When news of Jack Layton’s death spread two weeks ago on a Monday, I was already freaked out and ill-slept from looking for photos of the tornado destruction in Goderich and Benmiller. I’m not from that area but C. grew up near Goderich, and her parents still live around there. I’ve become pretty attached to Goderich and Huron County in the past five years. And the weirdest thing about this tornado for us is that we had just been up there that weekend. We looked at three wedding venues in different towns (Goderich, Benmiller, and Bayfield) and within 48 hours, an F3 tornado plowed through two of the three. Perhaps you can see why this was unsettling to me. I almost felt personally responsible.
We actually spent that Saturday night in Stratford, were watching Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming during the storm, and drove straight home. There was a tree limb down in Toronto, but we knew nothing about the windstorm in the city either. I dropped C. off at her poetry gathering, went home and unpacked, and was oblivious (even when my mother texted “R U Okay??” which really, could have meant “Are you home yet”) until some worried tweets tipped me off about the destruction up in Huron County. I spent the rest of the evening (and days afterward) contacting family and friends (C. remained unaware for another few hours) and trying to figure out exactly what had happened. How many were hurt or killed (which turned out to be 37 hurt, 1 killed)? How many, and which, buildings are still standing - and which might still come down. Some frankly stupid tweets were flying around saying things like “Goderich is destroyed”, which implies full-scale destruction of the entire town and everyone in it. I couldn’t find any photos or info about the Benmiller Inn, except rumours that two buildings had lost their roofs. If the main building was affected, this could change our wedding plans. But I had no idea (for a week) and people were tweeting about the Inn in the past tense (and about trapped miners in Goderich, and all sorts of other untrue and inflammatory things).
So, Jack Layton, I’m sorry if I seemed a bit distracted.
We eventually talked to Benmiller Inn, sent C.’s mother as a scout, and thus ascertained that the main building was okay and that the Inn is open for business and busy cleaning up the damage. Images and videos of Goderich propagated, and we heard some first-hand accounts at a tornado relief fundraising event in Toronto. But I had been wanting to see the damage for myself.
We went up to C.’s parents for Labour Day weekend so on Sunday I asked who wanted to come with me. C. and her brother didn’t want to see it while the destruction was so fresh (I think) and her parents had already been (her father works in Goderich and they often shop there). So I went with C.’s (and my future) sister-in-law.
Here’s what we saw.
Bemiller is about 10 minutes’ drive from Goderich, and the chances of the tornado having gone straight there after coming off lake Huron directly into the historic Goderich town square were pretty slim. I knew that the town of Benmiller was hit really hard by the tornado, so I didn’t want anyone to think I was gawking (it didn’t work, as you’ll see). We stopped in at the front desk of the Inn to let them know why we wanted to look around. C. and I are considering holding our wedding there, so we have an interest in how damaged the grounds are. As you might expect of an old mill, Benmiller Inn has a beautiful setting in a little valley along a creek flowing in the Maitland river.
Of course, many trees are down. There hasn’t been a lot of press about Benmiller but I read a quote from the manager stating that 130 trees on their property were destroyed. Once the debris is cleared, entire swaths of hillside will be bare. There were many trees, young and old, fallen into the creek. But I’d say more trees are standing than downed. The totem pole on the Inn grounds is also broken, and they very smartly have cut it into sections (bear, eagle, etc.) and placed them along the road or in front of smaller buildings. (That is the first time I’ve seen a totem pole stump!). Other than some damaged shingles (and perhaps a window or two? I can’t remember) the main building is fine.
One of the reasons I am writing this is to do my part to spread word that the Benmiller Inn is still very much open for business and despite fewer trees, still a beautiful setting. The Inn has new management as of only a few months ago and I don’t want to see them lose any more business than necessary from this disaster, because of some rumours that it is “destroyed”. I consider this to be the opposite of “gawking” at tornado damage. Afterward, I heard from the Inn that they plan to have all of their rooms open by the end of September. I'm frankly very impressed by this.
Sarah and I then walked down the highway across the creek bridge to Benmiller Inn’s group of smaller buildings. This is where the worse damage is. I had my camera out (again, I have a personal money/memory-investment interest in the place) and as we walked down that sideroad (which is also the Main St. of the town of Benmiller) we heard someone driving by on the highway behind us yelling “Gawkers! Jeez!” or something to that effect. I turned around and caught a glimpse of a red pickup truck.
