Justin Hobson remembers walking into Elie on June 23, 2007, and seeing barkless trees, houses wiped off their foundations, exposed basements and vehicles crushed like pop cans.
“It was like a bomb went off,” he recalls.
It was 10-years-ago today, on June 22, 2007, that Canada's only F5 tornado on record — with wind speeds of more than 420 km/h — touched down in Elie, Man. No serious injuries were reported. Hobson witnessed the severe weather event and still has memories of sights and sounds the twister produced burnt firmly in his mind.
Hobson's chase began around 4:30 p.m., after he left work and noticed what appeared to be storm development in the direction of Lake Manitoba. He drove down Highway 3 toward his Oak Bluff home and away from the haze of the city to catch a better glimpse of the system.
“I saw what looked to be a nuclear bomb going off,” he recalls. “A mushroom cloud of developments. A storm that looked to be growing rapidly.”
Hobson stopped at his Oak Bluff home, grabbed his camera and quickly logged onto his computer to check radar imagery to confirm what he suspected: “Oh yeah, this is growing fast,” he thought.
The storm chaser headed west down Highway 2 towards Starbuck and then veered north towards the developing system, when pea- to nickel-sized hail began smacking down on his vehicle. Soon after, Hobson spotted a wall cloud and began to realize he may see a tornado. The University of Manitoba graduate stopped on an east/west access road about one mile south of Elie, and waited.
“The wall cloud formed and then there were funnels coming down and going back up. They'd come down again and go back up. It happened for about 15 minutes,” recalls Hobson.
Then, somewhere between 6:25 p.m., and 6:30 p.m., a funnel made contact with the ground; a tornado was born.
“Initially it was quiet when it first touched down. You could hear birds chirping, frogs in the ditch and mosquitoes buzzing,” Hobson explains. “It grew, got skinny and then it grew again. But it really wasn't moving. Then it grew into a large cone tornado, and we know what happened next.”
“The tornado crept closer and you could hear it. It was just like a dull roar. Then as it closer to town you could really hear it turn up the volume, “continues Hobson. “The only way I can explain it, is when you go hiking and you put your head right beside a waterfall; (the tornado) sounded like a constant roaring sound of water almost.”
“It's definitely something that's still burnt in my mind. If I think about it I can hear those sounds again. But to this day it hasn't been replicated, I haven't heard it again."
Past reports indicate the tornado stayed on the ground for about 49 minutes. Hobson had a first-hand look at the damage swath in Elie the next morning — when the tornado was given a preliminary rating of F4.
“There was just an incredible amount of destruction,” he says. “I remember seeing a vehicle and it was crumpled to the point it looked like a can you'd step on with your foot. I remember thinking 'I can't believe wind can do this.'”
A couple of months later, video surfaced from a nearby Hutterite colony showing a well-constructed house being picked up and shredded in mid-air. The tornado was then upgraded to an F5.
The June 22, 2007 Elie tornado caused millions of dollars in damage and remains Canada's only confirmed F5 twister. Hobson says many people impacted by the severe weather event in 2007 still hold a great fear of thunderstorms today. While he rode the thrill of the chase and witnessed an event few get to see first-hand, he also saw and spoke to those affected, and as peak season nears for tornadoes in Manitoba, Hobson has a firm reminder.
“People should take thunderstorms and tornadoes seriously,” the meteorologist notes. “Don't underestimate the power of them.”