Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Not in Kansas Anymore, Eh?

Growing up in West Michigan, I learned about tornado survival from a very early age. While Michigan is not technically in tornado alley, Michigan gets its fair share of these twisters every spring and summer. In the 31 years I lived in West Michigan, there were 37 recorded tornadoes in my home county and the three bordering counties. As soon as I was old enough to walk, my parents taught me to go in the basement if a tornado warning was issued. When I was in kindergarten, I experienced the first of what would turn out to be many school tornado drills, where we would open the windows in the classroom, grab a hardcover textbook, go into the hallway and get on our knees and elbows along the lockers with the book open and covering the backs of our heads and necks.

Even before I was a teenager, I could have told you that, in the event of a tornado, you should go to the basement near a supporting wall and not near a window. I would have advised that if you did not have a basement, you should find an internal room on the ground floor that has few, if any, exterior walls and no windows. And, I knew that if I was riding in the car and a tornado was bearing down on us, we would get out of the car and lie flat in the nearest ditch.

I can remember being seven years old, sitting in the darkness of the basement with my four year old sister and three month old puppy as the power was out and my mother foolishly stayed on the main floor and watched a tornado pull a gigantic oak tree out of our back yard as easily as someone picks a carrot. When I was much older, I once woke up in the night to a tremendous bang at 5 am, and then fell back to sleep, only to arise at daylight to find my house damaged by projectile tree limbs and my whole hometown decimated by what was likely a tornado—entire roofs were ripped from buildings, trees had fallen on houses and vehicles, entire buildings were reduced to piles of wood and concrete. The damage was so extensive that we did not have power restored for an entire week. I also recall several occasions at my place of employment in Michigan where I gathered with hundreds of my coworkers in the basement of our building while we waited for the all clear from the sheriff’s department indicating that a tornado had moved away from our area.

My tornado sense was invaluable when I went to grad school in south central Illinois, considered to be in tornado alley. No matter where I went or what I was doing, somewhere in my subconscious, I was surveying the area to determine where I would go should a tornado alarm sound. Luckily, every place I attended school or worked had a designated tornado shelter as well as regular tornado drills. We had tornado drills as often as we had fire drills. And if severe weather was in the area and a tornado suspected or spotted, municipal sirens would sound and the tv and radio stations would broadcast emergency warnings. Although tornadoes occurred frequently enough to be a concern, I knew enough about where to go and what to do and had the peace of mind that everyone would be alerted in the event of a tornado.

About a week after I moved to Canada in the fall of 2008, I started work at my new company in a five story building. Naturally, my subconscious immediately began processing where I would go to seek refuge from a tornado. Part of my employee orientation covered the evacuation procedures if there was a fire, a bomb threat, or how to behave if a crazy gunman was on the loose in the building. I asked about tornado drills and was told, “Tornadoes? Haha, we don’t have tornadoes here!” Being new at my job, I didn’t want to blurt out what I was thinking—“Oh, I see, so when tornadoes form in Michigan they are prevented from crossing into Ontario by the Canadian border guards??”

The following summer, I was on a business trip for work, and I was chatting with my colleague about tornadoes. She assured me that there really aren’t any tornadoes in Ontario, a statement I received with great scepticism, but again, said nothing. The next day, eighteen tornadoes touched down in southwestern and southern Ontario, causing extensive damage in residential areas, particularly in some Toronto suburbs. My scepticism clearly was not unfounded.

The following year, 2010, at least eight tornadoes were confirmed in southwestern Ontario, including one that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage for my employer’s policyholders.

Needless to say, by this past summer, I wasn’t buying the whole “We don’t have tornadoes here” song and dance. In early April, my co-workers and I were in a meeting with my boss in her corner office on the fourth floor of our building. There were several windows for me to watch the darkening sky on the horizon as the weather intensified. I couldn’t concentrate in the meeting, and my co-workers laughed at me as I nervously and repeatedly tracked from my chair to the window and back again. I kept muttering that it was clearly tornado weather, statements that were laughed off by my co-workers. I had seen enough severe weather in my life, as well as formal tornado spotter training, to know the difference between a bad thunderstorm and tornado-producing skies. I got very little work done that afternoon, but one task I did accomplish was to e-mail the head of the emergency response team and ask what was the procedure in our building if there was a tornado. I explained that I thought it was important to have a designated tornado shelter and that some sort of system should be in place if a tornado was to be spotted in the area. I explained that the weather was clearly tornadic outside to the point that I was having trouble concentrating on my work and worrying about where to go in the building. He responded that there was no need for a tornado plan due to the lack of tornadoes in the area, and that if I was having trouble concentrating at work, I should seek counsel from my boss.

Well, before I had a chance to explain my apparent tornado ADD to my boss, I received a text message from her that night. “You must have really good tornado sense because a tornado was spotted just a few miles away this afternoon.” Hmmm.

