Thirty years after deadly Edmonton tornado, storms remain difficult to track

From his acreage on a hill in Leduc County, Tom Taylor was the first person to report the Edmonton tornado. Thirty years later, he still can't believe the destruction it caused.

On July 31, 1987, a massive tornado killed 27 people, injured 600 and did $300 million in damage

The tornado that hit Edmonton on July 31, 1987, had a kilometre-wide path. (CBC)

From his hillside acreage in Leduc County, Tom Taylor was the first person to report the Edmonton tornado.

Thirty years later, he still can't believe the destruction it caused. 

The tornado on July 31, 1987 that killed 27 people, injured 600, left hundreds more homeless and did $300 million in damage, started as a small translucent funnel about a mile from Taylor's house, south of Edmonton.

The funnel lasted 10 seconds before the formation moved over his house. 

"I could hear the shingles making a noise," Taylor told CBC News. "I could hear clunking on the roof. I guess I didn't realize the significance of what I was seeing and how deadly they could be."
Tom Taylor storm watches on his property in Leduc as an anvil cloud forms in background. (Tom Taylor)

Taylor called the weather office at 2:48 p.m. to report what he believed to be a tornado, though he'd never seen one before.

Environment Canada meteorologist Brian Proctor confirmed the chain of events. 

"It initially touched down in Leduc county as a very thin rope tornado, moved over the weather watcher who initially reported it," Proctor said.

Taylor went to the loft of his house where he had an elevated view of the maelstrom ripping across the city.

"As I watched to the northeast, towards Beaumont, the belly of the cloud slumped down and it spit out a huge funnel, much larger," he said. "It was dense. You couldn't see through it."

Twelve people died in an industrial area in east Edmonton and Strathcona County, and as the storm moved north 15 people more were killed in the Evergreen Mobile Home Park. 

The Edmonton tornado looked like a monster.- former University of Alberta professor, Edward Lozowski

"Every once in awhile, it hit a building," Taylor recalled. "I could tell because there was an explosion of debris all around the base of the funnel that was on the ground."

With hail stones as large as tennis balls and a funnel base a kilometre wide, the tornado was a menacing sight, said Edward Lozowski, a former professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alberta.

"The Edmonton tornado looked like a monster," he said. "The funnel was black. It just looked very scary, it did not look picturesque at all."

Software has made storm predicting easier

The killer tornado prompted the government to install the first Doppler radar for the region, which allowed meteorologists to see the intense winds and better predict the storm behaviour.

"We didn't have the tools then that we have now," said Proctor, who was working as a meteorologist at CFB Edmonton the night the tornado struck. "The scientific knowledge of Tornado-producing supercells wasn't developed."

At Environment Canada offices, information now comes through almost in real-time, said Jesse Wagar at the Prairie and Arctic Storm Prediction Centre. 
Brian Proctor says modern software allows meteorologists to better predict severe weather, but they still rely on 'storm spotters' on the ground. (CBC)

"Even in the past decade or so, since I started my career here, things have changed a lot," Wagar said.

Previously, meteorologists had to view satellite images, radar and surface observations separately. Current software allows them to put data together to get a 3D picture of the atmosphere.

"Those are certainly things that we didn't have back in 1987."

The software helps meteorologists determine which days are more prone to severe weather events, even several days in advance.

Black Friday also spurred the government to create the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, which opened in 1988. The agency is in charge of co-ordinating government resources for 57 kinds of natural and man-made disasters, from tornadoes to amber alerts.

Started as a single radio channel in 1992, the emergency public warning system has expanded to 148 channels on radio and TV as well as the website, said emergency alert co-ordinator Tim Trytten. 
The tornado ripped through Mill Woods and up through the industrial area near Sherwood Park. (CBC)

The agency has about 205,000 followers on social media and a new app users can sign up for to have alerts sent directly to their phones.

"We have to go where the people are," Trytten said. "If people are using their smart phone or using their cars, or in their homes, we have to be able to reach them wherever they are."

The AEMA, as directed by the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, is working with cellular service providers to establish a direct alert to smart phones by April 2018.

Eight-five per cent of Albertans have smart phones.

Meteorologists still rely on storm spotters 

Despite advanced tools to predict severe weather and the range of methods to alert the public, tornadoes remain elusive.

"Environment Canada, even now, is unable to predict their exact track," Lozowski said. "Where they're going to form and how severe they're going to be. Especially when it comes to things like large hail and tornados."

Trytten said the AEMA does its best to keep people informed.

"You hope that you can be that one step ahead of the event, so that people stay safe," he said. "Unfortunately, there are just no guarantees in a rapidly evolving event." 

That's one reason agencies still need human witnesses to tell them what's happening.
Jesse Wagar says software has improved weather forecasting in the past 10 years. (CBC)

"We're really dependant upon storm spotters to 'ground truth' some of the information for us," Proctor said.

As more resources went into forecasting technology and expertise, Environment Canada moved away from that practice, Proctor said.

"We realized organizationally that we need to have a better idea of what the spotters are doing and what the spotters are seeing."

Environment Canada provides storm-safety training to 40 to 50 people about twice a year, Wagar said. It includes teaching protocols on how to stay safe while reporting severe weather.

As some storm spotters in rural areas get older, Environment Canada is using social media more and more, Proctor said.

Meteorologists monitor social media for reliable and regular storm spotters who report with the hashtag #abstorm, adding that anyone witnessing severe weather can post on Twitter using this hashtag.

'I'm very respectful of severe weather'

"Please, don't ignore them," Lozowski said. "They are very serious weather events."

Lozowski said some people continue to show a certain lack of respect for severe systems.

For example, he said, a photograph of a man mowing his lawn with a tornado behind him exploded on Twitter in June, when the storm hit Three Hills, Alta.

"I don't think people should be too blasé about tornadoes," he said. "It's important to determine whether or not they're coming in your direction."

The rule of thumb is to head underground to a basement or a safe room. If that's not possible, people should try to get to an inner room or hallway away from windows.

"If you're caught in the open, try to seek shelter in a low-lying area, a ditch for example," he said. "Lie down in the ditch, put your hands over head to try and protect your head from debris. That's about the best you can do."

The AEMA's motto is "stop, listen, respond." After alerting the public about a potential event and providing instructions, the last element comes down to individual choice, Trytten said. 
Tim Trytten says the Alberta Emergency Management Agency has 205,000 followers on social media and a new app to send alerts directly to people's phones. (CBC)

"If we tell you that you need to get low in the building — put as many walls between you as possible and the tornado — and you stand in front of that glass, it's pretty hard to keep someone safe."

Trytten said every family should have a 72-hour emergency preparedness kit, with enough supplies to last three days if caught in a natural or man-made disaster.

Thirty years after first reporting the Edmonton tornado, Taylor said he has been studying weather ever since, and has become obsessed with tracking systems. 

"I'm very respectful of severe weather," he said. "I like watching the storms develop. I know where they are, at what stage, and I know when to go down to the basement."