The emergency phone alert that warned residents of Southern Ontario and western Quebec of Saturday’s deadly storm was the first of its kind from Environment and Climate Change Canada, officials say.
Peter Kimbell, a meteorologist who prepares warnings for Environment Canada, said under a new rule that came into effect last June, telephone warnings for a severe thunderstorm will only be given if winds reach 80mph or if a storm contains hail from more than seven centimeters.
Saturday was the first time such a telephone alarm was issued anywhere in Canada, Kimbell said.
The major wind and thunderstorm, known as a derecho, knocked down trees and hydroelectric equipment across much of the province and parts of western Quebec, leaving tens of thousands of customers without power.
According to a weather summary updated Tuesday evening, the derecho involved at least one tornado in Uxbridge, Ontario. Western University’s Northern Tornadoes Project continues to investigate whether more tornadoes were embedded in the storm.
“The fact that you get” [the alert] on your screen is justification enough that it’s time to take shelter,” Kimbell said.
But not everyone in the city responded to the warning in the same way.
“There was strong wind and potential for a tornado”
Susan Belle-Ferguson, who lives in a mansion near the intersection of Merivale and Baseline Roads in Ottawa, said that as the daughter of a former military pilot, she checks the weather forecast every morning on the Environment Canada app.
“There was high winds and potential for a tornado,” she said of the watches and storm warnings issued by the weather bureau earlier in the day.
Ferguson finished her shopping, came home at 2:00 p.m. ET, “put the cats in the basement and got some supplies together, just in case.”
She was also downstairs by the time her phone vibrated and the emergency alert went “beep, beep, beep” between 3:00 PM and 3:30 PM, she said.
The warning warned people of a severe thunderstorm and advised them to “take cover immediately if imminent weather approaches”.
Ferguson said the alarm alerted her for 15 to 20 minutes before the storm shook her home, bending nearby trees 90 degrees and sending flying debris through the air.
While her property was not damaged, Ferguson said Saturday’s storm was “honestly the scariest” [she’s] ever experienced.”
“Am I witnessing the aftermath of that movie ‘Twister?’” she recalls thinking about the damage done elsewhere.
VIEW | Drone images show the extent of the damage:
Resident not deterred by warnings
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson was watching a movie when he received his emergency call. A few minutes later he came home.
“Then it started pouring and it got really dark,” he said.
Like Ferguson, Watson said the warning system “did the trick” by warning him that severe weather was coming.
“It forced us to think about where we should be,” Watson said.
James Botte, who lives in the Heron Gate area of the city, said that while the warning was unusual enough that it prompted him to view the warning on Environment Canada’s website, it didn’t stop him from leaving his home and rushed to join his daughter’s trip to the pharmacy.
“It looked fine outside,” he said, noting that the warning urged people to take cover “if imminent weather approaches”.
Botte said he might not have ventured out if the warning and warning had been worded differently.
“They said possible tornadoes… If they said ‘it doesn’t matter if there are tornadoes, you will feel like you are in a tornado and it won’t stop in 10 minutes like a tornado; it will go on for half hours and it will destroy everything in its path,’ … sure, even for the urgent thing I had to do, I would have said, ‘no, we’re not going to do this urgent thing today.'”
On the way home, on the corner of Bank Street and Heron Road, Boote was caught in the storm.
“We’ve all experienced severe thunderstorms. This was not the severe thunderstorm most people in Ottawa have experienced in their lifetime,” Botte said.
“I’d never seen anything like it without the presence of tornadoes.”
Kimbell of Environment Canada says that although the alert is from the agency, it is delivered by the National Public Alerting System and may have been limited in the number of characters it could contain.