September 21, 2018

The tornado didn’t strike without warning. We weren’t listening.

On September 21, destructive tornadoes whipped through Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec. They rivalled any twisters borne on the most volatile day at the heart of Tornado Alley. They made direct and devastating strikes on the communities of Calabogie, Dunrobin and Pontiac, as well as the cities of Gatineau and Ottawa, not to mention countless rural properties in between. The tornadoes injured dozens of people, a handful of them critically, but nobody was killed.

This was luck.

Too many people were unsheltered, exposed and vulnerable as the tornadoes hit. This is evidenced by the outrageous number of videos shot by people as they - often in their cars, on their balconies or at their windows - were literally being battered by debris inside the vortex.

In the days after the event, media reports were quick to spew the usual clichés: 'no one saw this coming' or 'it struck without warning'. False. A significant severe weather event that included the risk of tornadoes was forecast days in advance. A tornado watch was issued for the region several hours in advance. Tornado warnings were issued with - for many impacted locations - more than ten minutes of lead time. Indeed, Environment Canada did quite well with their handling of this event, from their forecasts to their issuance of warnings. But what good are warnings in they fall on deaf ears?

Back on August 27, a tornado warning was issued for areas of the Kawarthas that included Balsam Lake and our family cottage. We were at home in the city that day, but I kept an eye on radar as a powerful supercell with a strong signature of rotation and a history of tornadoes made a bee-line for our friends and neighbours. The tornado warning was issued over twenty minutes in advance of the storm's arrival, and I took the time to call around to friends to make sure they were sheltered.

This is the first time I have made calls to warn my loved ones of an imminent tornado threat.... and I was shocked. Of the friends to whom I reached out, few knew of the warning and none were in shelter. Fortunately that storm passed and no tornado materialized. But this was luck: it could have. And on September 21, at several neighbourhoods around the National Capital Region, it did. And it did with a fury.

That no one was killed was luck.

The outbreak of September 21 underscores the dangerous disconnect Canadians have between receiving severe weather warnings and appropriately responding to them. When a tornado warning is issued, the threat of a tornado is imminent and those in the warned area should immediately move to shelter. But on September 21, too many people didn't. Too many people did not take life-saving measures. We must learn from this devastating day which, to throw out another cliché, could have been so much worse.

Next time we may not be so lucky.

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