Barrie tornado: Questions raised about effectiveness of Environment Canada’s warning system

Click to play video: 'Residents race to find refuge from Barrie twister' Residents race to find refuge from Barrie twister
WATCH ABOVE: As crews sift through the remnants from an EF-2 tornado that caused heavy damage in Barrie's south end, some say it took too long for officials to issue a warning. Shallima Maharaj reports. – Jul 16, 2021

A day after an EF-2 tornado ripped through Barrie’s south end, questions are being raised about how a safety alert was issued to residents in the region.

Barrie Ward 6 Coun. Natalie Harris was visiting her son when they were called about debris flying not too far away. It was just minutes before a tornado passed by the home on Sun King Crescent at around 3 p.m. on Thursday. Grabbing their dogs, she said they rushed to a corner in the basement — something Harris noted isn’t uncommon given warnings are occasionally issued for the region.

“We were down there for maybe 30 seconds, not even, and it was on our house,” she told Global News in an interview.

“It was so fast, thank God. You really knew right away when it was done. You just didn’t know what you were walking up to and I walked upstairs and it’s the sky because the roof is gone, and other people’s stuff is in our house.”

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Read more: ‘Extensive’ damage in Barrie’s south end after tornado moved through region, 9 injured

However, Harris said an emergency alert on her cellphone came after the tornado destroyed the house.

“My son’s bedroom is on the top floor where most of the roof is gone. His window is shattered. Thank God his dad called us,” she said.

“He literally for sure saved our lives, for sure saved Adam’s life, if he was upstairs because you see the sky. Even from the main floor, you can see the sky, and he just said, ‘Get in the basement.'”

Travis Farncombe, a storm chaser who was in the region at the time, said he live-streamed the incoming storm system for several minutes before a tornado warning was issued for Barrie.

Read more: Environment Canada confirms EF-2 tornado with 210 km/h winds touched down in Barrie

“At the time I didn’t think a one had been issued, though wasn’t sure it had not. It’s my policy to defer to [Environment and Climate Change Canada] watches/warnings, not to ‘issue my own.’ BUT man it’s tough when you think [tornado] + city – warning,” he tweeted Friday morning.
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There were several posts from residents on social media questioning the timing of the warning issued by meteorologists at Environment Canada.

“My tornado warning came to my phone at 2:39 p.m. Is there a delay in getting warnings issued or was @ECCCWeatherON slow in responding? People could have been killed here,” Will Dunn tweeted.

“We got the alert on the phone just after it hit. It’s possible that the warning came beforehand and there is a slight delay. But yeah overall it was unfortunately too late,” Mario Trunz wrote in response to Dunn’s tweet.

Global News contacted the department asking for comment on the reports from residents.

Steven Flisfeder, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, said a severe thunderstorm watch was issued Thursday morning for the region and it stated there was a possibility of a tornado. That watch was later upgraded to a severe thunderstorm warning. At 2:38 p.m., Flisfeder said a tornado warning was declared.

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“It’s a situation where there wasn’t as much lead time as we would like obviously. We definitely always strive to have the warning out as soon as possible and it’s just an unfortunate situation some people didn’t have that lead time in this case,” he said.

Flisfeder said the warning was broadcast immediately on phones, television feeds, and on local radio stations after it was declared, adding the system appeared to work as it was designed to do.

Read more: Over 100 people displaced as clean-up continues following Barrie tornado: mayor

He said multiple assessments are done throughout the day of environmental conditions at the time. As storm systems develop, Flisfeder said multiple meteorologists review radar data such as indications of rotation, as well as reviewing social media reports with the hashtag #ONstorm.

“It’s really difficult to make this final decision of whether or not to send a tornado warning. It’s one of the most severe warnings we’re able to send from Environment Canada for weather, so it’s a decision we don’t take lightly,” he said.

“[Tornadoes] are not easy to predict where and when they will occur. It’s very dynamic and it can happen in an instant, so that’s why we try to stay alert as possible as these storms are ongoing.”

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In late June, a new radar system in King City came online. Under the old system, Flisfeder said scans of central Ontario occurred every 10 minutes. With the new technology, higher-resolution scans can now occur every six minutes.

Flisfeder said while there is an immediate time advantage of increasing the intervals of scans, the technology “is not perfect (and) never will be.”

“It’s entirely possible a tornado can touch down and dissolve before that scan comes in,” he said.


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