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Goderich Tornado Anniversary: Ontario Town Recovering From Disaster

08/21/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/20/2012 05:12 EDT
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GODERICH, Ont. - Time has brought a measure of hope and relief to a southwestern Ontario town pummelled by a deadly tornado last summer, but the woman whose husband died in the powerful storm said Tuesday her grief remains just as raw a year later.

Brenda Turcotte Laberge shook with anguish as she put white roses by a monument honouring her husband, the only person killed in the savage twister that laid waste to much of downtown Goderich in a matter of minutes.

Normand Laberge, 61, was working at the Sifto salt mine when the Lake Huron community was battered by the most powerful tornado to hit the province in years.

Residents of the picturesque community paid tribute Tuesday to the veteran salt mine worker in a solemn ceremony, one of several events commemorating the disaster that has irreversibly transformed their town.

Her voice breaking, Turcotte Laberge said she was moved by the gesture but found the anniversary itself almost too painful to bear.

"I'm sad, I'm lonesome, I miss my Normie," she said. "It's hard to be here. It's nice that they've done all this but this is the last year for me."

Her husband's absence only recently started to sink in, she said.

"When Normie was gone last year, I went on pretending he was at work and I could get through the days. But when I sold the house and moved, I couldn't pretend no more," she said.

"It finally hit me that he was gone."

Dozens of residents started the day with a walking tour that traced the path of the twister, which struck on a Sunday in the late afternoon.

Residents were warned 12 minutes before it touched down, and many were caught unawares as it carved a path of destruction through the heart of the community, reducing historic buildings to rubble.

A year later, the most obvious signs of devastation are gone, but the rebuilding effort — both physical and mental — continues.

Many buildings have been restored or replaced, and a crop of skinny saplings stands where there once were tall elms and chestnuts. A soundtrack of saws and jackhammers accompanies life in the downtown core as new construction fills in any gaps left by the destruction.

Beth Ross, her husband John Thompson, 61, and their dog live in a brand-new home built on the footprint of their old one, a move made possible by one of several special bylaws passed after the tornado in an effort to spur construction.

"I don't think not rebuilding ever crossed our minds," she said.

Recovering emotionally, however, has been tough for some.

"I know that people still get anxious in a big thunderstorm or if there's strong winds, and I think we always will," said Ross.

"I know there have been some marriage breakups and stressful things happening in the community but I think people are ready to move on now. I think we want to get back to normal and just move forward with our lives."

About 90 per cent of the businesses affected by the storm have reopened, according to the local business improvement association, and some are even reporting a boost from so-called "tornado tourists."

But the recovery hasn't been without hiccups and many say that — for better or worse — the town that calls itself Ontario's prettiest community will never be the same.

The town greeted the first anniversary of the disaster with mixed emotions.

"Some people think we shouldn't be celebrating or even acknowledging the year," said Kevin Morrison, who has lived in the community for four years.

"We went through a tragic time but take a look at what this community has done in one year."

In the days and weeks following the storm, even those who lost much of their own property chipped in to help their neighbours, offering food, clothes and a place to stay.

At the same time, balancing the conflicting desires for speedy construction and careful preservation of the town's heritage has proven tricky, and some home and business owners are still struggling with insurers, said Morrison, who has dealt with the fallout on many fronts.

Though his was one of the first homes restored, he remained at the centre of the debate in his role as chair of the heritage committee.

The decision to demolish several historic buildings deemed unsalvageable, including the town's opera house and the old United Church, drew outrage from architects and heritage buffs, he said.

The upheaval proved too much for some business owners, but others have taken their place — including Morrison and his partner, who opened a restaurant this summer in a space left vacant after the tornado.

"Will Goderich ever be the same again? No. But we still have a town that cares for one another and we'll rebuild stronger than ever," he said.

A mild winter and some $12 million in relief funds — a third raised by the community, the rest provided by the province — have helped Goderich bounce back from delays stemming from a Ministry of Labour investigation of the downtown, said Mayor Delbert (Deb) Shewfelt.

There's still a lot of work to be done, such as removing 15 centimetres of topsoil potentially contaminated with asbestos from the town square, he said.

With input from residents, officials have laid out a "master plan" for improvements that involves making the community more walkable as well as beautiful.

"We've been told by consultants that if you just replace what you had, you've really lost," Shewfelt said. "You have to try to make it better, so that's been the aim."

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