“I hate storms.”
Karie Hansen has good reason to feel the anxiety that many people do during threatening summer weather like Sunday’s storm system that resulted in tornado warnings in some parts of Central Alberta.
Seventeen years ago this week, Hansen, who was just 21 then, was one of the responders to the Pine Lake tornado. Then, in 2009, she found herself faced with another severe weather event when a wind storm caused $100,000 in damage to her home and property near Rocky Mountain House.
Now, when bad weather threatens or comes in the summer, she finds herself working to stay calm and not panic.
“I get very nervous with storms,” Hansen, who lives with her three children and husband in the Cow Lake area, said Monday.
On the day of the Pine Lake tornado, July 14, 2000, Hansen was teaching first aid for St. John Ambulance in Red Deer when a co-worker came into the classroom and wrote on the board that there had been a disaster at Pine Lake and there were upwards of 500 casualties. “I thought he was joking. I thought he was making up a scenario for me to go through.”
While it wasn’t normal for the organization to respond to disaster, they were called upon to help. “The extent of the disaster needed everybody,” Hansen said, although she wasn’t prepared for what she found once there.
The tornado that hit Green Acres Campground in the early evening took the lives of 12 people and seriously injured over 100 others in less than a half hour or terror. Winds reached 300 km/h, and baseball-sized hail fell. Overall, about $13 million in damage occurred along the storm’s path.
It was dark when they arrived and were escorted through the debris at Pine Lake, Hansen recalls. They could see “Ground Zero” from lighting that had been set up where the worst of the tornado damage had occurred.They ended up at a building where “the walking wounded” were being bused.
“I remember the smell of fresh trees, you know, when you cut a tree down. … And I remember people walking around just wounded. … We could see choppers coming in and out, ambulances coming and going.”
Hansen and other St. John Ambulance people helped triage people who didn’t need immediate medical attention, and treated secondary wounds. The area was also where people were being taken so they could be reunited with others. Hansen still remembers a little girl, about the same age of her own daughter then, who was crying and separated from her parents.
Hansen admits she was terrified going into the scene at Pine Lake. “It’s very surreal to me still.”
Since then, she has recurring nightmares about tornadoes, although not as often now. She dreams that she is looking out the window and she can see three or four tornadoes. Her family members are all separated and she can’t get to them to help them.
“I still have severe anxiety whenever there’s a storm, like yesterday,” she said referring to Sunday’s tornado warning for the area around Rocky.
On Aug. 1, 2009, a windstorm came through her property near the Cow Lake campground at about midnight. She woke up to the lightning and got her family downstairs.
“The hail and the wind felt like it was lifting the roof, so I was freaking out.” But the very next morning Hansen headed over to the campground to help people whose trailers had been damaged by trees coming down. One woman had been seriously injured when a tree fell on her tent and STARS took her to hospital.
Hansen, who owns a safety training company in Rocky, said she is not as panicky as she used to be during summer stormy weather. “I’m always making a plan. Where are we going to go? Where is everybody?”
Her advice to people who have a lot of anxiety about storms is seek help, have someone to talk to about it, and “Have a plan. Be prepared.”