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Friday, Jul. 21, 2000

Emergency Planning for Y2K Put to Use in Pine Lake Tornado Disaster

EDMONTON (CP) -- As the Pine Lake tornado survivors begin reassembling their shattered lives, rescue officials are marvelling at how plans to cope with one disaster prepared them for another.

Planning for Y2K -- fears that turning computer clocks from 1999 to 2000 would cause wide-ranging shutdowns and chaos -- put rescue crews on the same page when the killer twister raged through the Green Acres campground on July 14, said local health spokeswoman Elaine McFadden.

"All our lists were up to date and the details were fresh in everyone's minds," said McFadden, of the David Thompson health district.

She said the 500 or so volunteers -- including 300 nurses -- knew exactly where to go and what to do after the 7 p.m. tornado, packing 300 kilometre-per-hour winds, overturned RVs and trailers and lifted debris into, and clear across, the lake.

Eleven people died and 150 more were treated for everything from cuts and broken limbs to shock in what proved to be Canada's worst tornado disaster since a 1987 twister killed 27 in and around Edmonton. Because of Y2K, the preparation plans -- including lists of doctors and changes to hospital layouts -- had been updated.

"We haven't gone through the motions (of a mock disaster) since the early '90s and we could have had problems," said McFadden. Preliminary assessments suggest the district's only stumble was not being quick enough in getting out to the media the contact phone numbers for the four area hospitals. "Next time, we'll get that set up a little quicker. But that's the only thing I can think of."

RCMP Const. Dan Doyle, who arrived at the campground minutes after the storm passed, said the swift rescue -- particularly the quick turnaround time getting the injured to hospital -- prevented the death toll rising.

"The various groups train in their own aspects of how they deal with a rescue but when you see how they gelled as one unit, everyone knew their responsibilities," said Doyle. He said the disaster site "looked like a film set in 1968 in Vietnam, with helicopters coming in and out and searchlights going on when we eventually got power." But officials still want to know if anything more could have been done to warn the 1,000 or so holidayers that they were in the path of the 1.5-kilometre-wide tornado.

The first line of defence that fateful Friday was a warning from Environment Canada's weather office. Meteorologists were watching the storm building in intensity in the Rocky Mountain foothills all afternoon. Storm alerts were dispatched to news outlets. A severe thunderstorm warning -- which included the potential for tornadoes -- was issued at 6:18 p.m. MDT, 40 minutes before "all hell broke loose," as one survivor put it.

Jay Anderson, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada in Winnipeg, said the warning system worked as it should -- the question was whether anyone heard it. "We want to talk to the media in Red Deer (the closest city) to see how well the warnings were being broadcast on that day," said Anderson.

"There's some thought being given to talking to (survivors), but we certainly don't want to talk to them right now until there's been a little bit of closure on this matter. "We've never read anything in the media about whether people in the camp heard warnings or if they didn't.

"We do know that our weather radio reached the camp but we don't know who had weather radios." The Alberta government has promised financial relief but has no plans to launch a formal inquiry into the tornado deaths.

"There was nothing suspicious about the deaths. People were either deceased on the site or they passed away in hospital," said Dave Noble, program director for the province's Disaster Services branch.

Dennis Dudley, a tornado expert with Environment Canada, said the winds are simply capricious freaks of nature. Sometimes they touch down; other times, the funnel clouds pass harmlessly overhead.

At Pine Lake, the monster wind took only 10 minutes to cut a path of death and destruction 20 kilometres long.

Dudley said even if people in the park had been warned, they might not have been able to escape -- the lone access road led directly into the teeth of the twister. "Another 500 metres either way and we would not be here (talking about death and destruction)," said Dudley. The disaster prompted Alberta's largest search and rescue effort in more than a decade.

"I think everyone's very comfortable with the response to the tornado," said Noble. "It was a tragic event and we can never lose sight of that, but in terms of how the municipality, the emergency responders and all the other agencies involved, the response was a pretty smooth one." No plan can be perfect, he added. "There are always lessons that can be learned following something like this." Representatives of the various agencies involved in the tragedy will meet next week to see how they can do better when nature turns nasty.

-- (, July 21, 2000

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