Giovanni Colangelo was driving east on a road outside Scarth, Manitoba, turning up gravel behind his well-used pickup truck. His phone buzzed.
“EMERGENCY ALERT,” the message read. It warned of a tornado in the area.
The 60-year-old grain farmer peered into his rear-view mirror, spotting the ominous funnel-shaped cloud already forming in an otherwise pleasant August evening sky behind him. Colangelo pulled over, gazing westward at the storm that hung over the far side of his farm, mere miles away. He started filming.
“I was so excited because I was going to show it to my friends in Italy,” said Colangelo, recalling the events of August 7, 2020, during an interview in October that year.
His perspective soon darkened when he realized the tornado was ripping through his farmyard, sending grain bins flying. It arrived around 7 p.m. and vanished 20 or so minutes later.
“I was just stunned,” said Colangelo.
Scientists anticipate global warming will increase the amount of moisture in the air, potentially fueling more severe thunderstorms, the kind capable of producing hail and tornadoes. According to David Sauchyn, a geography and environmental studies professor at the University of Regina, there are reasons to believe tornado activity could also change. However, it’s still unclear how climate change will affect tornadoes specifically because they’re difficult to measure and model, Sauchyn continued, a sentiment echoed by Environment Canada meteorologist Natalie Hasell.
“We’ll know eventually, but we’ll be in it by then. The idea really is to plan,” said Hasell. “(Tornadoes are) devastating when they happen, and if it happens to you, and it’s your house? Terrible.”
Colangelo headed back to his farmyard, anxious about what he would find. The tornado travelled more than 10 km that day, according to the Northern Tornadoes Project. The twister cut through his farmyard, crumpling and tossing equipment and grain bins. The tornado’s violent winds, circulating up to around 260 km/h, obliterated Colangelo’s beloved fruit trees, garden, and years of labour, also shredding lines of tall-standing trees that had previously sheltered the yard from other prairie winds.
“That point was the hardest part,” he said of his first glimpse of the wreckage. “It looked like a big chainsaw just went and cut (the trees) off.”
The Scarth tornado also killed two teenagers from Melita, Shayna Barnesky and Carter Tilbury, and injured James Blacksmith from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. Colangelo recognized he’d been fortunate that day.
“One thing that made my life easier was thinking that ‘I’m still here, and those two kids didn’t even have a chance.’”
Recent catastrophic events across the Prairies have given scientists reasons to believe more frequent, extreme events like floods, forest fires, and storms are the most immediate climate risk threatening these areas.
“The issues that our local officials and our public worry about are issues that are in their face, and disasters aren’t there until they happen,” said Jack Lindsay, a professor of applied disaster and emergency studies at Brandon University.
“Then if things don’t go well, I feel that there’s acceptance of failure during disasters because, ‘Hey, that’s what disasters are.’”
Experts stress the conversation on climate change has largely centred on mitigation measures, those reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet adaptation measures, which help manage and reduce the risks of climate change impacts, warrant a greater seat at the table. A report by Natural Resources Canada suggests investing in adaptation early is beneficial. However, next to some larger provinces, Manitoba has been slower to incorporate this principle, despite striving to be Canada’s most climate-resilient province.
The impacts of climate change on Manitoba
Global average temperatures are rising. In Canada, the projected warming could almost double the global average. So far, the Prairies have endured the greatest warming across southern Canada, which could usher in costly summer droughts. Severe events like forest fires may plague the Prairies more often. These fires are encouraged by drier fuel and more lightning strikes, both of which are associated with warmer weather.
“It’s very hard to tie the long-term climate change to the individual weather events, but we are seeing a pattern of more and more extreme weather events than perhaps we were accustomed to,” said Lindsay.
Drought carries the highest price tag out of any weather event in the Prairies. Six of Canada’s ten most costly extreme weather events since 1983 have occurred in these provinces over the past decade, with the Fort McMurray wildfire topping them all at $5.2 billion in insured costs. The fire burned more than 2,500 commercial and residential spaces, forcing just under 90,000 to flee the area. At one point, the fire covered around 1.5 million acres.
Wildfires have disproportionately struck First Nations over the past few years, according to a federal government report. In the late summer of 2017, three Manitoba First Nations some 600 km northeast of Winnipeg evacuated their communities because wildfires burned nearby. Many evacuees spent nights at an emergency Canadian Red Cross shelter at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg.
Manitoba’s 2011 spring flood cost the provincial government $1.2 billion, detracting funds from its other priorities, including education and health care.
Climate change will hit communities in the Prairies differently, possibly aggravating inequities certain groups already experience, such as Indigenous peoples and socio-economically vulnerable people.
“The challenge is that those factors make people vulnerable differentially to different hazards but generally more vulnerable to everything,” said Lindsay. “You add in more events that are likely to exceed our normal coping capacities. That’s when realistically (we’ll) see more events that qualify as an emergency or a disaster.”
Managing disaster risks and emergencies
Canada’s Emergency Management Act directs the federal government’s activities on emergency management, including “the prevention and mitigation of, preparedness for, response to and recovery from emergencies.”
The legislation at most allows the federal government to influence provincial governments and provide funding, writes Lindsay in a 2018 article.
According to Henstra and McBean, “it is provincial governments that seem to play a pivotal role in influencing local mitigation since they are constitutionally empowered to intervene directly or to mandate this responsibility to local governments.”
In Manitoba, The Emergency Measures Act and preparedness regulation delegate the responsibility of emergency management programs to local authorities. The province also requires them to submit annual plans, hazard and risk assessments, and demonstrate how they’re managing those risks, said Lisa Gilmour, the City of Winnipeg’s emergency management co-ordinator.
