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Brutal storm categorized as an EF0 downburst in Sarnia/Point Edward

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“Procedural issues” blamed for no local emergency alerts

Cathy Dobson

The storm that ripped giant trees out of the ground and caused widespread damage to central Sarnia and parts of Point Edward Thursday has been officially categorized as a downburst with winds reaching 125 km/h.

Near Petrolia, the same weather system generated a weak tornado, say investigators with Western University’s Northern Tornadoes Project. 

No one was injured but crews are continuing the heavy lifting of clean-up and municipal officials are assessing why the community alert system was not activated.

A “rough transition” with a change in personnel at city hall is being blamed for the fact that no phone alerts were sent out locally and the community’s emergency siren system was not activated, says Tracy Krull, communications and engagement co-ordinator with BASES, the organization that maintains the alert system.

Ron Realesmith, formerly Sarnia’s emergency manager, was declared redundant July 11.

His responsibilities were temporarily given to Fire Chief Bryan Van Gaver until a new deputy fire chief can be hired. Part of the new deputy chief’s role will be alerting the community to an emergency, instructing Sarnia Police to activate the siren system and sending out phone alerts via the Sarnia-Lambton Alerts system.

Both Krull and Van Gaver said the transition since Realesmith was terminated didn’t go well.

Van Gaver said BASES didn’t provide him access to the software to activate Sarnia-Lambton Alerts. He also said the storm hit so fast and was so brief that he didn’t have time to activate the sirens because of “a lack of clearly defined roles about who needed to be doing what.”

“We are looking at the whole program and will make the necessary changes to ensure we protect Sarnia residents,” said the fire chief.

Mayor Mike Bradley called the lack of sirens and phone notifications “a glitch” and said the problem has been rectified.

“I did receive inquiries about where the sirens were,” he said. “And my first update was at 7 p.m., which I thought was a bit late.

“But apologies were made,” said the mayor. “And there’s a review after every emergency. 

 “There’s never been an emergency yet where there aren’t issues,” he added. “There’s always gaps and things to learn.”

Bradley said the decision to terminate Realesmith after more than three years was “a management decision, not a council decision.”

Realesmith said he can’t discuss his termination. “It’s in litigation,” he said.

Thursday’s storm brought down countless trees, power lines, fences and decks. But there was relatively little damage to buildings in Sarnia and Point Edward. 

City crews, Bluewater Power and Marcotte Disposal worked through the weekend to restore power, remove trees from roadways and clean up debris.

An estimated 130 tonnes of brush has been dumped already, with many more tonnes to go.

“The community response was excellent with citizens helping citizens,” said Bradley.  “Bluewater Power went above and beyond, as did our people on the city side.”

The hardest hit areas of the city include Rosedale Avenue, Guthrie Drive and Colborne Road, said Van Gaver.

Sarnia Fire responded to numerous 911 calls during the storm but none can be directly related to the storm, he said.

Details from investigators with the Northern Tornadoes Project (NTP) were released Monday and said the region experienced four downbursts on July 20 in Alvinston, Wilkesport, Wardsville and Point Edward/Sarnia.

Downbursts occur when a mass of air hits the ground at one spot and spreads out, causing damage in all directions. Tornados, on the other hand, hit the ground and continue to move, causing damage along a narrower path. 

The EFO-rated tornado that hit near Petrolia reached wind speeds of 115 km/h and had a track length of 2.91 kilometres, according to NTP. A barn roof was damaged with crops, trees and a pole holding a power line.

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