The Citizen looks back 10 years after the Goderich tornado
BY DENNY SCOTT
Ten years ago an F3-level tornado, with winds nearing 300 kilometres per hour, devastated western Huron County, specifically Goderich and Benmiller, causing injuries, a single fatality and over $100 million in damages.
The tornado uprooted trees and destroyed buildings while also claiming the life of Normand Laberge who died at the Goderich salt mine as a result of the tornado. More than 40 injuries were reported as a result of the storm.
The twister travelled east from Lake Huron, up Goderich’s West Street, through the community’s centre at The Square and down East Street at 4 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2011. The resultant carnage saw over 100 buildings and 150 businesses damaged.
The tornado, which was classified as between an F2 and F3 on the Fujita scale by Environment Canada, was the first such tornado seen in Ontario in 15 years, with the last one hitting Orangeville in 1996.
As a result of the tornado and accompanying weather, buildings had lost their roofs or were completely destroyed, vehicles were flipped over and trees were either snapped or ripped right out of the ground. Witnesses also reported golf-ball-sized hail during the storm.
Goderich was without electricity for days while natural gas was shut off after reports of leaks throughout the town were received.
Residents were given only 12 minutes warning before the tornado hit the community, which was closed off to vehicular traffic following a state of emergency being declared by then-Mayor Deb Shewfelt. Shewfelt also advised everyone to stay away from Goderich’s downtown core, the area around The Square, to allow emergency personnel to do their job and make the area safe.
After making landfall in the harbour city of Goderich, the tornado made its way east towards Benmiller, cutting across agricultural land and devastating farming operations.
The Benmiller Inn, a hotel which includes numerous structures, had two roofs blown off its buildings and evacuated everyone as a result of the storm.
Reports indicated the tornado touched down in Londesborough as well, and agricultural buildings in Central Huron were also damaged by the storm.
Within a day, then-Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty visited Goderich, the centre of the devastation, to announce that the community would not have to face the daunting task of recovering without assistance.
“You’re not alone,” he said in front of the makeshift emergency centre at the Knights of Columbus Centre in Goderich. “[The Province is] with you.”
McGuinty had toured the community before his announcement and said he was shocked by the tremendous damage inflicted by the tornado. He credited the local municipal staff and council members, as well as emergency workers, for their quick and effective response. He also announced that $5 million would be available to help with the reconstruction of Goderich through the Ontario Disaster Relief Assistance Program (ODRAP).
The funds, which were distributed at the discretion of a committee of Goderich Town Council, were earmarked for recovery by not only the community but individuals and businesses whose insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of rebuilding.
“The path to reconstruction is a long one,” McGuinty said. “But we will get there… You’re not suffering alone. When tragedy befalls any number of [Ontarians], it affects us all.”
He went on to say that destruction can bring out the best in people and that the community had plenty of offers of assistance coming in.
McGuinty also credited the community’s emergency preparation plan for helping the town respond so quickly to the emergency. The tornado hit shortly after the province made those plans mandatory for municipalities.
Shewfelt thanked McGuinty, who was joined by then-MPP Carol Mitchell at the event, before issuing a powerful statement that has proven true in the decade since: “We will recover, we will rebuild.”
Representatives from local utility companies spoke after McGuinty and other politicians and municipal staff, announcing it could be days before power and gas would be restored to some parts of Goderich, adding a priority was put on getting power to Alexandra Marine and General Hospital, which had been running on its generator since the tornado hit.
In the weeks following the tornado, Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh (ACW) Council declared Benmiller a disaster area so residents and business owners could benefit from the ODRAP.
ACW Chief Administrative Officer Mark Becker told ACW Council, during a special meeting on Aug. 29, that ACW, as well as Central Huron, which also had residents who were impacted by the tornado, could petition Goderich to have representation on the committee responsible for distributing the funds, since all three municipalities were impacted by the same storm.
“Council is hopeful that a citizen can partake in the Goderich Committee, rather than create three committees,” Becker said.
ACW Council was hoping to push the effort forward quickly due to the looming provincial election.