Aftermath of Pine Lake tornado lingers in memory, even 10 years later

For those who lived through the Pine Lake tornado, or rushed to provide help in its aftermath, the disaster that’s now 10 years old continues to lurk in their thoughts.



For those who lived through the Pine Lake tornado, or rushed to provide help in its aftermath, the disaster that’s now 10 years old continues to lurk in their thoughts.

When the tornado hit Marg Lindeman’s farm on July 14, 2000, the wind’s force lifted their home off its foundation and completely demolished the nearby home of their daughter and her family. Dozens of trees were ripped out of the ground.

“You know we think about it every day,” said Lindeman. “We have to, with the changes that happened.”

The huge 40-year-old trees that they planted themselves and once shaded their property have been replaced but it’s not the same.

“We had big trees, we now have medium-sized trees,” she said. “Things have come back a lot. At the time, we didn’t conceive of it ever being nice again.”

For the Lindemans and a number of other families a short distance from Pine Lake, their losses weren’t immediately known to emergency responders.

“I don’t think anybody really realized there was more devastation beyond the campground. It was a couple of days before the media and the official people realized that there had been other devastation.”

But as soon as friends and neighbours heard about their losses, everyone pitched in to help.

The Lindemans were able to repair their home. And the home of their daughter and son-in-law and their three children was replaced.

“All of our other stuff was either replaced or we didn’t need it.”

And nature had its own way of repairing the damage.

Lindeman admits unpleasant memories soon follow storm fronts as they move in as they always do in Central Alberta.

“It’s never really far from your mind in the summertime. It’s not a conscious worry, but it’s an awareness of what could be.”

Some who lived throught the tornado prefer not to talk about it anymore. In recent years Advocate calls to the owners of Green Acreas Campground — which bore the brunt of the tornado’s wrath — have not been returned. The tornado killed 12 people, injured 150 more and left a swathe of destroyed trees, trailers, buildings and cars in its wake.

Former Red Deer County fire chief Cliff Fuller was one of the first emergency workers to arrive at Pine Lake that day. He would spend the next 10 days there.

“I’m always aware and I never stop thinking about it, to tell you the truth,” said Fuller.

“It’s probably the biggest event in my life, and in a lot of other people’s. It affected a lot of families.”

For Fuller, the day also provided critical information about how to handle an emergency. He was able to pass on the lessons learned to other communities through presentations he gave all over Canada in the following years.

“That’s one thing I would always mention, that July 14 would always stand out in my mind.”

Asked if there is any particular aspect that rises to the top of his thoughts a decade later, he doesn’t hesitate.

“It sounds kind of corny, you know, but the humanity of everybody coming together. I get affected just talking about it really.

“Everyone was there for everyone. Right from my department and all the other departments and right down to the people who were actually in the tornado themselves who rallied to help each other.”

For emergency workers the tornado response was the culmination of years of practices and mock exercises. Fuller, who spent 32 years in the military before joining the county, came with literally decades of training under his belt.

And as it turned out, local emergency responders had just come off a year where they had trained extensively for disaster because of the fears that the new millennium would lead to worldwide computer chaos.

An emergency operations centre had already been established, to deal with so-called Y2K, contact lists created and emergency generators stockpiled.

“It all fell into place when the tornado came.”

Fuller, who retired in 2006, served as on-scene commander at the Green Acres site.

At first, emergency responders met four times a day and as the cleanup continued those were reduced to twice daily gatherings to ensure that everyone was on the same page.

There were many lessons learned at Pine Lake.

“The biggest one is you better be prepared for it because it’s going to come sooner or later.

“Have a plan, that’s the major thing.”

Disasters can pose unexpected challenges. For instance, at Pine Lake roads inside the campground were impassable because of the debris left by destroyed trailers and shattered trees. To get around, golf carts were borrowed from Whispering Pines and now that is considered in plans.

Dealing with pets was another issue that emerged. “People care a lot about their pets” and it was soon realized that the humane society and other groups had to be involved in the aftermath.

Ten years ago this month an F3 tornado cut a swathe through the Pine Lake area leaving death and destruction in its wake. Twelve people were killed and more than 150 were injured as the tornado twisted off trees, hurled trailers and destroyed several houses. Today Advocate reporter Paul Cowley describes what he saw and what others remember of that day and its aftermath.

The scene left by the Pine Lake tornado July 14, 2000 was unforgettable.

Huge fifth wheels had been tossed about or completely ripped part. The heavy steel frame of one unit was wrapped around a tree like a hairpin. Cars and RVs were flipped onto their roofs and wreckage lay so thick on the ground it was hard to find a clear path.

Hundreds of trees were snapped off where they stood.

And everywhere dazed survivors looked about stunned at the scale of the disaster or joined rescue workers in looking for those trapped in their shattered trailers.

I had been covering a gospel convention at the Centrium when I got word that something had happened at Pine Lake. There were reports of one or more trailers in the water at Green Acres Campground and RV Park.

That was what I expected to find when I headed out to the area, led by a racing ambulance that I tried to keep in sight. As I got closer, the signs that something big had happened were everywhere. Tree limbs were snapped off and debris lay all around. The road in was packed with vehicles and dozens of people milled about.

Only on reaching the top of the campground was the scale of devastation revealed. It took my breath away.

Most of those I interviewed could hardly describe what happened. It occurred so fast that they had only vague notions that they hunkered down in their trailers, the noise was incredible, everything shook, then it was over.

The response to the disaster was impressive. A triage area was set up and the less seriously injured, many still in shock, were grouped on a small hillside. The most seriously injured were off to area hospitals within two hours. Everyone needing hospital treatment was gone within four hours.

Throughout the evening police would hold news conferences to update the media on casualty figures and the emergency response. As the night wore on, the number of confirmed dead rose. The last count before leaving the scene was five dead. That number would rise to 12, with another 150 injured.

In my hours on scene, there was so much going on that it was difficult to grasp the scale of the disaster. That evening blurred into one glimpse after another of private grief, but also — and thankfully more often — of remarkable escapes.

I don’t dwell on the tornado. But when the storm clouds gather on a hot day, you can’t help but wonder. Again?

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