BY GARY MAY
It was a startling reminder of how vulnerable we are when Mother Nature goes on a rampage. And as weather and emergency measures officials take stock of what they’ve learned in the aftermath of two severe weather systems that hammered Essex County in early June, they’re not only looking at what modern technology can do to make us safer, but at what we can learn from Cold War technology, too.
Tornado damage in Leamington, Kingsville, Colchester and Harrow. Flooding in Windsor. The weekend of June 5 and 6 was one residents of those communities in Ontario’s southwestern extremity won’t soon forget.
Geoff Coulson, warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com the best advice he can offer those wanting to arm themselves with the latest weather advisories is to spend $35 or so on a weather-alert radio. You can find one at electronic stores and some hardware stores.
The radio can be programmed to sound an alert that will warn residents of extreme weather conditions, any time of the day or night, he says. That’s a sound investment, when you consider the tornado struck at 3 a.m., when most people were in bed.
Meanwhile, Essex County emergency management co-ordinator Phil Berthiaume says officials will be looking at all options for sounding that early warning next time. That will even include determining whether the type of siren once installed to warn of an air raid could be utilized alongside the ultra-modern technology we surround ourselves with these days.
“Modern technology has given us a lot,” Berthiaume tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, “but maybe we’ve lost something, too. Technology has its limitations.”
Access to local news, weather information crucial
For example, many of us have satellite radio and television and, in many areas of Ontario, that could mean no longer having quick access to local media, through which we could keep advised of severe weather alerts. You could be listening to your favourite all-salsa radio station, or watching a Vancouver TV broadcast, while local media are trying to warn of an approaching tornado.
On the night of the tornado, Environment Canada issued six alerts between 11 p.m. and 2:37 a.m. — including a tornado watch. Then it cancelled the watch. Then there was a tornado warning. These were all accessible through the special weather-alert radios, the department’s website and some local media reports.
Another method of emergency warning is offered through a U.S. company that has patented a technology called Reverse-911. Essex County, like many parts of Ontario, is equipped with a Reverse-911 system, which allows emergency officials to telephone key contacts, as well as members of the public who have signed up, to advise through a recorded message of a pending emergency. (Check your municipality’s website, or call for details).
Berthiaume estimates Essex uses the system three or four times a year for boil-water alerts, training exercises or to advise residents in a specific area to be on the lookout for a missing child or Alzheimer’s patient.
But it’s not well-suited to the sort of weather emergency the county recently faced, he adds. Forecasts are simply too imprecise as to the location and time the storm will strike.
His advice: either buy a weather-alert radio, or sign up for one of the “apps” offered through the Weather Network to have alerts text-messaged or emailed to an electronic receiver, such as a cellphone, computer, smart phone or personal digital device.
In U.S., sirens often used for tornado alerts
The United States is struck every year by far more tornadoes than ever hit Ontario. And in many parts of that country, built-up areas are equipped with loud sirens that can be activated to warn of an approaching twister.
That’s the case in Detroit, says Nicole Lisabeth of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division of the Michigan state police. As well, the U.S. has an alert system that interrupts television and radio stations and makes text message alerts available through subscription.
Detroit is just across the Detroit River from Windsor, a city that hasn’t had such sirens since the days of the Cold War, when there were fears of air raids.
Some Canadian jurisdictions do have such sirens, including part of the town of Amherstburg, south of Windsor, and Sarnia. Amherstburg’s sirens are tied in to the nearby Fermi II nuclear power plant in Michigan, while Sarnia’s is linked to that city’s Chemical Valley and the potential of chemical accidents.
Berthiaume says the siren is an avenue that will be explored as his office collects data and makes recommendations to local governments. “This is an experience that could help make old technology new again,” he says. The sirens will be studied for suitability, practicality and cost.
Municipalities are on their own when it comes to emergency planning. Berthiaume says the senior governments are silent on requirements for notification systems. There are no specific alert guidelines, regulations or even encouragement from either the federal or provincial governments.
Municipalities need to constantly review their systems and remain aware as new technology arises, he says.
Coulson says Environment Canada is always on the lookout for ways to improve its ability to forecast extreme weather. Immediately after the June storms, the department was down there talking to eyewitnesses, mapping the damage and comparing damage to what they saw on radar.
But he says individuals need to arm themselves with the tools that will enable them to hear the alerts when they’re issued, be it through weather-alert radios or text-receiving electronic devices.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com – June 2010