Canadians face a significantly lower risk than their American neighbours of finding themselves in the path of a tornado, but should still be prepared to face the worst if mother nature decides to defy the odds, experts said Tuesday.
The perils of tornado season were tragically demonstrated Monday when a massive twister flattened homes and demolished an elementary school in Moore, Okla. At least 24 people, including nine children, were killed during the mammoth storm which sprang up with less than 20 minutes notice.
Canadians are far less likely to face such a storm, meteorologists said, noting the country’s geographic location offers some natural protection.
Geoff Coulson, warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, said the country sees an average of 62 tornadoes each year compared to the 1,200 that touch down in the U.S. He said the frequent combination of warm air from the Gulf of Mexico and cooler currents from the north leave Canada’s southern neighbour particularly vulnerable to severe weather.
Despite the decreased risk, however, Coulson said Canada still employs many of the same precautions Americans use to stay out of harm’s way.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities in the way people are getting information,” Coulson said in a telephone interview.
He said 90 per cent of Canada is covered by weather radio systems that communicate with Environment Canada, monitor weather systems and emit warning tones when a major storm is approaching.
Such weather radios are the primary warning systems in place in the U.S., he added. In both countries, warnings are issued between 10 and 20 minutes before a tornado is expected to touch down.
American communities at high risk for twisters may also have an emergency siren system installed. Coulson said a handful of Canadian jurisdictions have implemented this system.
Canadians who want to be kept apprised of serious weather developments should check in with local radio stations or the Environment Canada website at weather.ec.gc.ca.
One place they can’t yet turn for information, however, is their mobile phone, Coulson said.
American officials have started exploring the idea of looping cellular transmission towers into their warning systems. Canadian meteorologists are even further from realizing that goal, he said, adding that officials are trying to strike a balance between issuing timely warnings and lulling the public into a false sense of security.
“We’re watching quite closely the developments in the U.S. with respect to linking in through cellphone towers … but there still seems to be a number of hurdles that have to be crossed before we get to that point.”
Canada is no stranger to deadly tornadoes.
The Pine Lake, Alberta tornado was a deadly tornado which occurred on July 14, 2000 and struck a campground and a trailer park. Twelve people were killed. A storm that tore through Edmonton in 1987 claimed 24 lives.
But Canada’s most severe tornado, which touched down in Elie, Man., in June 2007, did not result in any fatalities despite packing winds of up to 400 kilometres an hour.
Savvy storm preparation played a roll in keeping human harm to a minimum, local residents said, adding many of those who witnessed the storm took shelter in basements or other low-lying areas.
Such a move tops the list of government recommendations for tornado survival. The guidelines also encourage Canadians without access to a basement to take cover under sturdy pieces of furniture away from doors, windows or outside walls.
Those who are caught out of doors when severe weather sets in are urged to get inside immediately, while people on the water are urged to come ashore.
Coulson said such precautions are wise even if a thunderstorm is not showing signs of morphing into a treacherous twister.
“When thunder roars, go indoors,” he said. “If you’re close enough to a thunderstorm to hear the thunder from it, the lightning that’s produced is close enough to be deadly.”
The Canadian Red Cross urges families to take the time to devise an emergency plan.
Canadians should decide on a safe shelter area, an alternative rendezvous point out of the home and an out-of-town emergency contact and share the details with all family members.
It’s also a good idea to devise an evacuation route and make sure all family members are familiar with it, the organization said in its online emergency preparedness guidelines.
Another key precaution is to make an emergency preparedness kit that will see both family members and pets safely through at least 72 hours.
The kit should include food, water, batteries, a radio, cash, a first-aid kit and special items such as medications.