Frustration after emergency alerts not received before deadly Manitoba tornado

Pamela Sul was at her home in rural Manitoba watching television as the sky darkened and an emergency alert went across the screen. The chief administrative officer for the Rural Municipality of Alonsa saw the tornado warning and quickly packed up to leave. Her husband was out on a tractor and heard it on the radio.

Manitoba's early August tornado tested emergency preparedness, with alerts failing. Photo by Brandon Houck via Twitter.
Manitoba’s early August tornado tested emergency preparedness, with alerts failing. Photo by Brandon Houck via Twitter.

But the couple only received a text-message alert on their cellphones once they’d already left the area where an EF4 tornado tore through Friday night, killing a 77-year-old man and leaving a trail of destroyed homes and cottages.

“You are worried, you are hoping for the best,” Sul said, recalling the concern she had for her neighbours who she was unable to call and warn about the storm.

“You are hoping that they have heard it somewhere else, either on the radio or on the TV, but you are hoping.”

People are aware that living in the area means having limited service, Sul said, but residents have lost most of the coverage they had since Bell MTS did upgrades in June. So when the storm ripped through, many were left without warning.

The tornado is estimated to have had wind speeds between 270 and 280 km/h. Trailers in a campground disappeared, presumably into the nearby water of Lake Manitoba. Trucks were lifted off the ground and a house was pushed clear off its foundation.

Jack Furrie, a retired schoolteacher and farmer, was found dead outside his wrecked home near the community.

Many residents in the area 165 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg are frustrated they didn’t receive the emergency alerts on their cellphones, Sul said, adding local first responders were also having trouble getting service.

Wireless public alerts can only be received when a phone is connected to an LTE network. Bell MTS spokeswoman Michelle Gazze said some communities in that part of the province are primarily served by HSPA, older networks that were in place before LTE.

The company recently upgraded the LTE wireless sites in some parts of the region and some small pockets may have seen reduced coverage, she said.

Access to better cell coverage is an ongoing issue throughout Manitoba but it becomes even more apparent during emergency situations, said Chris Goertzen, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.

The association has been talking with the province and the cell companies for more than a decade about how important the communications infrastructure is for daily life, business and safety.

Goertzen said the association is encouraged by Bell MTS’s commitment to expanding coverage, but it isn’t enough. The company pledged a five-year, $1-billion investment plan for the province in 2017.

“There are a lot of areas in Manitoba that have mediocre or non-existent cell coverage. This is a challenge for them on a daily basis,” Goertzen said.

“When it comes to when there are crises or when there are dangers in place, such as the tornado we saw this last week, we want to see that service improved if at all possible.”

The Alert Ready program, which sends emergency alerts via cellphone, is “one tool that people have to be aware and ready for severe weather, but it is not the only tool,” Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said in a statement.

“Our government continues to work with phone companies, (Environment Canada), and Pelmorex, the company who has developed the Alert Ready program, to ensure that Manitobans have access to timely alerts on their cellphones.”

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