The building by the pond has some broken windows and loose shingles, but will be fine. Small sections of roof were gone from the Spa building and the little house that you can rent for group accommodations. But the building attached to the spa by that little bridge over the creek (I don’t know its name) is already being completely re-roofed. Apparently they re-roofed it only recently! The weirdest thing is that all of these buildings, which we had seen only two weeks earlier, now look about 10-20 years older. Paint and siding is distressed, windows look old. Capstones are gone from stone walls. All this is fixable, and it could be much worse. Benmiller Inn will be fine. But how strange to see buildings seem to age decades after a 30-second tornado.
We could see some buildings in the town on Benmiller just up the hill. Every building we could see had completely mangled, missing roofs. We didn’t go up there - that would be gawking. Across the Maitland river, loud and heavy equipment was cutting out mature trees that had fallen into the water.
C. forbade me to take photos in Goderich. I fought this briefly. I said, what if it’s something incredible, like a doll’s head imbedded in the town limits sign, right in the “O” of “GODERICH”, and somehow everyone else has missed photographing this?
But she’s right. The photo frame would get between me and the reason I went there, which was to experience the damage emotionally, not to frame it artistically. And if I started taking photos of that mess, where would I stop?
Plus there are many better photographers than I that have photographed this mess. Here are some places to start:
I took no pics but I took mental notes.
First of all, driving in from Benmiller there was no evidence of tornado. I don’t know how it got there, but it wasn’t along Highway 8. There was the odd broken branch from high winds, but the funnel hadn’t touched down here.
The first (indirect) evidence we saw was on the edge of Goderich. Two different disaster rebuild companies had parked trailers on the side of the road as billboards for their services. More branches were down, here and there. We popped into Zehrs’ to get some groceries, and the business logos in the mall sign were somewhat mangled.
Further toward the centre of town, some windows were boarded up and the occasional whole tree was down. But it still looked like the effect of normal high winds.
Then, off to the right, was a roofless house. (I guessed later that if there isn’t a tarp covering a damaged roof, that house has been condemned.)
We parked at Tim Horton’s and steeled ourselves with treats. The place was full of cheerful conversation. The parking lot was packed. We saw two different groups of motorbikers rolling through town. There was a flea market on. Normally it would be in the town square, but it had moved two blocks away to a parking lot. The men’s washroom at Timmy’s was longer than they usually are, and I was squished behind the door. There was a sense of cameraderie in the air. A man using the urinal farted. Apologized. And after what was more of a coming-timing beat than an awkward silence, another guy in line said: “Well, If you’re gonna toot, this is the place to do it.” Everyone laughed.
From the Timmy’s parking lot we could see some roofless buildings, but it didn’t look like the tornado had come right through here. The worst of the destruction was only two blocks away. On our way to the town square we walked through the little flea market. It’s weird to see old rusty tools and books and things lying decontextualised on the ground, so close to tornado debris. We bought some purple string beans from a cheerful man wearing a t-shirt with a whirlwind graphic on it and the message “I survived the Goderich Tornado - August 21 2011.” I heard there were other T-shirts for sale in town that say “F-U F3!”
I’d already seen photos of a lot of the damage in the town square, which is actually an octagon by the way, but it was (of course) far weirder to see it live. The gazebo on the courthouse lawn lost its legs and fell straight down. There is one tree left on those grounds. You can’t get into the square at all, so we went around to a few different side streets to see if from different angles.
The Burger Bar (where C.’s dad used to go for lunch when working in town) is basically squished. The outer wall of the third-floor rooms in the historic building next to it fell outward. There are bricks all around the Burger Bar and its roof is partly caved in. Pot lights at the front of the restaurant have popped out with rectangles of siding around them and are dangling from their electrical cables, swaying in the wind. One of the glass doors is cracked (but not shattered, like auto glass) and open, up at a crazy angle on its hinges. Behind the restaurant is a big pile of yellow bricks that I realised came from the building next door. There is a crushed black car. (It’s the totalled cars that really drive it home to my sluggish brain. This might look a bit like human demolition/renovation but it is absolutely not). The Burger Bar has been seemingly abandoned the way it is. I don’t know if anyone was hurt there. It looks like a movie set.
The building above it must be at least 100 years old. The entire wall is gone on the 3rd floor and you can see into the apartment there: shabby green paint, a thin wall and door between rooms, tall ceilings like an old building might have. No evidence of furniture or possessions; I don’t think anyone was living there. But no tarps, so the two floors below must be forsaken as well. Again, it looks like a movie set.
