The difference between the tornado that struck Elie, Manitoba, in 2007 and the one that struck Moore, Oklahoma, last month didn’t revolve around intensity — they were both EF-5 twisters, the highest on the scale used to measure tornadoes, with winds from 418 to 509 km/h — but the amount of injuries and death toll. The Elie tornado, which had the highest twister wind speed ever recorded in Canada, caused no injuries or deaths. On the other hand, the Moore tornado killed 24 people, including nine children, and injured many others in the densely-populated suburb of Oklahoma City.
Manitoba is at the northern tip of North America’s “Tornado Alley,” while Moore is right in the middle. In Canada, about 80 to 100 tornadoes are reported annually, while the United States suffers through an average of 1,000 to 1,200 tornadoes each year. The average for Manitoba is 10 annually, although Environment Canada scientists say the numbers in Manitoba, as well as Canada, may be even higher since some tornadoes are spawned in isolated areas and thus go unreported. Manitoba tornadoes also have a tendency of striking rural areas with low population densities.
But it would be wrong to assume that just because Manitoba is at the lower end of tornado frequency that injuries and even deaths have not occasionally occurred. Historically, Manitoba has unfortunately been the scene of periodic tragedies associated with tornadoes. On August 5, 2006, a woman was killed by a tornado that struck a campground at Gull Lake and several other people were injured.
And Manitoba Tornadoes do not allways strike in low population areas. The most deadly tornado that struck Manitoba was on June 23, 1922, and touched down in the heart of Portage la Prairie.
Death and Desolation in Wake of Storm on Portage Plains was the June 24, 1922, headline in the Manitoba Free Press. The report was of a “terrific wind” cutting a swath through Manitoba, not the fact that at least eight tornadoes had touched down, the most ever recorded in a single weather event striking the province. Gale-force winds accompanying thunderstorms, raging in an easterly path from the Saskatchewan border to Winnipeg, also caused substantial damages and injuries.
In the case of Portage, the description given was obviously that of a tornado, although newspapers failed to acknowledge that a twister struck the community. Instead, the weather event was referred to as a “gale,” a “cyclone,” a “tempest,” or simply a “storm.”
“For fully five minutes before the storm struck the city,” reported the Free Press, “the air was thrilling with the distant roar of the approach. The sound was similar to that made of the rushing of an express train, only a great deal louder.”
The above reference to a train rumbling down tracks happens to be one of the common descriptions from survivors of a tornado’s sound. Other descriptions also conform to what is now known to signal the presence of a tornado.
“The western sky was flooded with sheets of lightning. Then the storm broke. Hail stones as large as hens’ eggs were driven against the walls and roofs of the buildings with the force of axe blows; windows were crashed in, and the hand of destruction seemed to suddenly to reach forth in the whirl of the tempest, rearing roofs from buildings, flipping signs about like tin toys, snapping telephone poles and trees and playing havoc in every direction. The wind travelling in circles could not be withstood wherever it exerted its full fury.”
While the newspaper account said that “scarcely a house in the city” was left untouched, with the smallest damage being twisted eavestroughs and shingles removed from roofs, there is a telling clue as to the nature of the event.
“The storm evidenced innumerable eccentricities. There is no doubt that the tempest was strong enough to have completely leveled the town if it at the apex of its force. While it moved in an easterly and slightly southerly direction, it was travelling in circles. This is shown by the fact that some of the buildings are destroyed, while far weaker structures close at hand escaped unscathed. The destruction is by no means confined to poorer constructed buildings, but apparently wherever the storm struck a building with its full force, ruin resulted.”
Anyone who saw the recent pictures from the aftermath in Moore would recognize the 1922 description as that of a tornado — structures on either side of the twister’s path of destruction remained unscathed.
In 1922, people huddled in their bedrooms for protection from the tornado’s fury, but some were forced outside when their homes were destroyed. “Amid the blinding storm of rain and hail and the terrible sweeping of the gale, figures could be seen on the main street of the city and cries of ‘Help! Fire!’ arose, waveringly above the crash of tearing timbers and the clatter of falling masonry.”
The tornado caused an estimated $2 million in damage. While the newspaper described “innumerable” miraculous escapes, it was reported that the roof of the home of William Spencer on 11th Street was carried off and its walls then collapsed crushing his infant daughter. His wife was severely injured.
In total, eight people (some reports say five) were killed by the tornadoes that swept Manitoba in 1922.
In 1977, another three people, two adults and a child, were killed when a tornado struck the Rosa-Calowrie area on July 18, 1977. The deadly tornado was reported to have been EF-4 in intensity. Dr. Ted Fujita of the University of Chicago, after whom the tornado scale is named, studied the aftermath of the Rosa area tornado because of the “unusual intensity” of the twister.
“Buildings were reduced to rubble,” (Free Press, September 3, 1977), “a horse was hurled into a barley field from a pasture a half-mile away and the barley field itself was stripped to bare earth, stands of trees were cracked off and strewn in the counterclockwise swirl of the killer wind, strips of asphalt were ripped from Highway 58 and deposited in the ditch.” The tornado cut a 10-kilometre-long and nearly one-kilometre-wide swath, levelling houses, tossing steel granaries thousands of metres, uprooting trees, and hurling trucks and graders into the air.
A year later on June 20, tornadoes struck Manitoba with deadly consequences. Canadian National Railway employee, David Waller, was killed when the work train bunk car was lifted off the tracks and shattered by a tornado near Ste. Anne. Another 23 people were injured by the tornadoes.
In Manitoba, it’s wise to watch the spring and summer sky. Although tornadoes are rare, if the sky darkens, lightning flashes, thunder peals and rain and hail falls, take shelter. It’s from thunderstorms, which may suddenly appear on the horizon, that tornadoes are spawned. As with the recent Moore tragedy, there might only be a few minutes warning before a tornado strikes.