Just a couple of months ago, on August 24, Sarah and I left our house for our hockey game forty minutes away in Hamilton, Ontario. The drive to the arena was harrowing as lightning and freakish clouds were everywhere. Luckily, in the windowless depths of the locker rooms and out on the ice, I wasn’t thinking about this weather. After the game, our team went to the upper level of the complex to the bar area for drinks. The weather outside had only worsened, except now it was after sunset and it was hard to tell what was going on. I checked my BlackBerry weather app—tornado watch for the entirety of Southwest Ontario. I mentioned this to my teammates and they dismissed it with the Ontarian nonchalance to which I’d become accustomed. I could see clearly out the window, as we were on the top edge of the “Hamilton Mountain,” every time the lightning flashed, just how unusual and fast moving the cloud formations were. I could feel myself getting jittery, so I just had more beer. A couple of beers later, I checked my BlackBerry again—this time it said tornado warning for Hamilton. I announced to everyone, with panic in my voice, that there was a tornado warning, expecting them to now take the threat seriously; their response struck me dumb—“Oh, well a warning is better than a watch. It just means to be warned that there might be a tornado where a watch means that we should watch because we can see a tornado.” I thought, “My god, these people don’t even know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.” I looked up at the corrugated metal roof of the arena, heard the winds outside, and chugged more beer.

Luckily, Sarah stayed sober, and as she drove us home, I could sense that something was not right with the atmosphere. I strained my eyes with each lightning flash, scanning the horizon for funnel clouds, as I had learned when I attended the county-sheriff-sponsored tornado spotter training when I lived in Michigan. I didn’t see anything, but I knew there was a tornado in the area. I wished it was daylight so I could see it—I could sense one was near. Then I dismissed the feeling as nothing more than the beer influencing my judgement and tried to sit still for the rest of the ride home. As we got back into Cambridge, I noticed that the streets in my neighbourhood were covered with debris. I spotted a few large downed tree branches, but the power was still on so I assumed we had just missed a bad storm. The night was now very still and silent. We went in the house, comforted the dogs, took showers, and went to bed.

The next morning on my way to work, I drove from my house and the first few blocks were a complete mess. There were huge trees down, branches everywhere, tree debris all over the streets. Then, suddenly, after a few blocks, there was no more debris. I remembered that there aren’t any tornadoes in Canada, and so assumed that localized damage like that must have been due to a downburst during the storm. What a fool I was. It turns out that a confirmed F1 tornado had touched down in my neighbourhood and then continued on a 15km path towards Hamilton. We had been driving home from the arena in the midst of it all the night before. My tornado sense was right again. What was most unfortunate about the event, though, was that an F1 tornado touched down in a residential area, only trees were damaged, and the power didn’t even go out for more than a half hour. It made me worry that the people affected by the tornado would say, “Hey, if that was a tornado, that was no big deal,” because the Canadians I know don’t need any more reason to believe that tornadoes are no cause for alarm.

Last month, I was at work when the weather began to turn crazy again. By now, even my co-workers were believing in these mythical creatures called tornadoes, and they, sensing my unease, also started to feel a bit uneasy. My co-worker Justyna began having trouble concentrating on work and was continually checking the weather websites for any indication of tornadic weather. I suspected that neither of my co-workers had any idea what to do if a tornado was approaching, not that we had any alarms or sirens to alert us of such an imminent threat, so I asked them, “Do you guys know where you would go if there was a tornado coming?” Justyna said she would go outside and Kevin said he would go into the bathroom. So, I said, “Okay guys, let’s take a little field trip.”

Of course, in the absence of any official company protocol for a tornado event, I had identified, probably in my third day on the job, several places in the building where I could go. So, I led my co-workers to the underground parking garage and showed them exactly where the safest part of the garage was, away from the garage door and behind a support wall. On the way back to our desks on the second floor, I pointed out other areas of the building that would be suitable tornado shelter areas, as there are approximately 400 people working in my building.

On August 21 of this year, an F3 tornado hit the small southwestern Ontario town of Goderich. The tornado was about a mile wide and destroyed the city. One person was killed and several were injured. Even after this, I have still spoken to friends and co-workers here who insist that there aren’t tornadoes in Ontario. When I remind them of the serious tornadoes that have occurred in just the three years since I have lived in southwest Ontario, they dismiss these as once-in-a-generation events. I shudder to think of what type of catastrophe would occur before they take the threats of tornadoes seriously or before employers and schools take measures to protect their students and employees. Meanwhile, I will continue to be a Chicken Little, and when the sky does fall, I’ll be in my basement at home or with as many people as I can drag with me to my company’s underground parking garage.

For more information on tornado safety, check out http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/safety.html

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