Canada

These Ontario residents didn't receive a storm alert — and want to know why

When the sky turned green and a wall of rain came barreling toward Ed Paleczny and his family, they had just minutes to get to safety. They're still shaken from watching the storm rip apart their timber-frame cottage in Lakefield, Ont., and say an alert should have been issued for their region, too.

The derecho was a test for Canada's new severe storm alert, triggered by 130 km/h winds or 7-cm hail

The powerful winds of Saturday's derecho lifted the metal roof off of Ed Paleczny's cottage in the Peterborough area, breaking apart the timber frame of his porch, bending his solar panels and snapping telephone poles. (Submitted by Ed Paleczny)

Speaking from his home in Lakefield, Ont., Ed Paleczny is still visibly shaken from the terrifying moments he shared with his wife last weekend, as they watched a storm rip apart the timber-frame cottage they were sheltering inside.

"Until you're in a house with the roof being ripped off and the sound of a train coming through your door, you'll never know what that feels like," Paleczny said.

The couple were caught up in the destructive storm — a rare, fast-moving event known as a derecho — that swept across Ontario and into Quebec on Saturday. Before it hit, many families had been enjoying a sunny long weekend.

Earlier in the day, a broadcast intrusive emergency alert was triggered for the Toronto area after a report of 132 km/h winds at the airport in Kitchener, Ont., sending messages out to television and radio stations, as well as mobile phones.

But many people in the Peterborough area had no idea what was coming their way, unless they happened to be paying attention to the weather forecast. The same alert wasn't sent to that region.

Paleczny's wife and daughter had just returned to their cottage after a boat ride on Stoney Lake. Nearby, a neighbour's teen boys were paddling in their kayaks, while another group had just launched out on a pontoon boat.

It was only moments later that they saw the first signs of a storm rolling in. 

"The sky went dark, then it went green. And then there was a loud roaring sound, and then there was actually a white wall of rain coming at us," Paleczny said.

"I can't believe that with today's technology, [there was] absolutely no alert on my phone, my wife's phone, [or] our daughter's phone."

In the aftermath of the storm, Paleczny discovered the winds had wedged this boat into a tree. (Submitted by Ed Paleczny)

'This is it. We're done'

Some people didn't make it to safety in time. The storm claimed 11 people's lives.

One of them, a 64-year-old woman, was struck by a falling tree while camping in the Peterborough area. Another victim, a 61-year-old Lakefield man, 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 roughly 900,000 homes and businesses without power at its peak.

Paleczny said his family had just minutes to take shelter in their cottage.

Paleczny said the powerful winds snapped as many as 50 mature pine trees in the woods around his cottage on Stoney Lake, near Lakefield, Ont. (Submitted by Ed Paleczny)

"While I was trying to hold the door shut, we saw the timber frame break apart. The actual timber frame was flapping in the wind and the metal roof was ripped off," he said. "My wife was thinking, 'This is it. We're done'."

Despite extensive damage to their property, Paleczny and his family survived. Now he's looking for answers as to why he and his neighbours didn't get advanced notice.

"A little bit of notice would've gone a long way," he said. 

Why the severe storm alert wasn't triggered

Saturday's deadly storm was the first time that Canada has ever issued a broadcast intrusive alert for an extreme severe thunderstorm warning. Up until last year, only tornado warnings triggered the emergency broadcast to cellphones and across TV and radio programming.

But in June 2021, Environment Canada expanded their weather alert program to include a very specific subset of extreme thunderstorm warnings. Under the changes, an alert is only triggered for severe thunderstorms forecasted to reach wind speeds of at least 130 km/h or those forecasted to produce hail measuring at least seven centimetres.

Peter Kimbell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, explained that as the derecho progressed across southern Ontario, forecasters weren't as confident that the winds would reach 130 km/h by the time the storm hit the Peterborough area. 

That meant that the alert was not triggered for the Peterborough area, because it didn't meet the threshold. Though it was issued for the neighbouring Lindsay-Northern Kawartha Lakes region, he said.

Lessons learned: Is the threshold too high? 

Kimbell said it's worth discussing whether 130 km/h is the right threshold going forward, especially considering much of the damage was caused by peak winds in the range of 120 to 130 km/h.

"There's a balance between warning people for extreme events and over-warning," he said.

Kimbell explained that while thunderstorm warnings are always available through various media channels, as well as through Environment Canada's WeatherCan website and app, it wouldn't be practical to trigger intrusive alerts for every thunderstorm.

"I think people would start to get annoyed with us pretty quickly, so we really restrict it to those that are going to be particularly noteworthy," he said.

George Kourounis, a Toronto-based storm chaser who is an explorer-in-residence with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, said it's challenging to strike the right balance.

"If you give too many alerts, then people become complacent," he said.

Toronto-based storm chaser George Kourounis, seen here reviewing a tornado forecast in Oklahoma, said last weekend's derecho will be a case study for meteorologists, as they evaluate the efficacy of the new extreme thunderstorm alert. (Peter Rowe)

He thinks an alert for extreme storms is the right idea, though he suggests the wind-speed threshold could probably be lowered.

"They could probably bring that down a bit: 120 km/h is still going to do tremendous damage, especially if it's in a broad swath, like these derecho events," Kourounis said.

"I think this particular storm is going to be a really good test bed for the meteorologists issuing these kinds of alerts, to look back and see how effective it was."

While Paleczny is thankful to have made it through Saturday's storm, he said he hopes Canada's alert system will be improved before another one hits. 

"We definitely need a better alert system that's responsive … that separates a regular thunderstorm from a powerful, damaging storm that's creating a path of destruction," he said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jaela Bernstien

Journalist

Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and human rights for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at jaela.bernstien@cbc.ca

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