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Community rallies to help Carstairs woman whose home was destroyed by tornado

Elisa Humphreys knew she needed help after a tornado leveled two structures on her central Alberta property over the weekend.
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Elisa Humphreys knew she needed help after a tornado leveled two structures on her central Alberta property over the weekend.

But her social media plea for assistance wound up attracting dozens of local volunteers who came forward to help clean up the shattered remnants of the house and mobile home that once stood there.

Humphreys estimated there were 100 helpers at her property just northeast of Carstairs on Sunday afternoon — so many that one person’s only task was directing others where to park. But she said Saturday’s tornado left more than enough work to go around.

“It’s like broken-house confetti for a few kilometres down the road,” Humphreys said in a telephone interview, pausing frequently to personally thank each volunteer.

“It’s like an airplane crash and a debris field.”

Five homes were completely destroyed after the twister passed between Carstairs and Didsbury early Saturday afternoon, Carstairs fire chief Jordan Schaffer said Saturday. That included one home where rescuers had to extricate a woman from her basement.

Although other homes were damaged, no one was killed. There have been no reports of serious injuries, although numerous animals, including cows, chicken and a horse, died or were euthanized, police said.

Marianna Greenhough, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said two meteorologists were in the area Sunday to conduct a damage survey in conjunction with the Northern Tornadoes Project.

Connell Miller, an engineering researcher with the group, said the tornado was likely the strongest one to hit the province since 2000, when a tornado hit a campground at Pine Lake near Red Deer, Alta.

Eleven people died, including a two-year-old child from Brampton, Ont. A 12th person died in hospital a month later.

“There were plenty of opportunities where if something had gone just a slight bit different that people could have been seriously hurt,” Miller said of Saturday’s twister, adding a strength rating for it likely won’t be available until Tuesday.

Humphreys said she was doing some work on her couch on Saturday afternoon and was getting herself a cup of coffee when she got an emergency alert notice.

“I hadn’t got out of my pajamas. I didn’t have a bra on, I hadn’t brushed my teeth and then the alarm went off on my phone and I looked out the window, and there was just a huge tornado,” she said.

Since she lived in a mobile home, it wasn’t safe to stay, and she said the other house on her property was sitting on I-beams and not attached to a foundation. So she jumped in her car in her PJs and drove away, then watched from a distance as the huge funnel cloud “shredded” her property.

Humphreys quickly returned when the tornado passed and found two of her horses injured, one of which had to be put down by a vet. A neighbour found another horse down the road. In a nearby coulee, she said trees were stacked on top of each other close to three storeys high.

On Sunday, volunteers found family photos among the debris and saved them in resealable bags. One took her injured cat to the vet. Many offered gift cards — she had $500 worth of them in her hands while she spoke with The Canadian Press.

She said she hoped someone would find some clothes, noting she’s spent the day in a borrowed outfit after seeking shelter with her son’s friend on Saturday night.

Humphreys said she’s not surprised at all by the generosity from the community. One of her neighbours, who she said lost his whole farm in the tornado, even offered support.

“When I talked to him on the phone, he said, ‘If there’s anything you need, Elisa, let me know,’” she said.

Alberta’s minister of public safety and emergency services, Mike Ellis, tweeted Saturday that the Alberta Emergency Management Agency is working with local officials.

“To those affected, know that the province is here for you during this difficult time,” the tweet said.

Humphreys said she was not insured due to the types of structures on her property.

Police asked motorists Sunday to stay away from the tornado zone, saying so many people were stopping for a look that it was causing problems for first responders who are still in the area.

They said they charged one woman with careless driving and distracted driving after they allege she parked in the middle of the road and snapped pictures, even when officers told her to move on. Officers also had to respond to a collision in the area as people were not paying attention to the road, police said.

Greenhough said Alberta typically sees 15 tornadoes per year, based on data collected between 1980 and 2009. This year, she said the province is already up to 13.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2023.

— By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

The Canadian Press