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'Is this really happening?': Meteorologist recalls Edmonton’s deadly Black Friday tornado 33 years later

Edmonton Journal logo Edmonton Journal 2020-07-31 Jeff Labine
a group of clouds in the sky: A massive tornado passes from south to north near 34 St., and 94 Ave., in Edmonton on Friday July 31, 1987. The tornado killed 27 people and injured hundreds A massive tornado passes from south to north near 34 St., and 94 Ave., in Edmonton on Friday July 31, 1987. The tornado killed 27 people and injured hundreds

The tornado that tore through east Edmonton July 31, 1987, leaving 27 dead and hundreds wounded is a once-in-a-generation weather event, says an Environment Canada meteorologist.

The storm that would become known as Black Friday levelled residential and industrial areas across the city’s east side, with Clareview, the Strathcona Industrial Park and the Evergreen Mobile Home Park seeing the worst of the destruction.

The F4 tornado saw wind speeds of up to 417 km/h and tennis ball-sized hail. The storm caused an inflation-adjusted $647-million in damages.

Dan Kulak, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said he was a student working a construction job at the time when the storm hit.

“I was listening on the radio on the way home (with the) people I was carpooling with,” he said, recalling when the storm hit. “(I thought) is this really happening? It’s been 33 years and counting since the last one and it’s certainly a once in a generation based on that.”

The storm is the deadliest in Alberta history and the second-worst ever to hit the country. The province’s second-worst twister was the Pine Lake tornado of July 14, 2000, which killed 12.

Kulak said 33 years ago Albertans weren’t expecting a tornado like the one that hit Edmonton because there hadn’t been anything like it previously.

“How you react to things are often based on what you’ve experienced in life,” he said. “We never get anything like they get in the United States way up here in Canada, do we? I think that was probably the general attitude (at the time). All of a sudden, bang, this thing comes along. It was a real tragedy.”

Kulak said one of the positives that came out of Black Friday was that the province developed its emergency public warning system, which eventually became the Alberta Emergency Alert System that can be transmitted to cellphones.

“What we have now has its origins back in the days after the Edmonton tornado,” he said.

Kulak said there’s not a lot of documentation on F4 tornados in Canada.

The only documented F5 tornado in Canada, which is considered the most destructive on the Fujita scale, happened in Elie, Man. in June 2007. This tornado had wind speeds of up to 510 km/h. There were no casualties caused by the storm.

So far this year, Alberta has had nine confirmed tornados and one probable case. The first was reported in May. From January to July 31 last year, there were 17 confirmed tornados in the province and four probable.

Kulak said if a tornado touches down, he suggests finding a small room to hide in or a basement.

jlabine@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/jefflabine

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