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Storm Warning

MOVE FAST:Tornadoes like this one can travel in excess of speeds of 100 km per hour.

Altona residents knew why a siren in town wailed for four minutes straight on a calm mid-afternoon May 18.

It was a test of their community emergency warning siren, a specially installed system to alert residents in case of emergency.

If they hear it again, they should also know what to do. Brochures on how to take cover and where to seek further information in an emergency have reached every household here and surrounding region of RM of Rhineland. Full-page ads also appear periodically in the local paper.

“All this came about after we had a severe windstorm a few years back,” said Bob Stoesz, emergency measures co-ordinator for the region. “We had lots of damage to trees, and homes and generally the whole area.”

Installation of these new sirens, commonplace through the American Midwest, signal a new era of emergency preparedness being implemented across rural Manitoba, as municipalities bolster their capacity to warn and protect their citizens in severe weather events.

Four years ago the province gained first-hand experience of how devastating – and potentially life threatening wild weather can be. On June 22, 2007 an F4 touched down at Elie, destroying four homes and severely damaged two others.

Wild weather also hit parts of southwestern Manitoba over that 24-hour period with Environment Canada later confirming tornadoes had also touched down near Carman, Oakville, Pipestone, the Canupawakpa Dakota Nation, between Hartney and Deloraine, Pelican Lake and the Baldur and Belmont-Pleasant Valley area.

In August 2006, a tornado in the rural municipalities of Alexander and St. Clements, killed one person and injured 20 others.

Elie was a catalyst for the City of Steinbach to become the first “storm ready” certified community in Canada, said Denis Vassart, the city’s emergency co-ordinator.

The designation actually comes from the U.S. National Weather Service, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Steinbach agreed to pilot a project after Environment Canada sought a Canadian community to test a weather action plan that would include on-call volunteer storm spotters, said Vassart.

These volunteers have agreed to watch the skies as the weather turns and can spot something with their own eyes before its shows up on Environment Canada radar. When volunteers spot something potentially serious, such as an advancing funnel cloud, a message is immediately dispatched to the local radio station as well as to Environment Canada.

The Meteorological Service of Canada issues watches, warnings and advisories through radio and television stations, the Weather Office Website, automated telephone information lines and Environment Canada’s Weather radio when severe storms are on the horizon.

“What this does is give us some pre-warning of a storm coming at us,” said Vassart, noting that if it’s a tornado, it may be a matter of 10 minutes or less before people can take shelter.

“It’s an add-on to the rest of our emergency plan.”

The province of Manitoba recommended back in 2008, following consultations with municipalities, that overall community emergency planning be strengthened, with measures such as volunteer weather watchers and localized warning systems.

In a report released that year it noted that “too often people at risk were found to be watching the weather instead of taking protective action.”

More weather radios have been installed in public places such as schools and municipal offices and media campaigns about proper response in emergency have also been underway.

This spring has seen the deadliest tornado to hit the U.S. since 1950, at Joplin, Missouri, where the death toll was at 132 at the end of last week, and scientists warn that weather patterns within which tornadoes develop can potentially shift north.

In Altona, residents know that should they hear that four-minute siren going off any time of day or night they are to take shelter immediately, said Stoesz. “And to tune in their radios to the local radio station for further instructions.”

Yet, even the very best warning systems and emergency plans are only effective if citizens themselves know what to do, and are prepared to act responsibly, he stresses.

“Every system put in place is only one more tool,” said Stoesz. “It’s still the responsibility of the residents to look after themselves. We’ll try to warn them as best we can. ”

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Storm Preparedness

Food, water and other essential materials enough to survive independently for 72 hours is one of the key ways to be storm prepared. Emergency officials advise creating and keeping a basic 72-hour emergency kit. The kit should be easy to carry and everyone in a household should know where it is.

A kit should include:

At least two litres of water per person per day

Canned food, energy bars, dried foods and can opener

Wind-up or battery-powered flashlight and radio plus extra batteries

First aid kit

Cash (in smaller bills)

Prescription medicines, infant formula, food/water/meds for pets

Family Emergency Plan

Source: Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization

For a more information on risks, creating a family emergency plan and emergency kit preparation log on to: www.gov.mb.ca/emo/home/guide_interact_e_note.pdf.

What to do…

At home

If you have a basement, go there and protect your head and face. If you do not have a basement, go the the centre part of your house on the lowest level. A closet or bathroom is usually a good place to seek shelter. Always protect your head and chest from flying objects.

If you are in a high-rise building

DO NOT use an elevator. Go to the centre of the building, stairwells, or to a restroom. Follow the directions of building security or officials.

In a vehicle or out of doors…

STOP. Get out of the vehicle and move away from the tornado’s path at a right angle and lie in a hollow or ditch. Remember to cover your head and chest.

If a tornado strikes

DO NOT stay in mobile homes…get out and seek shelter elsewhere. View a mobile home as a vehicle.

DO NOT try to outrun the tornado in your vehicle or on foot…you could lose the race and your life.

DO NOT open windows. DO NOT stay in large open rooms.

DO NOT stay in areas that have a lot of windows.

Source: Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization For more info including a template for a family emergency handbook log on to: www.gov.mb.ca/emo/home/thinksafety.pdf.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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