Hamilton

'How am I going to stay alive?' Flamborough farmer describes sheltering from tornado

Prabhjot Thiara pulled his father into a barn as an EF1 tornado tore apart their farm, turning fence posts into missiles, smashing trailers and levelling an outbuilding.

Environment Canada says the EF1 tornado had peak winds of 150 km/h

Thiara Farms in Flamborough was hit by an EF1 tornado Wednesday afternoon. It destroyed an outbuilding and left vehicles and barns heavily damaged. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

It started with some rain.

Then came the wind — and it didn't stop coming.

Suddenly, pepper plants were being sucked into a swirling vortex and Prabhjot Thiara and his father were running for the barn.

As he hauled on a door, fighting air pressure and gusts that threatened to knock him over, the 22-year-old caught a glimpse of a "gigantic cloud of dirt mixed with wind" and debris.

A tornado had just touched down at Thiara Farms, in rural Hamilton.

That's when the noise started.

"Everything was smashing, everything was shaking and at that point I'm just looking over to see when that roof is going to cave in over my head," said Thiara.

"It was a matter of 'OK, how am I going to stay alive?'"

Pallets, baskets and bits of fence are all that remain near a part of the yard that used to be covered by an outbuilding. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Two-by-fours were slicing through the walls, fence posts became missiles and a small building where much of their equipment was stored was completely levelled, slamming into the larger barn where Thiara and his father were taking shelter.

"Any object, from a basket to a can of pop ... was just a bullet and whatever was in the way it destroyed," he said.

Truck tipped, fence destroyed

Thiara could feel the wind whipping in through the other door, so he knew his father hadn't managed to shut it.

He turned and saw him struggling and being pushed against the building while trying to get away from a tree that had been torn from the ground and fallen inches from him.

"At that point I grabbed him, yanked him and we ran into a room where we thought we were secure from the wind."

It was over just as suddenly as it began — Thiara estimates the tornado only lasted 30 seconds — but in that time it tipped over a truck, tore sections off a barn roof, ripped up a steel fence that was bolted together and wiped out years of hard work.

The family's home was largely spared, apart from a few shingles. But an above-ground swimming pool was crumpled like a pop can and wrapped around a light post where people inside the house saw it spin as the wind whipped through.

The remnants of a pool can be seen wrapped around a light post next to the family's home. A section of metal fence can be seen far off in a field. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Environment Canada confirmed an EF1 tornado touched down on the farm near Brock and Safari Roads around 4:30 p.m.

EF is short for Enhanced Fujita scale, a ranking system for tornado intensity that runs from zero to five, which is the "most devastating," explained Geoff Coulson, a weather preparedness meteorologist.

The tornado that touched down in Flamborough was about 700 metres in length and had a maximum width of roughly 100 metres, he added.

'There are peppers everywhere'

No one was hurt, either by the wind itself of the items it threw around.

Aaron Jaffe, a research engineer with the Northern Tornadoes Project team out of Western University, was part of the assessment team that determined it was a tornado that did so much damage.

Two properties were the hardest hit, he said, the Thiara farm and another to the south where a barn "had its roof kind of picked up and turned a little bit."

Environment Canada is aware of the damage along Brock Road and working to determine whether it was a tornado or microburst that left so much wreckage behind 0:36

The fact that debris had been thrown in several directions and was splattered along buildings and vehicles pointed to it being a tornado, he said, adding evidence of the Thiara's livelihood could be found all over.

"There are peppers everywhere ... which is not something you see at every event."

Just before their lives were torn apart, the father and son had been putting away equipment and pushing produce into coolers as their day wound down. There were just three more days in the season and the farm was getting ready for winter.

They grow specialty peppers, along with eggplant and some pumpkins. Now they're picking up the pieces and waiting to hear from their insurance provider.

"It's heartbreaking. It's everything you work for," said Thiara.

Farm transformed into a 'junkyard'

Every morning he opens his window and looks over the farm, but not today.

"This morning I didn't even have the guts to look outside because I knew I would just be looking at a junkyard."

The wreckage at the farm is even more obvious compared to the store next door and neighbours whose homes were almost untouched.

"It's crazy, a port-pottie maybe a couple hundred feed into the field is still standing," said Thiara. "Yet the one that was closest to our yard is on the other side of the yard right now."

Shawn Clarke, with Shawn's Tree Service, cuts apart a large tree that broke off near its roots outside the Brock Road General Store. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Coulson said that's typical of tornadoes, which tend to twist along a narrow path.

A large tree snapped off near its base was being cut and chipped outside the Brock Road General Store Thursday but business inside was continuing as usual.

Neighbours spared serious damage

John Flechl and his wife live just a few hundred metres form the Thiaras and came home from Ancaster last night to find the destruction.

The couple used to run a petting zoo and have the horses and geese to prove it, but luckily Alley-Cat, Peekaboo, Merlin are fine if not a little skittish, as are Hansel and Gretel. The birds likely found a bench to hunker under, said Flechl.

John Flechl speaks with his horse, Peekaboo and Alley-Cat as Merlin peaks around the corner. The animals were not hurt when the tornado touched down. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"We've been here almost 30 years and I've never had a storm like that, not with that kind of force," he said.

The Flechls seemed to avoid the worst of the storm, though there's bits of wood strewn around the property, their lawn chairs were caught up in a fence and some were shattered.

Within minutes they ran over to check on their neighbours and found them trying to deal with the shock of what happened.

"They were shook up, there's no doubt about it and they've lost a lot of crop," said Flechl.

Flechl's house was largely undamaged by the storm, though his lawn chairs were tossed into a backyard fence. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Walking through the mess of shingles, shattered wood and glass on Thursday, that shock was still plain on Thiara's face.

"All we expected was some rain. We were prepared for rain," he said. "Then boom, everything we worked for is all gone."

Among the debris was evidence of resilience.

As news of the tornado spread, the family started hearing from friends and neighbours asking how they could help. 

A buddy's truck backed in, past the tattered flags and uprooted trees, and was quickly filled with a load of peppers bound for a supermarket.

"Any little bit counts," said Thiara. "It means a lot."

The barn was damaged when a smaller building was tossed into it by the tornado. (Dave Ritchie/CBC)

About the Author

Dan Taekema is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: daniel.taekema@cbc.ca

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