Environment Canada is reviewing its public alerts system after residents of a suburban Ottawa neighbourhood hit by a tornado Sunday were never warned that one was on the way.
The tornado, preliminarily classified as an EF1 with winds up to 178 kilometres an hour, reportedly injured one person slightly but it tore off roofs, levelled fences and uprooted trees. While Environment Canada issued tornado warnings for several nearby areas in western Quebec and eastern Ontario Sunday night, there was never a warning issued for any part of Ottawa.
A spokeswoman for the department said the weather leading up to the tornado didn’t suggest one could develop — it was warm but not hot and not that windy and only some thunderstorms were considered possible. It wasn’t until someone near the airport in Gatineau, Que., spotted a funnel cloud that the tornado risk became known.
By the time the warning was communicated over the Alert Ready warning system, the tornado had already touched down across the river in Orleans, a suburb in east Ottawa. Numerous residents posted to Twitter and Facebook that they either never got the alert message at all, or that by the time they got it, the storm was already over and it wasn’t for their area.
In one video of the tornado posted to Twitter, the cellphone alert can be heard going off as the tornado is passing.
“It was a little bit late and a little bit too far east, but you know what, it is better than what we had before,” said Marc Messier, an Orleans resident who’s also an inspector with the Ottawa Fire Service. “It might be better if we had it on time.”
Messier’s son called him shortly before 6 p.m. Sunday to say a tornado had just gone down his street. Messier was driving home and stopped rather than drive into the storm. He shot video of the tornado from the overpass where he stopped, and says he didn’t get the alert warning until after he stopped filming. And the alert was for Prescott-Russell, a county east and south of the city.
Since April 2018, wireless networks have been required to carry emergency-alert messages to warn people of things like severe weather or missing children. The Amber Alerts for missing children have been criticized for waking people up in the middle of the night and some Ottawa residents said on Twitter they were perplexed that they get notifications for missing children many hundreds of kilometres away but not for a tornado that was right beside them.
Tim Warmington, a spokesman for Public Safety Canada, which is the department responsible for the Alert Ready system, said Monday Canadians won’t receive alerts if their phones are turned off, are in silent or airplane mode, are outside the area affected, aren’t compatible with or connected to LTE networks, or are connected to cell towers that aren’t in the coverage area.
Warmington directed questions about which areas are targeted to Environment Canada.
Environment Canada spokeswoman Samantha Bayard said her department “will be reviewing this event with other public alerting partners to evaluate the alerting performance.”
Ottawa-area residents are more aware of tornado risks after six tornadoes touched down in the area last September. They destroyed dozens of homes in the west end of the city and in Gatineau, and took out one of the city’s main power stations.