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Emergency alerts have changed the way disasters are handled

25 years ago, when a tornado struck the City of Edmonton, there was no emergency alert system. At that time, Edmonton’s first responders played an even more integral role.

On July 31, 1987, 27 people died when a F-4 tornado ripped through Edmonton’s eastside.

Firefighter Dale McLean and his crew received a call of a house fire in southeast Edmonton, but while they were responding, the call was upgraded to a roof collapse.

“It was becoming evident to the crew that we were going into something pretty serious,” recalls McLean.

Unbeknownst to them, the crew was approaching not only the worst tornado to hit Edmonton, but all of Canada.

Just before 3:30pm, the tornado hit the Millwoods area. It went back into the sky and touched down again along refinery row; moving further northeast, as an F-4 twister.

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“We were met by a number of people leaving the site and they were cut and bruised and a lot of them were in shock,” says McLean.

Mike Cook was one of the first police officers to reach the scene, and was shocked by what he saw.

“Just an absolutely devastating scene. Destruction like I’d never seen before.”

“I’d never experienced something like that,” he adds.

“You know, we see it on the news and from war zones of massive explosions, and that’s what is really looked like to me. I’d never dreamt that I would ever see anything like that within the city.”

Almost an hour after hitting refinery row, the tornado touched down for a third time at the Evergreen Mobile Park. The residents had no way of knowing what was coming.

“There was a little bit of a ‘is there any more help going to come’ feeling,” says Cook, “and I remember my Sergeant on the radio asking for whatever help we could get out there. We had no idea on the south side that the tornado hadn’t finished what it was going to do.”

In 1987, there was no emergency alert system. Few people had cell phones, and there was no such thing as social media. Power lines were down, so there was no way to notify people of the danger.

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Fifteen people were killed in the Evergreen Mobile Park and 12 in the industrial park. Thanks to first responders like McLean and Cook many more lives were saved.

“[We] went to one site where there was a car upside down and people trapped in the area, and I’m looking around and a hand came out of the rubble and grabbed at my leg and there were three guys trapped that we literally dug out by hand to get to them,” remembers Cook.

There is now an emergency alert system in place to warn people about immediate disaster. The system informs people of what the emergency situation is, where it is, and what actions need to be taken. Alerts are distributed though radio, television, internet, RSS feed, social media and road signage. With the alert system, the hope is that even though the destruction could occur again, the deaths could be prevented.

Cook says first responders can learn from the experience.

“These are the kind of events that they can relay to newer firefighters to show we do have this important role to play,” says Cook.

Now, 25 years later, the experience is still something that Edmontonians and first responders will not soon forget.

“This is a day that I think most people in Edmonton will remember where they were and what they were doing that day. It’s just been such a significant event for us,” says McLean.

“I never forget – it fades from time to time. When I see a list of the names of the victims some of those are very personal for me because I helped recover them,” shares Cook.

“I never had the opportunity to meet any of the families, but I can only imagine the suffering they’ve had for the last 25 years.”

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The July 31, 1987 tornado remains Canada’s second deadliest tornado, behind the 1912 Regina tornado that killed 28 people.

With files from Erin Chalmers