EDMONTON - Residents in Alberta's capital region are cleaning up after a vicious thunderstorm that toppled trees, damaged buildings and knocked out power to thousands of homes when it blasted through the area Saturday night.
Emergency officials said one woman injured her leg when part of a concrete overhang at the front entrance to the CN building in downtown Edmonton came crashing down. Two vehicles were badly damaged by the plummeting cement slab.
Winds that Environment Canada said reached 106 kilometres an hour ripped large branches from tree trunks and threw them about like toothpicks as spectacular lightning zig-zagged across the sky.
One homeowner told a local radio station he saw the high-powered gusts toss a swing set and trampoline through the air. Another man in north Edmonton said the storm hit him with a triple whammy - he lost his gazebo in the backyard, his fence along the side of his house and a stately green ash tree he had planted out front years ago.
A spokesman for Edmonton's power provider, Epcor, said crews would be working non-stop to restore electricity.
"I don't have the exact total, but we think it was about 40 power outages throughout the entire city last night affecting many thousands of people," Tim LeRiche said.
He didn't have an estimate of when power would be fully restored.
"There's still a substantial number of people who are out and may be for some time, so we ask people to be patient. The crews are working. We will get to you as soon as we can."
The day had been sultry. Environment Canada had issued widespread thunderstorm warnings across central Alberta, indicating imminent rain, hail and potentially damaging winds. The agency also warned such conditions could cause tornadoes. But meteorologist Blair Morrow said there was no indication any twisters hit the city, despite pictures of ominous clouds from amateur photographers.
"We are studying those photographs," he said Sunday. "We can't rule out a tornado touching down, but we have no confirmation of that."
He said there was a report from a community north of Edmonton of a house with its roof torn off.
Morrow suggested the destruction was probably the work of a plow wind, which can be as strong as a tornado, but without the characteristic rotation.
"Strong down drafts bring down cold, dense air from aloft," he explained. "As this cool, dense air spreads out, we see strong winds form along the leading edge."
"The plow winds cover actually a larger area than tornadoes. They're generally in straight lines, but they can be quite destructive. When you talk of gusts of 100 kilometres or more you're definitely talking about damaging winds."
The winds on Saturday developed ahead of the thunderstorm and were strong enough to topple tractor-trailer units, Morrow said.
The storm spat grape-to toonie-sized hail on some areas as well.
Police and fire officials said it would be a while before damage to residential and commercial properties could be fully assessed. A police spokesman said 911 was inundated with calls Saturday night from people reporting damage.
One building that was badly mangled by the storm was an Alberta Highways shop that houses equipment near Sherwood Park, a bedroom community east of Edmonton.
Foreman Roger Corbriere said he had a huge mess to clean up.
He said he received a phone call during the storm saying he'd better get down to his shop because it looked like it was blowing away.
"When I got to our shop and opened the gates, I noticed that the front part of our shop, where we store all our vehicles, the front face was leaning towards the inside of the building," he told CHED radio.
"I drove up to there to assess it, and I could smell gas real bad, so I backed out of there and I phoned 911."
Utility providers turned off natural gas and power to the shop.
Corbriere said one shed was destroyed and he was worried about whether others would be able to withstand continued high winds forecast for Sunday.
The storm, which struck various areas sometime between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., also forced thousands of people who were at Edmonton Northlands for the second day of the city's annual 10-day Capital EX fair to run for cover as winds picked up and heavy rain pelted down. The rain later turned to marble-sized hail.
A release Sunday said the midway and other attractions would be operating as usual between noon and midnight. A spokesman said two exhibits would be closed temporarily, however, because of minor wind damage.
And continued rain on Sunday hindered Hinder and its opening act, The Ending. Both rock bands had been scheduled to perform at the fair's outdoor music stage but the shows were cancelled due to the poor weather.
The severe storm caused a complete power failure at the Edmonton Journal's printing plant. The paper said on its website it would publish Sunday's paper on Monday instead.