(OTTAWA) Environment Secretary Steven Guilbeault said severe weather warnings broadcast over the cellular network should be improved to ensure they reach the right people at the right time.
Posted yesterday at 5:27 PM.
Guilbeault is in Germany this week for a meeting of G7 environment ministers and adapting to the realities of climate change is high on the agenda.
He said part of that conversation includes raising public awareness of emergencies as severe weather events become more common across Canada.
Large parts of Ontario and Quebec are still being cleaned up after the heavy storm of the past few days.
The minister said the main difficulty is to ensure that the warnings are sent when people need to be careful, without ignoring them.
“The challenge for us at Environment and Climate Change (Canada) is to issue these warnings when the situation is really serious,” said Mr Guilbeault. Because if we warn too often, people will get used to it and not pay attention. And we want to make sure that when these warnings are issued, people pay attention. †
He added that a way needs to be found to improve coordination between the federal government, provincial governments, municipalities and indigenous communities “to make sure people get the information when the warnings go out.”
The minister believes such talks could be part of the discussion between governments on climate change adaptation, as severe and extreme weather events are now more common in all parts of the country.
Environment Canada issued its first mobile phone warning for a thunderstorm on Saturday. It is now known that the storm was a derecho, meaning a prolonged, fast-moving widespread storm. The storm swept across Ontario with winds exceeding 130 km/h.
In addition, a tornado was confirmed in Uxbridge, Ontario.
There have been complaints that the warnings didn’t come fast enough or that others didn’t understand the message at all.
At least 10 people were killed, most of them from falling trees, as severe weather moved from Sarnia, Ontario, to Quebec in about six hours on Saturday.
Other people became trapped in their cars in Ottawa when power lines fell around them. At Canada’s Wonderland amusement park north of Toronto, people were trapped on roller coasters for nearly half an hour after the power went out.
Gaps in the dissemination of the warning
Environment Canada said in a statement this week that the first severe thunderstorm warning for southern Ontario was issued around 11 a.m. Saturday through weather channels and websites. Around 12.30 pm the first people received the warning via the mobile program Alert Ready. This was repeated in other areas as the storm moved east.
Guilbeault said some people received the warnings four or five hours before the storm hit, others just 10 or 15 minutes earlier.
Alert Ready is the same emergency alert system that sends notifications to people on their phones for missing children. It is only used for weather conditions in the event of a tornado, baseball-sized hail, or winds exceeding 80 miles per hour.
Steven Guilbeault is convinced that the alert can be better spread and reach the right people as quickly as possible.
He said this will be part of the discussion as the government works to develop the promised National Adaptation Strategy, which is expected by the end of this year.
Kim Ayotte, general manager of emergency and protection services for the city of Ottawa, said the storm had been warned all day. However, he stressed the need to educate the public on what to do when people hear warnings.
“So there were a lot of weather warnings and then the warning came and I think it did what it was supposed to do,” he said. But I have no problem with continuing discussions with Environment Canada to see if there are opportunities for improvement, but as far as I’m concerned it worked as it should. †
The need for warnings should increase as climate change is not an abstract concept, but a reality we already live with, said Mr Guilbeault. “We have entered the era of climate change and we are not ready for it in Canada,” he argued.
Adaptation broadly refers to strengthening defenses against extreme weather, such as better protection against flooding, or efforts to protect critical infrastructure such as power lines from severe storms.
Ottawa, where more than half the city was out of power at the start of the storm and where one in six customers is still without power, is facing its second major blackout in four years. The tornadoes that hit the city in September 2018 left more than half of the city off the grid for several days.
A 2019 climate risk assessment of Ottawa’s power system indicated that the number of days of severe thunderstorms in the city is expected to double over the next three decades and the risk of tornadoes will increase by 25%.