Edmonton's Tornado 29 Years Ago is Impossible to Forget

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Edmonton's Tornado 29 Years Ago is Impossible to Forget

Postby jon » Fri Jul 29, 2016 2:55 pm

29 years ago, this Friday before the long weekend was July 31st, 1987, known as "Black Friday" in Edmonton history. 27 died and 600 were injured in Alberta's worst Tornado disaster in history.

Murray Blakely and CHQT won major awards for their coverage, with Murray and his pilot literally risking their lives flying the CHQT Skyhawk, normally used for Edmonton's only airborne traffic reports. After the winds picked up a second time, Murray spent a little time in the hanger but went up again with CHQT News Director, Ed Mason.

Audio, video and still pictures cover that event, and the rest of Murray's broadcast career here:
http://edmontonbroadcasters.com/ebc/mem ... ent-award/

Here is the Edmonton Journal "Black Friday" article from an hour ago:

All we have learned: 29 years after Black Friday, Alberta’s worst tornado disaster
Juris Graney
July 29, 2016
Edmonton Journal

No matter how many years pass, Black Friday will never be forgotten. No other tornado in the province’s history cost more lives or caused so much devastation.

In the days leading up to July 31, 1987, Albertans sweltered through record high temperatures with little respite when the sun went down. It’s hard to sleep when it’s still 21 C at 1 a.m.

Oppressive heat is nothing new to the Prairies and would have been bearable had it not been for the sticky, sweaty humidity hovering around 70 to 80 per cent.

Just before 2:59 p.m. that Friday near Edmonton, the temperature dropped 7 C, the relative humidity peaked at 93 per cent and strong winds blew in from the south. The clouds began to dance.

When that warm, moist air hit cooler air coming in from the west, Leduc-area farmer Tom Taylor saw the funnel cloud.

Also a weather spotter, he called Environment Canada to explain what he had witnessed.

He hung up the phone and ran to his loft.

The narrow funnel jumped his house and when it touched ground again, about six kilometres north of his farmhouse, it had grown 10 times in size.

“When I saw how fast that funnel had dropped, it was as if somebody had flicked on a switch and turned on the power to a giant vacuum cleaner,” Taylor said in the aftermath of the disaster.

Within an hour, the giant F4 twister had carved a 40-kilometre furrow of carnage and destruction down the eastern edge of Edmonton and left a permanent scar on the psyche of Albertans.

It was one of the costliest disasters in Canada’s history: 27 dead, 600 injured, 1,700 evacuees, 750 families left homeless and damage estimated at $663.2 million.

‘Rudimentary’ radar and tornado spotters

Technology available to Canadian meteorologists in 1987 was rudimentary when compared to today or even what was available internationally at the time.

“Canada didn’t really have a lot,” says University of Manitoba professor and extreme weather expert John Hanesiak.

The radar network gave limited insight into tornado genesis; because not all storms create twisters, meteorologists would look for telltale signs like a hook echo, but ostensibly their data gave a picture of where precipitation was and how intense it might be.

They had to rely on tornado spotters — like Tom Taylor — to confirm a touchdown.

“Environment Canada and the National Weather Service in the U.S. would have trained spotters and they’d call them, if they were able, and see what the people on the ground were actually seeing and seek verification,” Hanesiak said.

It was a low-tech solution, but the only guaranteed way to confirm a tornado before issuing a weather warning.

A year after Black Friday, the U.S., which had been trying a new form of radar since the 1960s, rolled out NEXRAD, its Doppler radar network. A decade later, Canada unveiled its network. Today, there are 31 active Doppler radar sites, five in Alberta.

Better models allow better insight

Environment Canada warning preparedness meteorologist Dan Kulak started in the fall of 1988, when computer weather models were able to create a 3-D image at a resolution of 125 km, but the explosion in computer processing power since has allowed meteorologists to get a more detailed view of developing weather by a factor of 50, down to 2.5 km. That increased level of detail allows them to see the nuances of a system and gives them a better tool to predict severe weather.

“The technological changes are probably more important than the meteorological changes, at least from an operational perspective,” Kulak says.

“Radar systems, and their ongoing enhancements, help you increase your understanding of how these structures form, based on the ideas and data available and the internal processes.”

Or as Hanesiak says, “Modelling feeds back into dynamics and how we understand everything.”

Building to protect people and homes

The idea of a tornado-proof home may seem fantastical. There has been a long history of inventors penning blueprints since 1884 when F.K. Alexander was issued his first patent for a tornado-proof structure.

“We definitely needed a new design for tornado-proof homes,” says Komali Kantamaneni, a final-year PhD student at University of Wales Trinity Saint David in the United Kingdom.

That design is a dome.

Kantamaneni helped develop a novel design that, in essence, is a retractable dome made of missile-grade steel.

“Previous models are just small rooms or shelters, but there’s nothing that covers the whole home and gives protection to people’s lives,” she says.

In 13 minutes, the dome, powered by an engine at the base of a concrete pillar, propels the steel skywards to envelope the house like an umbrella; a very expensive umbrella costing up to $80,000.

Demonstrable examples of tornado-proof homes are difficult to come by.

In the Oklahoma community of Catoosa, construction of the school division’s first “monolithic dome” is nearing completion.

The superstructure will act as a storm shelter and cafeteria, and will be able to house 1,200 people if a twister touches down.

Being they are in the middle of tornado alley, they probably won’t have to wait long to test out the $5.2-million facility.

Social media: Pros and cons of connectivity

Iain McPherson, assistant professor at MacEwan University, recounts a story told to him by an emergency responder.

Imagine you are in an office building in Edmonton in 1987: a fax machine is plugged into the wall, your desktop computer is essentially a giant word-processing paperweight and a phone sits on your desk. There’s no TV, no radio, no cellphone.

Most likely the first you would have known about the tornado is when you looked out the window to see dark, brooding skies.

“Now, because of social media, the speed in which the information spreads in real time is a real game changer,” McPherson says.

More eyes than ever are on the skies waiting to snap a viral image, shareable post or to live stream oncoming carnage via social media.

“It can disseminate information, perspective and misinformation with great speed and ubiquity,” he says.

“Social media is important and even transformative, but it’s not the be-all and the end-all.”

The flood of information during a disaster, he says, “brings a lot more data than any other time before so the major challenge becomes how to consolidate it and funnel it into something usable.”

Slowly the evolution of social media etiquette is allowing for self-correction, known as the Wikipedia effect, in which other users will correct an error or falsehood.

“There is a certain wisdom to crowds,” McPherson says.

The profusion of social media platforms may aid in the distribution of information, but without today’s robust telecommunications infrastructure, that amount of data would not be possible.

Reliance on new technology, however, comes with its own caveat: Be prepared to go low-tech or no tech.

“Phone lines go down, power can be out for hours,” McPherson says.

“In High River, during the 2013 floods, for the first two days the only communication in and out came from HAM radio operators.

“Clearly, it’s incumbent on disaster managers to maintain older and less technology-dependent communication channels as well as newer media.”
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