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Emergency alerts when severe weather happens can be improved: Guilbeault

OTTAWA — Emergency weather alerts that are broadcast over the mobile network should be improved to make sure they are getting to the right people at the right time, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Wednesday.
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A motorist remains in their vehicle as they wait for crews to make sure they can leave safely, after power lines and utility poles came down onto their car during a major storm, on Merivale Road in Ottawa, on Saturday, May 21, 2022. Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault says emergency alerts that broadcast over the cell network to warn of severe weather should be improved to make sure they're getting to the right people at the right time.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — Emergency weather alerts that are broadcast over the mobile network should be improved to make sure they are getting to the right people at the right time, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Wednesday.

Guilbeault is in Germany for a G7 environment ministers meeting this week and adapting to the reality of climate change is high on the agenda.

He said part of that conversation includes public awareness of emergencies, because severe weather is becoming more and more frequent right across Canada.

Large swaths of Ontario and Quebec are still cleaning up after severe storms. There was at least one tornado confirmed in Uxbridge, Ont., and a major wind storm known as a derecho on Saturday.

Environment Canada issued a broadcast alert on the cellphone network for a thunderstorm for the first time Saturday as the storm raced across Ontario with wind speeds above 130 kilometres per hour.

But there have been some complaints about the warnings not being issued early enough or others not getting the message at all.

At least 10 people were killed, most from falling trees, as the storms moved from Sarnia, Ont., to Quebec City over the course of about six hours Saturday. One man was killed after being hit by a tree on a golf course and a woman was killed by a tree while out for a walk. One woman drowned when the boat she was in capsized on the Ottawa River during the storm.

Others were trapped in their cars in Ottawa as power lines fell around them. At Canada's Wonderland, an amusement park north of Toronto, people were trapped on a roller-coaster in the severe weather for nearly half an hour after the power went out.

"The challenge for us at Environment and Climate Change (Canada) is to put out those warnings when the situation is really dire," Guilbeault said. "Because if we start putting out warnings too often, then people will just get used to them and not pay attention. And we want to make sure that when those warnings are issued, people pay attention."

But he said "there is something to be said" for finding a way to improve coordination between the federal government, provincial governments, municipalities and Indigenous communities "to ensure that when the warnings go out, people get the information."

Environment Canada said in a statement this week the first warning for a severe thunderstorm in southern Ontario was issued around 11 a.m. Saturday, through weather channels and websites. Around 12:30 it was sent out to the first people via the mobile Alert Ready program. It was repeated in other regions as the storm moved east.

Alert Ready is the same emergency alert system that sends people notifications on their phones for missing children. It is only used for weather when there is a tornado, baseball-sized hail or winds exceeding 130 kilometres an hour.

Guilbeault said some people got the warnings four or five hours before the storm hit, others only 10 or 15 minutes ahead.

"Can we ensure that it's better disseminated?" Guilbeault asked. "Absolutely. Can we ensure that it's getting to the right people as fast as possible? Absolutely."

He said that will form part of the discussion as the government works toward its promised national adaptation strategy, which is expected by the end of this year.

Kim Ayotte, general manager of emergency and protective services at the City of Ottawa, said there were warnings about the storm throughout the day. But he also said public education about what to do when people hear warnings is necessary.

"So there were a lot of weather warnings, and the alert came in and I think that it did what it was supposed to do," he said. "But I have no problem continuing to have these discussions with Environment Canada to see if there's any opportunity for improvements, but as far as I'm concerned, it worked the way it should have."

The need for alerts is expected to grow, because climate change is not an abstract concept but a reality we're already living with, said Guilbeault.

"We've entered the era of climate change and we're not ready in Canada," he said.

Adaptation generally refers to hardening the defences against extreme weather, such as with better flood protection, or efforts to protect critical infrastructure like power lines from severe storms.

Ottawa, where more than half the city lost power initially and one in six hydro customers are still in the dark, is dealing with its second massive power outage in four years. Tornadoes that hit the city in September 2018 left more than half the city off the power grid for several days.

A climate risk assessment of the Ottawa power grid done in 2019 said the number of days of severe thunderstorms in the city is expected to double in the next three decades, and the risk of tornadoes will rise 25 per cent.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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