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On August 21, 2009, a record 18 tornadoes ripped through central Ontario, killing one eleven year old boy in Durham and causing untold millions of dollars worth of damage. One of the towns affected was Markdale, just south of Owen Sound, where houses lost their roofs and trees toppled from their roots. This photo was taken on a recent late spring evening in Markdale as yet another funnel cloud bore down on the village.

Weather watchers predict that Ontario is due for another major storm, but really, it’s not such a risky bet. Canada and the US see more tornadoes than anywhere else on Earth. Storms in the central States tend to be more deadly for a number of reasons including wide open spaces that allow them to gather momentum and less sturdy houses.

Canada’s worst tornado hit Regina, Saskatchewan on June 30, 1912 killing 28 people and injuring hundreds. Ontario’s worst was in June 1946, in Windsor, and another deadly twister hit Windsor nearly forty years later. Barrie, Orangeville, and other communities across the centre of the province have also experienced deadly storms.

Climate change dictates that we are going to live through more and more extreme weather, such as the killer heatwave in India and wild storms across the globe, and we need to be prepared. So, what are tornadoes? Difficult to predict, they follow severe thunderstorms: the winds rotate at up to 70 km/hr, the sky turns that unmistakeable bruised purple-green, and the rain beats down like falling rocks. Most spin counter-clockwise, moving east to northeast and sometimes skipping up and down, leaving some buildings in their path unscathed while their neighbours are devastated.

Tornadoes are rated on the Fujita scale, named for scientist Ted Fujita, with F5 (the so-called “Finger of God”) being the most severe. Canada has never seen an F5 tornado, and only one per cent of ours are F4, but those are killers.

What can you do to protect yourself if you find yourself in the path of a tornado? The most important thing is to get out of the way if you can. The winds on the south side of the vortex are the strongest, so try to stay north of the twister’s path. If you find shelter, get into a well-protected, well-supported basement. Most people are killed by flying glass and debris or by collapsing walls, so you want to be in the strongest structure possible. If you can’t get to a basement, try to get into a bathroom or a stairwell. If you find yourself outside, get into a ditch or depression in the ground. If you have to be out in the open, lie down and grab a bush or tree.

Environment Canada has a number of warning systems in place because it’s the storms that take us by surprise that are the most dangerous. Warnings are posted on the EC website and on the Weather Network. You can also get a Weatheradio, a small device that picks up extreme weather alerts. Schools across the country have them as standard equipment. And, governments at various levels also send warnings by SMS and text message, hoping to save lives that way.

If the worst happens, and your modern life and conveniences are knocked out by a severe storm, all you can really do is be prepared. Have enough water, candles, and accessible food stockpiled, including supplies for pets and babies. If you’ve stockpiled canned goods, be sure the can opener is easy to find…. Print out the essential contact numbers from your phone, in case the battery dies. Have a non-electric source of heat and light, and some books and board games to avoid boredom.

Life on Earth is becoming more of a challenge, but knowledge and advance preparation can help all of us to cope.

This week’s blog is dedicated to the memory of my uncle, Bob Coughlin, whose life’s work in insurance was dedicated to helping people cope with the unexpected. His generosity supported my early photographic projects and I’ll remember him with love and respect.

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