August 7, 1979 is a date that is forever etched in my mind as the day I was introduced to severe weather. It was extremely hot and humid, and storms were initiated by a cold front slicing through the region. As the storms collided with the breezes off the Great Lakes, conditions were perfect for tornadoes to spin up.
That day, an F4 tornado struck Woodstock and Oxford Centre, wreaking a path of destruction right through Waterford, and on to Jarvis. At one point, it was roughly one mile wide and had a smaller satellite tornado traveling parallel to it. While this devastation was happening, another F4 tornado went through the Hickson to Bright area, creating its own path of destruction. Together, these tornadoes left behind roughly $100 million in damage (amount as quoted by local news media at the time).
The Woodstock twister levelled homes, businesses, and churches. Thousands of people were left homeless, and 150 were injured, but miraculously only two deaths were reported. Mortgage documents and other papers from the area were returned from as far away as New York State. If current methods to determine tornado strength had been used, the Woodstock tornado would possibly have been rated an EF5.
There were dozens of stories of people experiencing what many would consider a miraculous survival. One of those was Bill Eekhof (now my father in law). He was outside the Maranatha Christian Reformed Church for a meeting, when he saw what seemed to be a large flock of birds. When he realized it was actually debris from homes across the road being destroyed by a tornado, Bill quickly hid under the dash of his big old station wagon and protected his head with a brief case. When it was all over, the car was destroyed, and a long ways from where he had parked it. Miraculously, he escaped with only some dirt and small gravel in his ears. Had he been in the church, the outcome would have been very different. The church was completely destroyed. When it imploded, the balcony came down on the boardroom, where he would have been for the meeting.
John & Henry Schut of H&J Schut Construction (my dad and uncle) had built a subdivision of roughly 40 homes in the southwest corner of Woodstock. It took a direct hit, and all the homes had to be rebuilt. One home had an aluminum rowboat lodged in the rafters of the garage. Not only was it impossible for the homeowners to have stored such a boat there, it wasn't even theirs. We never found out where it actually came from, or who owned it.
Strange things were noticed during the cleanup. Pieces of straw driven into trees. A copper penny driven almost 4" into a tree. Homes levelled but for one wall, where a lone picture still hung. Cars moved from the driveway into the backyard in-ground pool. Cars, trucks, transports and even farm equipment moved quite a distance from where they had been before the tornado.
During the cleanup and rebuilding of homes, farms and businesses impacted by the tornadoes, hundreds of volunteers came to help. A large contingent from the Mennonite and Hutterite communities arrived by the busload. Those impacted were awestruck by the generous offers of physical and monetary assistance. Today, there are few physical scars of the destruction caused by these tornadoes on the landscape, but the psychological scars remain for many.
This is ultimately where my interest in severe weather was born. It wasn't until many years later, in 2013, that I actually started digging in to see how I could use my interest to help raise awareness about the threat of severe weather, but more importantly, to keep people safe. I learned a lot from local storm chasers (too many to mention - you know who you are :) ), as well as taking several online courses. I joined CANWARN as a trained storm spotter for Environment Canada, and did the training for SKYWARN storm spotting for the National Weather Service in the US. I also joined a volunteer team of passionate storm chasers and weather enthusiasts, in a venture called Ontario Tornado Watch (now under Instant Weather, Inc.).
At OTW/IW, we now have a large team of volunteers, including storm chasers, weather enthusiasts, and meteorologists. The ultimate goal of OTW and IW is to keep people informed about the threat of severe weather, which lines up perfectly with my own goals. We have Facebook pages for all Canadian provinces and territories and US states, Twitter and Instagram accounts, and a Text Message Alerts service. The TMA service is currently the fastest to post government (Environment Canada) alerts, as well as our own custom messages. In development is a new app for Android and iOS devices, which will also push the government issued watches and warnings, and our own custom messages. This free app is expected to be available this year.
Stay safe, my friends,
- Harry Schut