Reliving one of the worst storms to ever hit Central Alberta

The recent terrible tragedy at Moore, Oklahoma is a reminder of the incredible destructive power of tornadoes. Tornadoes are relatively rare in Central Alberta, but unfortunately, not rare enough.

Many will remember the Pine Lake tornado on July 14, 2000, which is the worst natural disaster in Central Alberta’s history and one of the five worst tornados to ever strike in Canada. The second worst tornado in Canadian history was the one that struck Edmonton on July 31, 1987.

One destructive tornado, however, which has been largely forgotten, is the one that destroyed most of the town of Rocky Mountain House on July 8, 1927. It was the worst storm to strike Central Alberta until the Pine Lake tragedy 73 years later.

The summer of 1927 had been generally hot and muggy. According to one local newspaper correspondent “The days of deluge and days of bright sunshine alternate so rapidly that it’s hard to keep track of what were the good and bad days in any given week”.

The weather on Friday, July 8th fit that pattern. It was very humid. Temperatures gradually worked their way up to 28C (83F) shortly after noon.

As the afternoon progressed, people began to notice an almost eerie stillness in the air. Then around 2:30 p.m., they noticed a thunderstorm appearing to the southwest. As the storm drew nearer, the clouds began to take on a very ominous appearance and colour.

It began to rain and to hail a bit. Then the clouds formed into a funnel and phenomenal winds struck. Trees on the edge of town began to sway heavily and then appeared to start jumping into the air. One witness described what followed as “Three minutes of hell unadorned”.

Soon the air was full of hundreds of swirling boards. As the storm proceeded up the Main St., windows began to shatter and doors blew open. Then roofs began to lift, walls began to bulge and whole buildings began to be swept away.

The amount of damage was astounding. Fifty businesses were destroyed or damaged, as were several residences, barns, garages and other structures.

There were many remarkable sights. Walter Good watched a cook stove fly over his head. His wife’s dishpan got wrapped around the top of a telephone pole by the wind. A bundle of pitchforks were blasted out of one of the hardware stores and were later found more than a kilometre away.

Two people were severely injured, but miraculously no one was killed. Jack Fuller rushed to the middle of a store to avoid flying glass when the roof began to blow off. He was hit by a piece of timber and crawled towards the door. As he reached it, the front wall fell outwards. He ended up with cuts and bad bruises.

The storm proceeded north-eastwards, tearing up the countryside and heavily damaging several farms. As it proceeded across Gull Lake, witnesses saw a waterspout estimated to be as much as 30m high. As the storm roared through the Wetaskiwin area, further tragedy struck. Three men were killed when the granary in which they had taken refuge was swept away by the whirlwind.

There was an incredible rain after the tornado had passed. This turned the torn up ground into a quagmire. In some areas, the hail pounded crops into a pulp and in at least one case, pounded a huge hole in a farmer’s roof.

In looking at the devastation along Rocky’s Main St., a witness described it as looking like “A war-shelled area, lacking only the shell holes”.

Damage was estimated at $250,000, the equivalent of several millions of dollars in today’s money. Still, people marveled that the loss of life from the storm had not been greater. Moreover, almost everyone who had been injured in the storm had a complete recovery.

The man who had described the storm as “Three minutes of hell unadorned” added “Three weeks of reconstruction” and “Three years to wipe out the loss” and finally “Three cheers for all the laddies who were carrying on”.