Environment Canada defends late tornado warning in LaSalle, Windsor

Residents and a local politician are among those criticizing Environment Canada's tornado warning methodology after two different twisters ripped through Windsor, Ont., and the neighbouring bedroom community of LaSalle on Wednesday night.

Tornado warning failure with Windsor 'is most egregious weather thing I've seen this year,' tweet says

What is being called a 'probably' tornado came inland at the Islandview Marina in LaSalle, Ont. (Greg Layson/CBC)

Residents and a local politician are among those criticizing Environment Canada's tornado warning methodology after two different twisters ripped through Windsor, Ont., and the neighbouring bedroom community of LaSalle on Wednesday night.

The national weather agency issued its first tornado warning at 7:28 p.m. ET, about 20 minutes after the first confirmed tornado touched down in LaSalle. Environment Canada said a second tornado touched down in Windsor shortly after. 

At 7:04 p.m., Mark Robinson noted on Twitter that the storm cell was "rotating" and that "a dangerous situation was shaping up." He never used the word tornado.

Ontario Tornado Watch was also among the first group of people and organizations to warn LaSalle residents of the oncoming tornado. The group posted an alert of its own at 7:07 p.m., long before Environment Canada did. On its Facebook page, the group specifically told people to seek shelter because of a "likely tornado."

Ontario Tornado Watch describes itself as "an independent group of passionate weather enthusiasts that want to help raise awareness about the real potential threat of tornadoes."

Meanwhile, Environment Canada's first official tornado warning was issued at 7:28 p.m., nearly 20 minutes after both tornadoes had done their damage and dissipated.

In fact, the agency's alert was citing eyewitness reports of "a tornado near LaSalle at 7:10 p.m."

The warning then went on to say "it is now in the Windsor area," calling the episode "potentially life threatening."

Essex NDP MP Tracey Ramsey said she is "deeply concerned about this situation"

She said she will ask the minister of the environment to explain why Environment Canada gave no warning to local media and residents about the tornado threat until approximately 15 minutes after the first one touched down.

"Although I am happy that no one was seriously injured, I am concerned for the safety of the people in my region and want to ensure the government does all it can to prepare people for emergencies," she said in a statement. "I have written a letter to the minister inquiring about this situation, as well as an explanation of protocols surrounding severe weather."

Several people took to Facebook to complain about the lateness of the warning in relation to the storm.

Kevin Ross of LaSalle saw the first tornado in the community and rushed to the basement with his family. From his deck, he then recorded the second with his cellphone.

Kevin Ross shot this video of the moment a funnel cloud appears to form over LaSalle, Ont., on Wednesday night. 1:17

"Luckily, we were sitting down for dinner with a view over the field," he said of the tornado in LaSalle. "I'm sure 90 per cent of the people around our neighbourhood had no idea what was going on until the hydro flickered. I was really surprised that there was no watch or warning about it. We didn't see any warnings until well after 7:30 p.m."

Dan McClintock said Environment Canada was "asleep at the wheel."

"I feel like this is something that should be investigated," he said of the late warning. "Even just a minute of forewarning that a tornado could be touching down is enough time to save lives and/or property."

Environment Canada meteorologist Ria Alsen, who was working Wednesday night, said her weather office had no warning of a tornado, since there were no watches or warnings issued in Michigan. She also said this particular storm did not start in the U.S.

'Small but potent' storm

Alsen confirmed the warning was not issued until 7:28 p.m., about 18 minutes after the first reports of a twister in LaSalle.

She called the thunderstorm that popped up over the Detroit River "small but potent."

"Ideally, we would like to have much more of a lead time, but unfortunately in this case, it was just so difficult to predict that this cell would pop up right over southwestern Ontario as it did," Alsen said. "We did get reports [of a tornado] but we didn't want to cry wolf."

Essex County's emergency management co-ordinator, Phil Berthiaume, previously told CBC that "90 per cent of our weather is coming from directly across the border."

That's why he subscribes to a number of weather alerts from the U.S. and Canada.

'We're not blaming them'

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      LaSalle Mayor Ken Antaya wondered whether there is a more efficient way for Environment Canada to warn the public.

      "We're not blaming them because this is something that sort of fell out of the sky," Antaya said of Environment Canada. "I'm not sure whether or not they have the equipment that can identify it that quickly and notify people that quickly.

      "[With] something like this, when it happens that fast, you wonder, 'What's our fate?' Is there something that is better out there?"

      Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said his city needs to think about adopting a severe weather warning system. But, even if the city did create one, it would need advance warning from Environment Canada.

      With files from Peter Duck