Life almost back to normal a year after Goderich tornado

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One year ago, a tornado packing 300 km/h winds ripped through this Ontario town, killing one person and injuring 37, reducing homes to rubble and downing hundreds of century-old trees.

Residents emerged from the dust on Aug. 21, 2011, to find the twister had inflicted more than $110 million in damage, some of it irreversible, on a community that had been billed as Canada’s prettiest town.

Before long, though, townsfolk and volunteers from across Canada rolled up their sleeves and began restoring the Lake Huron community of 8,000 to its former glory.

The once-gutted historic Courthouse Square is now a hub of activity, with people shopping, soaking up the sun on patios and stopping on the sidewalk to chat.

Most of the storefronts have new facades, giving the square a modern twist, and the few buildings damaged beyond repair have been replaced or razed.

"I think the recovery of any business community is vital to the health and well-being of a community," says Judy Crawford, chief executive of the Goderich Chamber of Commerce.

So far, 152 of the 170 downtown businesses have reopened. Eight new stores set up shop in the square, says Crawford, who credits town council for passing interim bylaws, including one that allowed businesses to open temporary locations, enabling them to keep their doors open after the twister hit.

"The priority was to get them back up and running, wherever possible," Crawford says. "I think that had a lot to do with our success."

Still, standing in the town square, something is amiss.

Looking beyond the tidy shops and foot traffic, it’s noticeable: There are few trees in sight.

That’s because the twister destroyed nearly 170 trees in the square, many more than a century old.

The town has pledged $2.5 million to give the area a facelift, including planting 156 new trees, some of them more than 10 metres tall.

"We’ll make this place come alive in a hurry," says Tom Jasper, vice-chair of the steering committee for the core. "I think that there is a huge psychological connection with revitalization after the tornado."

Goderich Mayor Deb Shewfelt credits a strong community, government support, generous donors and an unseasonably mild winter for the quick rebuild.

"Mother nature can be cruel, but she can also be kind," says the mayor of 18 years.

* * *

Darin Culbert couldn’t walk down the street without someone coming up to him and asking when his downtown bakery was going to reopen.

The co-owner of Culbert Bakery finally opened his doors 10 months after the twister blew out the storefront and damaged the roofing.

"I kind of toyed with the idea that if there was enough damage I wouldn’t reopen, but I couldn’t. They (customers) wouldn’t let me," he says.

Culbert breathed a sigh of relief when the bakery’s 135-year-old brick oven restarted after being shut off for months.

"Everybody said if the oven was shut off for any time it would all cave in," Culbert says. "But it was off for four months and (there were ) no problems with it whatsoever."

The bakery’s 10 employees, up from eight before the twister, are busy these days pumping out Culbert’s famous doughnuts, cookies and other treats.

* * *

St. Patrick St. was one of the hardest-hit areas.

One year later, the historic street looks almost unrecognizable from the days immediately following the tornado.

The majority of the large homes on the street have new siding, fresh roofs and other upgrades.

Hundreds of Goderich homes were damaged by the twister — 37 beyond repair — many of them on St. Patrick St.

So far, 28 homes have been rebuilt.

The buzzing of chainsaws and grinding of wood chippers, once the anthem of St. Patrick St., has been replaced with the sound of hammers and drills as workers put finishing touches on houses.

Pauline Wick and her family spent eight months living in a trailer and rental house while their home was repaired.

"It was a long process," says Wick, a mother of three. "It was strange. We missed home."

Happy to be back in her house, Wick has mixed emotions about her neighbourhood.

The twister left hardly any trees standing, and some residents jokingly call the area the "siding capital" because most homes rebuilt using siding rather than costly brick.

"It’s a changed street," Wick says.

* * *

While news of the tornado blew across Canada one year ago, few media outlets mentioned Benmiller, the tiny community southeast of Goderich that was also devastated.

Terrified guests at the historic Benmiller Inn hung on for dear life as the tornado blew out the hotel’s window, peeled off sections of the roof and sent tree branches piercing through the hotel’s walls.

Today, the inn is mostly repaired, with 45 of its 57 rooms reopened.

Benmiller resident Ray Kennedy and his wife, Fay, were putting the final touches on their dream home when the tornado struck, smashing out the windows, tearing a hole in the ceiling and ripping off siding.

The couple, planning to move into the two-storey house in the next couple of days, was forced to bunker down with relatives in Clinton for three months while the dream home was repaired.

"I lost three months of my life," Ray Kennedy says.

* * *

The Sifto Salt Mine was the first thing the tornado hit when it came off Lake Huron.

Employing 460 people, the mine was Goderich’s largest employer.

Questions swirled about when the mine would reopen.

"Nobody knew what was going to happen," says Rowland Howe, a spokesman for Compass Minerals, the American company that owns Sifto.

"Nobody had any idea how successful it would be bringing the mine back into production."

After closing for 16 days, the mine brought back most of its workers.

Today, the workforce has grown to 584.

Twitter: @DaleatLFPress

GODERICH, Ont. — Time doesn’t heal some wounds.

Just ask Brenda Turcotte Laberge, the widow of the only person killed by the tornado.

Turcotte Laberge’s husband, Normand Laberge, 61, was in a tower at the Sifto Salt Mine supervising the loading of salt on to a ship when the twister hit.

"It’s all I think about every day. Every day is like Aug. 21 last year," Turcotte Laberge says. "They say time will heal, but I don’t know.

"It heals nothing. I’m sad, I’m lonesome, I miss him."

The man Turcotte Laberge affectionately referred to as "Normy" was a 31-year Sifto employee.

"He went to work that morning, said ‘goodbye, see you later,’ and (I) never did see him later," Turcotte Laberge says.

The next day, Laberge’s name made the news across the country. Many marvelled at the fact that at least only one life was lost in a tragedy that could have been much worse.

But that one life was everything in the world to Laberge’s family.

"I go to counselling, but none of that helps. How can you take away somebody’s sadness?" Turcotte Laberge asks.

Life was good for the couple of 17 years up until Aug. 21, 2011.

They bought their dream property in Lucknow, a picturesque two-acre plot they named Peace Acres.

It was there Laberge, a Montreal native, spent the majority of his free time gardening.

After his death, relatives scattered some of Laberge’s ashes around the yard.

Maintaining the large property without the help of her green-thumbed husband proved to be too much for Turcotte Laberge, who sold the house and moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in June.

The still-grieving widow is returning to Goderich on the one-year anniversary of the tornado to attend a memorial dedication to her late husband Tuesday.

The town is unveiling a memorial plaque to Laberge at Lions Harbour Park.

Laberge’s death left a big hole at the tight-knit Sifto mine.

"He’s always going to be remembered," says Rowland Howe, former mine manager. "Whenever we talk about the storm we’re going to talk about Norman.

"It was difficult for everybody."

Every year around Christmas, Laberge would bake lasagna, sell it by the slice and donate the proceeds to the Huron-Perth Children’s Aid Society. Siftco always matched the contribution.

Twitter: @DaleatLFPress


Normand Laberge remembrance ceremony

What: Dedication of tree sculpture and unveiling of plaques

When: Tuesday, 1:30 p.m.

Where: Lions Harbour Park, Goderich


1: People killed

37: People injured

300 km/h: speed of winds

4 p.m.: Time tornado hit

37: Homes destroyed

$110 million: Insured damage

$4 million: Donations raised

$8 million: Aid from province