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A Globe reader writes: After the rain stopped, and the clouds started moving away, I took this photograph in those few moments that the sun tried to come through, only to cloud over and start pouring rain again. (James Haddon)
A Globe reader writes: After the rain stopped, and the clouds started moving away, I took this photograph in those few moments that the sun tried to come through, only to cloud over and start pouring rain again. (James Haddon)

Officials question why tornado warning didn't get through to Durham Add to ...

A tornado warning issued 30 minutes ahead of a killer storm failed to reach emergency services and those who needed it most, federal and local officials suggest.

Environment Canada meteorologists say they circulated a tornado warning to Durham, Ont., a half-hour before an 11-year-old boy was killed at a nature conservancy there last Thursday. Peter Kimbell, a warning preparedness meteorologist at Environment Canada, said the half-hour warning was a "very, very good" if not unprecedented jump on such an unpredictable disaster. However, most townspeople and municipal officials say they never got the heads-up.

The tragedy highlights how Canadian officials and municipal emergency managers often lack means of disseminating such warnings to the public, even when looming disasters are known of in advance.

"In a perfect world, we'd all have cellphone alerts," Mr. Kimbell said. But he added that, while such measures are being discussed, they face many hurdles before becoming a reality.

As things stand, Environment Canada tends to rely on radio and Web warnings that may or may not be picked up by local media.

Environment Canada circulated a tornado warning to Durham at 3:25 p.m. last Thursday afternoon, Mr. Kimbell said, about a half-hour before a twister cut a swath of destruction through the city of 2,500. Similar warnings were circulated to other Southern Ontario communities.

But Mr. Kimbell said tornadoes are so unpredictable its rare for officials to have even a 10 to 15 minute jump on specific tornado paths. In Durham, the warning was not well-circulated. "I did not hear of any tornado warning issued for the area," said Rene Berger, Chief of the West Grey Police Service. "I was working in my office at the time and don't listen to radio or TV in there." Deputy Mayor Dan Sullivan said an Environment Canada official arrived on the scene to confirm a tornado had hit, but only a day later.

Municipal and federal officials, he said, are discussing what went wrong and how to better communicate warnings in the future.

Powerful tornadoes ripped through Southern Ontario last week, damaging hundreds of homes and businesses and killing Owen MacPherson, 11, who was attending a Durham day camp and was hit by flying debris while taking refuge in an aluminum and canvas picnic shelter. His family continues to plead for privacy. Officials at the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority would not comment yesterday.

Durham's deputy mayor, police chief and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty have all contacted the family to express condolences. "I don't know [what went wrong]but I assume there are some questions like that, that are good questions that should be answered in time," said the Premier, as he toured ruined businesses in Durham yesterday. "But I think at this point in time, it's a time of mourning for the family." He promised the province would help rebuild businesses and extended sympathies to the MacPherson family on behalf "of all Ontarians."

Like many townspeople in Durham, Mr. McGuinty expressed gratitude and amazement that more people weren't killed during the tornado.

Townspeople almost universally suggest the tornado hit them like a bolt from the blue. Many had heard a severe weather warning was in effect, but didn't take it to mean anything more serious than thundershowers and lightning. "With severe weather warnings, the perception is there is going to be a thunderstorm," said Clarie Scott, a clerk at the One-Stop Express Esso gas station. "If a tornado is possible there should be a higher grade of warning," she said.

Days later, she hadn't heard that any tornado warning had been in effect. The gas bar's security cameras show a severely darkening sky and winds picking up tremendous velocity at 3:55 p.m. - a full half-hour after federal officials had picked up the tornado warnings.

Nearby, Thomas Klein and Robin Speke, a husband and wife team who run a boutique furniture factory, said they had heard no warnings before the walls were ripped from their building. "All I knew was that there was going to be a thunderstorm," said Mr. Klein, who estimated he lost $500,000 in equipment alone. Ms. Speke, said she was lucky to escape alive after a wall collapsed on her, and that she only escaped that by climbing down through a hole ripped in the second floor.

A couple of doors down, Rod Piercey, a manager of a printing plant, recalled seeing a funnel cloud forming in a ditch - five seconds before the roof was ripped from his own building. "It ran right into the side of the building like a train," he said. By the time he noticed the tornado, he said, "it was already on top of us."

Environment Canada has been trying to improve its warning systems. Mr. Kimbell, the warning official, noted that some tornado-plagued U.S. communities have sirens installed. And U.S. laws oblige some broadcast media to highlight warnings.

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