With no cell service, some rural Manitoba residents left with no warning of tornado
Issues with phones prevented officials from warning people, municipality's CAO says
The only warning some Alonsa-area residents received of a massive incoming tornado Friday night came from looking at the sky, despite a cellphone alert system for extreme weather and Environment Canada bulletins before it touched down.
The government's Alert Ready is a national warning system to send out emergency notifications from government agencies via broadcast and cellphone push alerts.
Environment Canada says it issued a tornado warning at 8:17 p.m. CT — 13 minutes before the tornado touched down. It swept through the Alonsa, Silver Ridge, and Margaret Bruce Beach area over about 20 minutes, leaving an 800-metre-wide path of destruction in its wake, and killing a 77-year-old man.
"We actually had the tornado warning out this time before the tornado had formed," said Natalie Hasell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada. "For our purposes, Alonsa was a great success."
But many people said they never received the alert.
Hasell, who went to the area on Saturday, said she spoke with some residents who didn't get any warning.
"A lot of them were outside at the time and they could see what was coming, but that didn't give them a lot of advance notice either," she said.
Pamela Sul, chief administrative officer for the Rural Municipality of Alonsa, said she saw a warning pop up on her television.
She decided to flee the storm, and only then did her cellphone get reception — she received the alert about half an hour after the bulletin was broadcast.
The lack of service also prevented local officials from warning residents in the area, she said.
"We couldn't phone to warn anybody. We were filming this, we were out on the road, and we could see it coming and the direction it's going, and you can't phone anybody," she said.
"That's been a concern for quite a while."
In June, CBC News reported that many residents had been without cell service for six weeks after cell towers near Amaranth and Ebb and Flow, Man., were upgraded.
A spokesperson for Bell MTS says the telecom recently upgraded wireless sites in that area to the LTE Advanced network, but that some pockets where coverage was already limited may have seen reduced coverage. Those areas generally use slower HSPA technology, which isn't compatible with Alert Ready notifications, Michelle Gazze said.
The company is working on a solution, she said.
In a statement, Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler expressed condolences to the family of the 77-year-old man who died in the storm.
"Our government continues to work with phone companies, [Environment Canada] and Pelmorex, the company who has developed the Alert Ready program, to ensure that Manitobans have access to timely alerts on their cellphones," he said in the statement.
"This is one tool that people have to be aware and ready for severe weather, but it is not the only tool."