Weather watchers keep eyes on the rural skies

Steinbach’s Storm Ready volunteer weather-spotter pilot program has been active since 2010. EMO and Environment Canada are working to see it expanded and taken up by more communities, say EMO officials

You’re a true weather hound if you volunteer to have a siren go off in your house whenever a storm is brewing.

Blumenort resident Amy Ginn gets a rush of adrenalin every time she hears it — especially when it goes off in the middle of the night.

“It does get your attention when it goes off at 3 a.m. that’s for sure,” she says. “You have to run and see what’s going on.”

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In 2010, Steinbach was recruiting extra pairs of eyes to watch the sky — and ground — to pilot a new Environment Canada program for improved severe weather preparedness. Ginn put up her hand and became one of 24 weather spotters with the city’s Storm Ready program, the first and only of its kind in Canada. She and others were trained in forecasting terminology, cloud and storm identification, how to report severe weather and how to read supplied radar information and computer weather maps.

From May’s beginning to October, Ginn’s job is to be occasionally on call, with her two Environment Canada radios on 24/7, and ready to spring to action if they start their ‘whoop, whoop, whooping.’ When they do, she’ll first check her computer to see where trouble is brewing, then, if it’s daylight, jumps in her car and heads out to eye the sky.

“If we do get something severe like a funnel cloud we’ll report to the team captain and then the team captain calls Environment Canada,” she said. “We’re reporting what type of severe weather we’re visually experiencing on the ground, and then Environment Canada is able to send our warnings for the affected areas.”

Steinbach’s Storm Ready spotters, who all reside within a 10-km radius of the southeastern Manitoba city, provide a critically important service to the region, providing extra pairs of human eyes to spot specific and localized weather action before it shows up on radar. A grassroots program like this helps improve the timeliness of warnings as well as clear recommendations for local events that alert emergency personnel for necessary action as well.

“It gives you one more thing to add to your emergency preparedness,” says Denis Vassart, municipal emergency co-ordinator for Steinbach and the RM of Hanover.

The touchdown of an F5 tornado in Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007 was the catalyst to try such a program by Environment Canada and Steinbach was willing to test this on-call volunteer storm-spotter program called ‘Storm Ready.’

rink destroyed by tornado

The rink in Pipestone was destroyed by a severe windstorm in 2013.
photo: Lorraine Stevenson

Steinbach’s ‘Storm Ready’ designation actually comes from the U.S. National Weather Service based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, explains Nicki Albus, a regional emergency manager with EMO Manitoba.

That program began south of the border in 1998 in the U.S. as officials saw a need to improve, organize and certify weather preparedness and improve the alert given residents in times of severe weather.

“It’s another way to make communities accountable for their own severe weather preparedness,” said Albus.

The slow-motion devastation of flooding has focused officialdom for the last while, but the need for programming that enhances preparedness in severe weather isn’t going away.

Many Manitobans were reminded during the early summer of 2007 how devastating severe storms can be, when, the day after Elie was hit, tornadoes also touched down near Carman, Oakville, Pipestone, the Canupawakpa Dakota Nation, between Hartney and Deloraine, Pelican Lake and the Baldur and Belmont-Pleasant Valley areas.

One farm family near Baldur was lucky to escape with their lives that weekend, when 330 km/h winds completely destroyed their home, barns and bins, flattened acres of surrounding bushland and left tractors and other farm equipment mangled and flipped.

In July 2013, Pipestone was hit again with high winds that destroyed its rink, and took out trees throughout the village.

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.

But having human eyes on the sky improve the warning of a storm coming right at a localized area, says Vassart. For now Steinbach’s volunteer eyes-on-the-sky program remains a pilot, but other municipalities show considerable interest in starting their own up, he said. He regularly takes calls asking how the program in Steinbach is organized, he said.

“They ask how to get it going,” he said. “I’m expecting we’ll see some growth (across Manitoba) to it in the next year.”

Albus said Manitoba’s Emergency Measures Organization and Environment Canada are working on how to expand it.

“We hope to be the first province to expand it in co-operation with Environment Canada and we’re working on that. We’re certainly looking at a Storm Ready or Storm Ready-type sort of verification or certification program that our communities can use.

“It becomes a hot topic every time severe weather comes through,” she added.

Which could be any time soon.

Bob Ticknor, a team captain with the Steinbach program, is starting to wait and watch for what 2015 brings. He’s seen his share since taking up his volunteer post in 2011. He called in that severe downpour that hammered Steinbach last summer.

“We’ve never had to report a tornado or anything like that,” he said. “But I have reported suspicious-looking clouds and that kind of thing. Usually in those cases, Environment Canada has already issued a tornado watch or warning so people are aware of it.”

Storm Ready programs don’t make any place storm-proof, he said. But they can mean fewer fatalities and property damage if people have as early a warning as possible.

“Environment Canada has its radar and its weather stations and stuff like that,” said Ticknor. “But sometimes you need the person on the ground to say what is happening too.”

May 3 to May 9 is Emergency Preparedness Week, a nationwide event that tries to increase awareness about being prepared for many different emergencies that can affect individuals and communities.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

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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