Tornadoes in Canada are more common than you think. Here’s how to prepare

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We’re not known for it, but Canada is the world’s second-most tornado-prone country, with twisters possible in much of our territory.

Barrie Tornado, July 2021. Courtesy: Marta Czurylowicz

Damage following EF-2 tornado in Barrie, Ont., on July 15, 2021. (Courtesy: Marta Czurylowicz/The Weather Network)

There’s a special kind of terror associated with tornadoes. Snaking down from the sky during severe thunderstorms, they can be powerful enough to rip buildings off their foundations, and even those that don’t reach that level of severity can do serious damage to your property or business – to say nothing of the very real threat to life and limb for anyone caught in their path without shelter.

But for all that, tornadoes are not as prominent in people’s minds as other natural disasters in Canada, and few think one could happen to them.

“If we look at media reports and just general public awareness of tornadoes in the United States, it’s very prevalent, even in their popular culture,” a senior project manager, Jim Mandeville with First Onsite Property Restoration, told The Weather Network. “Whereas in Canada, we have still a large number of significant tornadoes in certain parts of the country, and if you ask the average person, they’ll tell you tornadoes don’t happen here.”

But, of course, they do happen here. In fact, Canada is the world’s second most tornado-prone nation, after the U.S., with an average of around 60 tornadoes per year, though of course, some years will be higher.

The Prairie region is historically the most likely to see them, but they can happen in every province. In 2020, the nationwide tally was 77, but the lion’s share was in Ontario, whose 42 confirmed tornadoes were a new record for the province.

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Most do relatively minimal damage, and in fact, many even go uninvestigated or even unseen, given the remote areas they can strike. But they can, and do, strike major urban areas, with catastrophic and deadly results.

The single deadliest tornado in Canada’s history is the so-called Regina Cyclone, whose 1912 rampage through that city left 28 people dead and 2,500 homeless. More recently, the 1987 Edmonton Tornado killed 27 people, and was such a shock that it was the catalyst for the province to pioneer its famed Alberta Emergency Alert system.

Ontario has been home to some of the country’s deadliest tornadoes as well. The city of Windsor takes up two spots on Canada’s top-5 list, and just weeks ago, the EF-2 tornado that damaged part of Barrie and injured almost a dozen people brought back traumatic memories of the 1985 twister that killed eight people and damaged hundreds of homes in the community.

Barrie tornado, July 14, 2021. Courtesy: Mark Robinson/The Weather Network

The Barrie, Ont., twister caused considerable damage and several injuries on July 15, 2021. (Courtesy: Mark Robinson/The Weather Network)

Mandeville says people should be more mindful of tornado risk, as more Canadian property or business owners are likely to encounter them in the coming decades.

“The big issue going forward, is that as Canada continues to attract more and more residents, and our population grows, and our cities spread out into these traditionally tornado-prone areas, we’ll begin to see much more catastrophic events, like the events we saw in Barrie, Ontario, [earlier this month],” he warns.

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When a tornado strikes your area, Mandeville’s advice is the same as any emergency responders would be: heed emergency alerts, take cover in a basement or windowless interior room, and only emerge when it’s clear the storm has passed.

If your property or business has suffered damage, Mandeville says, you should take care to exit safely, avoiding any exposed wiring in the building or fallen power lines out in the road. Once outside, he says to avoid re-entering the building until your restoration partner and, if need be, a structural engineer, have had a chance to properly assess it.

“At the end of the day, that damage has now been done, and if it takes a couple of hours to get everything sorted out and get the professionals in line to help you, then that’s much better than taking a big risk on your own as business-owner...and wandering through a potentially very dangerous facility,” he says.

Your business or property may have been one of several in your neighbourhood to suffer damage, in which case, regaining safe access may take even longer as municipal authorities assess the damage and work on repairs to power lines and other infrastructure.

“Even if your building wasn’t damaged very badly – potentially you’re going to be locked out of your business for several days or longer, while they get the rest of the neighbourhood back to a safe condition,” he says.

Conversely, if a tornado occurs in your area but doesn’t seem to have come near your business or property, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Tornadoes’ strong winds have the potential to hurl debris hundreds of metres, so it’s always best practice to inspect your building for damage.

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“If you don’t do that and you miss it, the next time it rains, you may have some fairly “substantial water damage” in your house or in your business,” he warns. “So, it’s critical that if there is a major storm like this, even if there’s not a tornado, that you’re regularly inspecting the [exterior] of your building and making sure it’s protecting your greatest asset.”

In the longer run, when building new or renovating, business and property owners should invest in more wind-resistant building materials, stronger windows, and other measures to make their buildings more resistant to tornado damage – above and beyond the current building code, Mandeville says.