see a storm approaching, that is all thanks to Doppler radar.
The warning system and Doppler radar came in handy while working on this episode, as an EF4 tornado, the strongest since the July 31 1987Edmonton Tornado, hit near Didsbury, Alberta north of Calgary.
While 12 homes were damaged and three were destroyed, thankfully no one was killed, and no one was seriously injured.
Information from CBC, Global, Edmonton Journal, Readers Digest, Canadian Red Cross, Wikipedia, Daily Hive, Royal Alberta Museum,

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