Speaking from his home in Lakefield, Ontario, Ed Paleczny is still visibly shaken by the terrifying moments he shared with his wife last weekend as they watched a storm destroy the wood-frame cabin in which they took shelter.
“Until you’re in a house with the roof ripped off and the sound of a train coming through your door, you’ll never know what it’s like,” Paleczny said.
The couple were caught in the destructive storm – a rare, fast-paced event known as a derecho – that swept through Ontario and Quebec on Saturday. Before it hit, many families were enjoying a long, sunny weekend.
Earlier in the day, an intrusive broadcast emergency alert was issued for the Toronto area after a report of 132 km/h winds at the airport in Kitchener, Ontario, sent messages to television and radio stations. radio, as well as mobile phones.
But many people in the Peterborough area had no idea what to expect unless they paid attention to the weather forecast. The same alert was not sent to this region.
Paleczny’s wife and daughter had just returned to their cabin after a boat trip on Stoney Lake. Nearby, a neighbor’s teenagers were paddling in their kayaks, while another group had just embarked on a pontoon boat.
It wasn’t until moments later that they saw the first signs of a storm coming.
“The sky darkened, then it turned green. And then there was a loud roaring sound, and then there was actually a white wall of rain that came down on us,” Paleczny said. .
“I can’t believe that with today’s technology, [there was] absolutely no alerts on my phone, my wife’s, [or] our daughter’s phone.”
‘That’s it. had finished
Some people didn’t get to safety in time. The storm claimed the lives of 11 people.
One, a 64-year-old woman, was struck by a falling tree while camping in the Peterborough area. Another victim, a 61-year-old man from Lakefield, died after a tree fell on him.
The storm left a trail of destruction across southern Ontario and Quebec, downing trees, damaging buildings and leaving an estimated 900,000 homes and businesses without power at its peak.
Paleczny said his family only had a few minutes to take refuge in their cabin.
“As I was trying to hold the door shut, we saw the timber frame shatter. The actual timber frame was flapping in the wind and the metal roof was torn off,” he said. “My wife thought, ‘This is it. We finished “.”
Despite extensive damage to their property, Paleczny and his family survived. Now he’s looking for answers as to why he and his neighbors weren’t given advance notice.
“A little notice would have gone a long way,” he said.
Why the severe thunderstorm warning was not triggered
Saturday’s killer storm was the first time Canada has issued an intrusive broadcast alert for an extremely severe thunderstorm warning. Until last year, only tornado warnings triggered the emergency broadcast on cellphones and on television and radio programs.
But in June 2021, Environment Canada expanded its weather alert program to include a very specific subset of extreme thunderstorm warnings. Under the changes, an alert is only issued for severe thunderstorms that are expected to reach wind speeds of at least 130 km/h or those that are expected to produce hail of at least three inches.
Peter Kimbell, meteorologist in charge of warning preparedness at Environment Canada, explained that as the derecho progressed through southern Ontario, forecasters were not as confident that winds would reach 130 km/h at the time. where the storm hit the Peterborough area.
This means that the alert was not triggered for the Peterborough area because it did not reach the threshold. Although it was issued for the nearby Lindsay-Northern Kawartha Lakes area, he said.
Lessons learned: is the threshold too high?
Kimbell said it was worth discussing whether 130 km/h is the right threshold going forward, especially as most of the damage was caused by peak winds from the order of 120 to 130 km/h.
“There is a balance between warning people of extreme events and over-alerting,” he said.
Kimbell explained that while thunderstorm warnings are still available through various media channels, as well as through Environment Canada’s WeatherCan website and applicationit would be impractical to trigger intrusive alerts for every storm.
“I think people would start getting mad at us pretty quickly, so we’re really limiting it to the ones that are going to be particularly notable,” he said.
George Kourounis, a Toronto-based storm chaser and explorer-in-residence at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, said it was difficult to strike the right balance.
“If you give too many warnings, people get complacent,” he said.
He thinks an extreme storm warning is the right idea, although he suggests the wind speed threshold could probably be lowered.
“They could probably reduce that a bit: 120 km/h is still going to do huge damage, especially if it’s in a wide swath, like these derecho events,” Kourounis said.
“I think this particular storm is going to be a really good test bed for meteorologists issuing these kinds of warnings, to look back and see how effective it was.”
While Paleczny is grateful to have weathered Saturday’s storm, he said he hopes Canada’s warning system will be improved before another hits.
“We definitely need a better warning system that is responsive…that separates a regular thunderstorm from a powerful, destructive storm that creates a path of destruction,” he said.