On August 26th, 1995, a storm of unexpected proportions took everyone by surprise in the small community of Pilot Butte, SK. Long-time resident, David Zorn, chronicled his experience before, during, and after the damaging storm, which left millions of dollars of damage in its wake. For the first time, this article by David is being published online. Below is an edited version of David's footage from the aftermath of the storm.
The day began warm and sunny with the forecast calling for afternoon cloud. I was going to work and Cheryle was singing at a wedding that afternoon. If things were slow at work, I would leave early and make it to the ceremony. If that did not work out, I would at least try to leave around 4:00PM to make the reception on time. Cheryle was going to meet me at home after the ceremony if I didn't make it.
As the afternoon wore on, threatening skies developed. Oddly enough, there were no storm warnings coming over the radio. The clouds developed into an ominous formation and colour coming together from opposite directions. Around 3:30PM, the lightning in North Regina was intense and fierce. Then came the pounding rain soon joined by a horrific wind that was climaxed by a pounding barrage of hail. The west shop doors rattled with deafening resonance as they stood against the brunt of the storm. Alll work ceased as we stood and watched the fury around us through the glass shop doors. At approximately 4:00PM, the rain slowed to a down-pour. People went out to check their cars. They brought them in the shop for further inspection. The wind had blown gravel off the roof onto the employee's vehicles but no damage was found from that or from the hail.
At 4:05PM, I called out to Cheryle to see if the storm had hit Pilot Butte. I was surprised to find out that it was perfectly calm and that no rain had even fallen. I told her that I had just witnessed the worst summer storm in my life. "Maybe the storm moved south and missed Pilot Butte", I said. I had taken our old car to work so I jokingly told Cheryle to hop in the Acura and drive away from the cloud because there is hail in it. She laughed and said, "It can't be that bad". I told her I would wait a while before trying to come home as all the streets were flooded and traffic was a mess in Regina. Keep in mind that only about 3 miles separate Pilot Butte and Regina. Cheryle says that it was only 5 minutes after I talked to here that the storm hi Pilot Butte.
Just before 5:00PM, I left the shop and started my journey home. I had a difficult time getting out of Regina. Every street I tried was flooded at every corner. People were sweeping in the water trying to clean leaves and hail from the storm sewer grates. I'm sure that the storm sewers were backed up and not plugged. My car almost stalled driving through one very deep puddle as the muffler filled up with water. I just made it through with the engine chugging because it could not exhale. That was my last obstacle before getting onto higher grade roads with ditches instead of storm sewers. As I made it to the outskirts of the city, I was looking forward to a quick drive home and pondered whether we should venture back into Regina for the wedding reception.
As I came to the first farm field along the city's edge, I could not believe my eyes. What had been a tall field of wheat, was now a barren field of dirt, water, and hail. The ground looked like it was worked and then harrow packed. You could not see even one stem of debris, it was all gone; pounded into dust. Across the road had been a swathed field of durum. You could not even make out the swaths, they were pounded so completely. I had never seen such complete destruction of vegetation from a storm before. Fields of canola and flax fared no better. A swathed half section of canola no longer had any swaths, nor stubble. There were about a dozen mule deer out by the highway, grazing on this field as I drove by. You could just make them out in the steam rising off the ground. It was very dark out for that time of day, foggy and eerie. I hoped it would get better as I drove east, but now there was a layer of ice on the highway. A quarter mile later, traffic was at a standstill. Large power transmission cables were dangling across the highway. A mile of transmission towers had been snapped off. There was just enough clearance to drive cars under the liens on the north lane. Now my heart was beating with 2 and a half miles left to travel. Another quarter mile further along was more severe carnage. A row of 5 small steel granaries were gone. Little pieces of wreckage disappeared into the fog in a Southwest line from where they stood. Three large hopper bottom bins, two of which were just delivered a week earlier, were rolled around on the ground and dented up like pop cans. This was now too close to home. One more yard to pass by before Pilot Butte.
In the fog, this yard looked to be all there. Things began to look hopeful. The hope soon disappeared into real concern. As I turned off the highway to come to town from the north end, I could see damaged roofs on homes along the west side of town. Wind damage I thought, but just shingles torn off.
