Michael Dawe: 1971’s destructive hailstorm shattered a great summer

Alberta has been experiencing some interesting summer weather this year.

Generally, there has been a lot of rain and relatively muggy conditions. There have also been some wild weather incidents.

On June 13, there was the devastating hailstorm in northeast Calgary that is estimated to have caused $1.2 billion in damage. There have been several other severe wind, thunder and hailstorms in many other places such as Innisfail and Millet.

It is interesting to go back nearly 50 years to the summer of 1971, which was another notable summer. Red Deer and central Alberta were hit with an incredible hail and rainstorm towards the end of July, but the rest of the summer was one of the warmest and most pleasant experienced for a very long time.

The summer had not started all that well. June was generally cool, with a fair bit of rain, particularly near the beginning of the month.

The start of July was not much better. Temperatures were generally in the mid-teens, with only the occasional day exceeding 20 C. Nearly 75 millimetres of rain fell over the course of 10 days.

Finally, near the middle of July, more seasonal summer weather set in. The temperature soared to plus 30. There was very little rain. When the annual Red Deer Exhibition commenced on July 20, people expected strong attendance with the warm, generally dry weather.

The disaster struck on the afternoon of Friday, July 23. A set of very intense thunderstorms developed over the foothills and then moved rapidly to the east.

A huge hailstorm struck Red Deer and surrounding area just after 5 p.m. Winds gusted up to 100 km/h. Torrents of rain came down, with an estimated 25 millimetres falling in an hour or two.

When the hail started to fall, it was driven almost horizontally by the high winds. Many of the hailstones were huge, with some being estimated as golf-ball sized.

The amount of damage was enormous. Roofs were badly damaged. A great many windows were broken.

The heavy rain caused localized flooding, particularly where the storm drains were unable to keep up.

Several large trees came down, blocking off streets until city crews could clear an opening.

With several power lines damaged in the city, and some major transmission lines across central Alberta also being damaged, there were prolonged power outages.

Ironically, given the very wet conditions throughout the city, with the power cut off to the waterworks pumping stations, the water supply failed in some parts of the East Hill in Red Deer.

The Red Deer Exhibition was forced to come to a sudden halt. There was water and hail damage everywhere. The Elks’ concession booth collapsed. The roofs on the portable livestock barns were torn off, although fortunately, no animals were seriously injured.

The exhibition was up and running again by Saturday morning. However, with many people busy clearing up the damage to their properties, attendance plunged.

The situation in the rural areas, stretching all the way to north of Ponoka, was severe. Many promising crops were entirely wiped out.

Farmers raising poultry reported losses to their flocks. Overall, hail and general insurance adjusters reported tens of millions of dollars in damage (hundreds of millions when 1971 dollars are converted to current values).

And yet, in the days following the enormous storm, the weather turned hot and dry. There were a dozen days when the temperature rose to more than 30 C.

On the hottest day, Aug. 14, it was more than 34. The local newspapers were full of photos of people seeking relief from the heat. The nearby resorts, such as Sylvan, Gull and Pine lakes, were packed.

As the summer finally drew to a close and back-to-school season set in, many people, particularly younger ones, said that 1971 had turned into one of the “best summers ever.”

For those farmers who had survived the devastating hail storm of July 23, work began on one of the best harvests in recent years.

One of the biggest caps to the summer came on Aug. 30, 1971.

After 36 continuous years in power, the Social Credit government was defeated in a landslide by the Peter Lougheed Progressive Conservatives. People had emphatically decided it was time for a change. A new political era for Alberta had begun.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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