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Beth Ross sits on the veranda of her newly constructed home in Goderich Ontario, Monday, August 20, 2012 on the eve of the one year anniversary of an F3 tornado which ripped through the heart of the lakeside community destroying her home along with many others on her street. (Geoff Robins/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Beth Ross sits on the veranda of her newly constructed home in Goderich Ontario, Monday, August 20, 2012 on the eve of the one year anniversary of an F3 tornado which ripped through the heart of the lakeside community destroying her home along with many others on her street. (Geoff Robins/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Goderich, Ont. marks one-year anniversary of deadly tornado Add to ...

A year ago, Beth Ross’ home lay in ruins – parts of the wood facade had been ripped off, the walls had bowed and the windows were blown out.

Two trees that had towered over her house in Goderich, Ont., teetered dangerously, their branches snapped off in jagged points. Part of the family car had caved in as if struck by a massive punch.

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“We went outside to see the whole neighbourhood sort of devastated,” said Ms. Ross, 58, recalling the late August afternoon that scarred the Lake Huron community of roughly 7,500.

What seemed to be a typical summer storm had escalated into a deadly tornado, the most powerful to hit the province in more than a decade.

Within seconds, the twister had carved a path of destruction through the heart of the community, reducing historic buildings to rubble and claiming the life of a salt mine worker unable to reach shelter in time.

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.

Ms. 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 Ms. Ross.

Twelve months after the tornado though, many residents are now looking eagerly to the future.

“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,” said Ms. Ross. “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 dubbed Ontario’s prettiest community will never be the same.

The town prepared to mark the first anniversary of the disaster with mixed emotions.

Officials have planned a more solemn tribute to honour Normand Laberge, who died while working at the Sifto mine. Residents, meanwhile, have organized walking tours, potlucks and other informal events.

“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 Mr. 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 beloved 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Shewfelt said. “You have to try to make it better, so that’s been the aim.”

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