As I came to the corner to turn into town, my heart was in my throat. The ready-mix plant at that corner was torn to shreds. It's debris driven into a nearby acreage and further down into the first set of houses. The piles of hail and lakes of water that were standing was more than I had ever seen. I looked in shock as I drove past the trailer court and scanned the houses on the west side of town with windows broken, siding pounded away, people boarding up their battered homes. Maybe it will be better further in as we are about three streets in, I thought. Instead, the hail got deeper, I was almost getting stuck. At our corner, a garage was sitting on the cars it was supposed to protect. Hail, water, and debris was all over the street. I took a run at our driveway and barely made it in without getting stuck. Our town was very well-treed. You did not see many neighbors in the summer. One of the first things I noticed was how everything was stripped bare. I sate in the car for a few moments, not really wanting to get out. Cheryle came out of the backyard. I asked if she was OK, she was, and then I asked, "How bad did we get hit?"
"Pretty bad", she replied, "but at least none of our windows broke." It was hard to take in how everything outside had been ravaged by the storm. The front of the house which faces east looked fairly good. The most noticeable damage on the front was all the debris that was stuck to the house. Every square inch had tiny pieces of leaves, branches, and sappy bark stuck to it, even under the eaves. This was the case around the whole house. Most of the damage was at the back of the house(west side). First of all, the hail was so deep you had to put on rubber boots. Standing at the back of the yard, I surveyed what was a new roof. Shingles were broken, some had chunks knocked out, others were torn away. The roof vents which are metal, were hammered but in one piece. The turbine vent was hammered shut. The top of the chimney was beat apart and was gone. Rain and ice poured into the open chimney and dripped out of the bottom of it in the laundry room. There is a floor drain in that room, so no water damage resulted. We shoveled the ice piles off the deck and away from the house for two hours. We could not believe the amount of debris that was mixed in it.
My primary concern was rain-safing the roof as the sky looked like more rain was yet to come. I patched the worst part of the roof, covered the turbine vent and then wondered what to do about the chimney. I found part of our chimney in the side alley, but not enough of it to be of use. Cheryle spotted a chimney top out in a nearby field. I went and pulled it out of the ice and brought it home. It was a little big but I put it on the chimney pipe and wired it down. All our neighbors had broken windows and plastic roof vents. This resulted in extensive inside damage as hail and water filled up rooms and attics and pelted everything in sight. I went around to see if the neighbors needed and poly as I had some at home. Beaver Lumber brought out a couple of lifts of plywood for people to use to cover broken windows etc. Our one neighbor had every window in the back of their two story house broken. Just before dark, we walked around a little bit and talked to some neighbors. Everyone, including us, was somewhat in a state of shock over what had taken place.
We were wondering if anyone had electricity as we did not. The fuse on our transformer pole was knocked out but the problem was bigger than that. Our part of town had no power for 22 hours. Since we have our own well, no power also means no water. The main sewer lift station was knocked out as well so we closed the sewer valve in the basement in case the system backed up. With no power, water or sewer we decided to go into Regina to Cheryle's parents at about 10:00PM. We had supper, used the facilities, and then came home to sleep. We did not open our fridge or freezer after the power went out. We did not have any spoilage even after 22 hours. We wanted to sleep at home just in case there may have been thieves or looters around taking advantage of the situation. We really did not have to worry because the town was very well patrolled. The RCMP even had the entrances into town blocked off in order to screen the people coming and going.
It was difficult to get to Cheryle's parent's place because the #46 highway was blocked off because of the fallen transmission lines We had to go in on the #1 highway which meant having to drive through a fair bit of the city. You had to pick your route carefully as many of the city roads were still flooded. The expressway was closed because the underpasses were all flooded. The expressway was closed because the underpasses were all flooded. We forged through a few small lakes, but we finally made it.
I was up early on Sunday morning and went out as soon as the fog began to thin out. We brought back with us from Cheryle's parent's, their video camera. I video taped around our home first and then went for a walk around town to record the damage. I was gone for at least two hours. People would come up to me and want to chat for several minutes(most of these people were from other blocks and were people I didn't even know). One lady that I did not know even walked with me for several blocks. She and her family came home from a trip late the previous night and were just getting a look at the damage for the first time. There were a lot of similar cases. Already there were curious lookers driving through town before 8:00AM. A slight foreshadow of what was to come. Even after all the rain that came after the storm, there was hail lying all over and debris covering everything.