From where we stood, we could see that across the square, the building that houses Coffee Culture (where we ate several times during the Goderich film fest last April) had also lost virtually all of its 3rd floor, and some of its 2nd. Again, no tarps. It will be coming down.
We walked over to the Livery (a performance space and rental hall) which was another potential wedding venue for us. Totally fine. I even think the paint on the shutters was already a bit flaked off before the storm. Across the parking lot, though, is a dense clump of fallen mature trees. The Bedford Hotel next door is also fine, and the restaurant (Paddy’s) there is the only business on the square to be open. And this is only one street over from the destruction at the Burger Bar.
Then we went the other way to the 140-year-old Victoria Street United Church, one of two U.C.’s in town. From the photos, I knew that the tornado had collapsed most of the the roof and part of the walls, but left three heavy roof beams sticking up like letter-A’s above the ruin. It was a really dramatic image, and you can see it from many angles in many photos of post-storm Goderich. Only one of those A-frame beam structures was still standing now; one was leaning up against the side of the church (which was a little surreal) and the other has been carted away I suppose. What’s weird when you view the church from the square side is that part of the roof (above the balcony I think) is still fairly intact, and you can see one nice lamp hanging from it as though everything is normal. Houses right next to the church are largely fine. Across the street, two men (father and son) were carting damaged siding from their house to a pickup truck.
Someone I talked to joked/said that they’re trying to take the church down as quickly as possible before the Heritage People tell them what to do. They may be right, and I’ve seen this sentiment a few times in online posts by residents. I’m sure tornado victims resent outsiders telling them what to do, but if they rebuild the damaged buildings in the square quickly and cheaply, with whatever suburban-looking architecture is at hand, Goderich will no longer be Ontario’s Prettiest Town. And, I have to say it, Walmart and Zehrs’ and other box stores out on Highway 8 have done worse for the businesses in Goderich’s historic downtown than a tornado could ever do. Now is probably a good time to think about what Goderich wants to be.
Also, the predation I saw evidence of was in the form of the disaster-themed demolition-and-renovation companies, three of which were represented by vans throughout the town.
I’m sure that dealing with the authorities and insurance companies after an event like this is insane as well. I heard that if your house is going to be condemned, there is actually a tiny window of time before it is declared as such, after which you’re not allowed to set foot in it. So families will get out as many of their possessions (some in the basement etc. and completely fine) as they can before the Condemnation Man comes to call.
So...we went back to the car, feeling shaky and ready to go. I wanted to see the salt mine before we left town, so we drove an unfamiliar route to get there (I normally would have gone through the square!). This was through residential streets where some beautiful heritage homes with verandahs and widows walks and B+B signs and lovely gardens were completely untouched. Then we came ‘round a bend where we probably shouldn’t have been able to see over the cliff to the salt mine, but could because virtually every tree was uprooted.
Then suddenly we were in an area where about every 3rd house had a blue tarp over part, most, or all of its roof. At the fundraiser last week in Toronto, someone quipped that they say it’s blue in Goderich, for three reasons: the mood (improving, I’d say!), the tarps, and all the sky that you can see. (I also asked a woman if she had seen the square when she returned, and she said “Yep - you can see the square from places you’re not supposed to be able to see the square.” I’m no expert on Goderich sightlines but that seemed pretty true. I’m pretty sure we could see through the square to the salt mine down at the lake. That didn’t seem right.)
We headed down to the beach, which was PACKED with cars. Some guys in red shirts were taking donations for something (I don’t know what, the lineup was long so we turned around). The salt mine is very exposed on piers that jut into the lake; this is where the lone fatality occurred, involving a worked on the high boom. There are big chunks of siding and roof missing, and you can see right through one of the salt dome building structure things.
That was enough, really. I'd meant to look for some of the residential streets where most houses were gone, but that felt wrong. We went on home. I still feel pretty dismal about the whole thing, but really struck by how cheerful the residents of Goderich seemed to be.
I personally want to support Goderich and Benmiller as much as I can. I’ll be trying to volunteer when I’m up and they can use me, and we’ve donated some money and will support the businesses on the square (like the Bean, which serves the best veggie burger I’ve ever had, hands down) when they reopen.
If you’d like to help out, here are some links you can follow: