Ottawa

Emergency phone alert issued for weekend storm was first of its kind

The emergency phone alert that warned southern Ontario and western Quebec residents about Saturday's fatal storm was the first of its kind from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

'It forced us to think about where we should be,' Ottawa mayor says of unprecedented alert

A Costello's Towing employee on Tuesday hoists a vehicle that was crushed under a tree in the Ottawa Valley community of Carleton Place, Ont. People were inside the vehicle when Saturday's major storm derecho moved through Ontario and Quebec. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The emergency phone alert that warned southern Ontario and western Quebec residents about Saturday's fatal storm was the first of its kind from Environment and Climate Change Canada, officials say.

Peter Kimbell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, said that under a new rule that took effect last June, phone alerts are only issued for a severe thunderstorm if winds reach 130 km/h or if a storm includes hail measuring more than seven centimetres.

Saturday marked the first time anywhere in Canada that such a phone alert was issued, Kimbell said. 

The major wind and thunderstorm, known as a derecho, blew down trees and hydro equipment across a wide swath of Ontario and parts of western Quebec, leaving tens of thousands of customers without power.

According to a weather summary updated on Tuesday evening, the derecho involved at least one tornado in Uxbridge, Ont. Western University's Northern Tornadoes Project continues to investigate whether more tornadoes were embedded in the storm.

"The very fact you're getting [the alert] on your screen is justification enough that it's time to take shelter," Kimbell said. 

But not everyone in the city reacted the same way to the alert. 

'It did say high winds and potential for a tornado'

Susan Belle-Ferguson, who lives in a townhouse near the Ottawa intersection of Merivale and Baseline roads, said that as the daughter of a former military pilot, she checks the weather forecast every morning on Environment Canada's app. 

"It did say high winds and potential for a tornado," she said of the watches and warnings about the storm issued by the weather agency earlier in the day.

Susan-Belle Ferguson took this screen capture of one of the storm watches issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada earlier in the day. 'I was flagging the storm to friends and neighbours,' she said. (courtesy Susan-Belle Ferguson)

Ferguson finished her errands, got home by 2 p.m. ET, "put the cats in the basement and got some supplies together, just in case."

She was downstairs, too, by the time the emergency alert caused her phone to vibrate and beep several times sometime between 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., she said.

The alert warned people of a severe thunderstorm and advised them to "take cover immediately if threatening weather approaches."

This emergency alert appeared on phones along with several loud beeps on Saturday afternoon. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Ferguson said the alert gave her 15 to 20 minutes of warning before the storm shook her home, bent nearby trees by 90 degrees and sent debris flying through the air.

While her property was not damaged, Ferguson said Saturday's storm "was honestly the scariest thing [she's] ever experienced.

"Am I witnessing the aftermath of that movie 'Twister?'" she recalled, thinking of the damage experienced elsewhere. 

WATCH | Drone footage shows extent of damage:

Drone video shows damaged hydro towers, toppled trees after Ottawa storm

3 months ago
Duration 1:23
Around 27,000 Hydro One customers were still without power Tuesday after a severe thunderstorm damaged hydro towers on Saturday afternoon.

Resident not deterred by warnings

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson was watching a movie when he received his emergency alert. He got home a few minutes later.

"Then it started to pour and get really dark," he said. 

Like Ferguson, Watson said the alert system "did the trick" in giving him a heads-up that severe weather was coming. 

"It forced us to think about where we should be," Watson said. 

Ottawa resident James Botte said the emergency alert's wording wasn't enough to deter him from going outside. (courtesy James Botte)

James Botte, who lives in the city's Heron Gate area, said that while the alert was unusual enough that it prompted him to look at the warning on the Environment Canada website, he was not deterred from leaving his home and joining his daughter on an urgent trip to the pharmacy. 

"It looked fine outside," he said, noting the alert called for people to take cover if threatening weather approaches.

Botte said he might not have ventured outside if the alert and warning had been worded differently. 

"They said possible tornadoes ... If they said, 'It doesn't matter if there's tornadoes, you'll feel like you're in a tornado and it's not going to stop in 10 minutes like a tornado; it's going to continue on for half an hour and it's going to destroy everything in its path,' ... certainly, even for the urgent thing that I needed to do, I would have said, 'No, we are not going to do this urgent thing today.'"

Utility workers use bucket lifts to repair lines on Tuesday in Ottawa after Saturday’s major storm. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Botte wound up caught in the storm on the way back home, by the corner of Bank Street and Heron Road.

"We've all been through severe thunderstorms. This was not the severe thunderstorm that most people in Ottawa have ever experienced in their lifetime," Botte said.

"I'd never seen anything like it without the presence of tornadoes."

Kimbell with Environment Canada said while the alert comes from the agency, it's delivered by the National Public Alerting System and may have been limited in how many characters it could include.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

With files from Alistair Steele, Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco, Kristy Nease and Andrew Foote

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