We had planned to leave on holidays that Sunday morning. Needless to say, we did not. We were thankful that we were still home and not already in B.C. when the storm hit. Whether or not we would be going at all was in question now. We did not feel like travelling anymore.
Our phone was working intermittently, especially for incoming calls. I did manage to make some calls Saturday night to our insurance company and got our name on top of the list for the adjuster to come out. Sunday and Monday were clean up and patch days. The town distributed leaflets that instructed us to pile debris on the streets and the would haul it away. We had to do it right away as they were doing this for only a few days. We had some fallen trees to cut up and the entire yard to rake and haul. The weather had returned to sunny and warm which dried things up to be raked and generally just made everything easier to do. The whole yard was covered with about two inches of mulched debris, shingles, wood etc. Our goal was to get things to a point where we could still leave on our trip. Since we still had no power we went to Regina to eat at Cheryle's parents' which was a big help. It was almost impossible to get in and out of town as it was plugged with traffic from curious onlookers especially in our part of town. The RCMP finally had to close the roads into town to keep people out. Our power was restored by mid-afternoon on Sunday and we could once again enjoy our modern conveniences.
We are so thankful we did not have any inside damage. That would have for sure cancelled our trip altogether. People were shoveling hail out of their attics and rooms still on Sunday afternoon. Several homes had their ceilings fall in from the weight of the hail and rain that came through broken roof vents etc. If you had a window break the hail and rain flew into the room, damaging furniture, walls, computers etc. One of our neighbors who had a kitchen window break was finding glass in here cupboards. Several mobile homes have been written off in the trailer park and on some acreages. Once the hail broke the windows it carried on and went through the interior walls. Vehicles and R.Vs were also severely damaged. Our Acura Integra was at home and it was hammered but at least no windows broke. Many people had windows break on their vehicles and R.Vs.
On Monday our insurance adjuster came around noon with a TV news crew following him around. They were taping us as we surveyed the damage to the house. We even made some of the final edits and were on the news.(We knew the cameraman from our church)
We need to re-shingle the roof, replace two windows due to frame and track damage, replace eaves-troughs and down-pipes, replace the deck railing, have the stucco re-finished, sand and stain the deck and fence etc, etc. Our evergreen trees are 80% stripped and scheduled for removal. The rest of the trees should make a comeback. The house has between six and seven thousand dollars of damage and unfortunately trees and shrubs are not covered. By Monday night, we were in a position where we could leave it all behind for awhile. On Tuesday morning, we drove out of the "war zone" and headed for the west coast.
The weather office called what we had a plow wind. They will not confirm that there was a tornado. That's not surprising since they didn't even have storm warnings issued. Everyone here knows that it was a tornado that caused the zig-zag pattern of destruction between Regina and Pilot Butte. The hail came down in a swirling motion. The farm yard at the corner of town that was destroyed had the windows sucked out of the house. Debris from the large barn was nowhere to be found. Only the roof of the shop was left in the yard. All the other large buildings were gone. Several large steel bins have never been found. The storm varied in intensity and traveled along the Trans-Canada highway from Swift Current to Manitoba. The most vicious damage was done in our area. However, the hail also fell in different places along the way. Uncle Clarence Zorn near Grenfell was almost completely hailed out. The barley, wheat and oats were ripe and most of it was 100% damaged. The canola was fairly green yet so it may still yield. We could go on and on but I think you can get the idea from this.
No serious injuries or deaths resulted from the storm. While the mayor of the town claimed that a tornado had touched down on the western town limits; Environment Canada maintained that the damage was caused solely by a plow wind. The majority of the town was without power until the middle of the afternoon the following day. Regina was not untouched by the storm either, with severe flooding occurring in parts of the city. The storm even surprised weather experts by how strong it became. The peculiar pattern and the devastation that was left in its wake is what makes the storm of '95 a memorable one.