Historically, our emergency management system has been run by people with experience in traditional emergency services such as the military, police, and fire and ambulance, said Lindsay.
“They have focused, and rightly so, on their strengths and on what is clearly the first and most important part: the response.”
“But in the same way that if you break a leg and an ambulance takes you to the hospital, it’s not the paramedic that does your physiotherapy,” said Lindsay. “It’s not surprising that if you had a health system that only consisted of paramedics, then you’d have a health system that didn’t do recovery well.”
“We have an emergency management system that’s full of the first responders and not well balanced with the longer-term social and economic perspectives.”
Manitoba lacks good hazard and risk assessment work that could improve identifying vulnerabilities and reducing risks, Lindsay continued.
“We don’t really know as much about all the hazards as we do about a handful (of them).”
Disaster planning would improve if Manitoba and its municipalities adopted a more all-hazards, evidence-based approach, said Lindsay. Winnipeg, for example, pays a lot of attention to the flood risk but perhaps less attention to events like tornadoes or winter ice storms, he added.
The City of Winnipeg passed an emergency management bylaw in 2020, tasking a delegated team within the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service to complete annual hazard and risk assessment updates, among other things. The city adopts an all-hazards approach, including accounting for the impacts of climate change, said Gilmour. She said she agrees the city is well prepared for floods, a sentiment echoed by Geoffrey Patton, a water and waste manager with the city.
However, along with Yellowknife, Winnipeg ranked the worst for flood preparedness across 16 major Canadian cities, according to a February 2021 report by the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation. Researchers suggest Winnipeg performed below the regional average on emergency management initiatives, critical infrastructure and residential property risk mitigation, among other things. The report also found Winnipeg’s emergency management efforts hadn’t accounted for the impacts of climate change in its discussions on risk assessments.
An August 2020 report by the Intact Centre also suggests Manitoba along with Nunavut were the least flood-prepared province and territory in the country.
“Emergency preparedness is an important component of a broad strategy for community public safety,” said a provincial spokesperson in an email. “Everyone has a role to play in preparing for emergencies.”
“Manitoba’s community of public safety officials is continuously working to anticipate new hazards and develop plans that will allow for the best possible response if something occurs,” they said.
Gilmour said it’s difficult to pinpoint the hazard for which Winnipeg is most prepared because its preparedness level depends on factors like the hazard’s frequency and risks. The city’s list of priorities is always changing, she said, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and the mid-October storm of 2019, which left the city under a local state of emergency and more than 50,000 Winnipeggers without power. Since January 2018, Winnipeg has topped up its emergency management team from two to six full-time staff members.
According to Lindsay, provincial and municipal governments aren’t allocating enough budget and staff to handle the tasks at hand.
“We need to obligate local authorities to identify their risks more concisely and more clearly, and then to demonstrate that they’re dealing with those risks, not just the ones that are popular or easy in the public eye,” he said.
“Right now, it’s perhaps a little too easy for a local government to only plan for the obvious — the (railway) running through town, the river — and to say, ‘Well, we could never anticipate when a tornado would come,’” said Lindsay. “It just means that they didn’t look.”
Adaptation efforts should match mitigation efforts, expert says
Disaster management is but one of many aspects of adaptation, as are investing in education, programs, and research, and upgrading farming practices and infrastructure that help reduce the risks of climate change impacts.
There’s a need for jurisdictions to take similar action on mitigation and adaptation measures, said Jo-Ellen Parry, director of adaptation at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
“There’s been a commitment at the international and national level to see mitigation and adaptation on an equal footing, but that’s not what we see in practice,” she said.
Manitoba committed to adaptation in its 2017 climate change plan and has taken some steps to encourage action in the last few years. But the provincial government hasn’t formalized a strategy on adaptation, said Parry.
When asked whether the province was planning on releasing one, a Manitoba government spokesperson said through email correspondence, “Please review our climate and green plan and come back if you have actual questions.”
A 2019 IISD report suggests a majority of the sampled Manitoban municipalities didn’t explicitly consider climate change adaptation and its major risks in their development, emergency, and watershed plans. Although this doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening on the ground, some municipalities don’t have the capacity to address climate risk assessments, said Parry.
Municipalities need to invest in adaptation planning but may lack the expertise in climate science, the finances, and the time to properly address the challenges climate change presents, she said. ClimateWest hopes to help communities, including rural ones and small businesses, overcome those barriers.
The non-profit resource hub that launched in January 2021 is the result of a partnership between IISD, the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC) in Regina, and the Prairie Climate Centre in Winnipeg, supported by multi-year funding through the federal government and all three provincial governments in the Prairies.
Canada suffers from an adaptation deficit, said Jane Hilderman, executive director of ClimateWest. She said the conversation on climate change has largely focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but since ClimateWest’s launch, its help desk has garnered local interest and responded to multiple requests from agricultural groups and engineering firms.
“(Adaptation is) sort of quiet work in the background because if you do it well, you may not really notice it,” said Hilderman.
Yet, those who don’t adapt to the risks of climate change are exposing themselves to the increased costs of extreme weather events and aren’t optimizing their industrial practices like crop yields, said David Sauchyn, who also directs at PARC and serves as a project lead at ClimateWest.
“The more resilient you are, the less damage you’re going to suffer.”
Demand for better weather observation systems
August 7 was a beautiful, sunny day.
“That’s what fooled me. That’s what fooled everybody,” said Colangelo.
Colangelo received the emergency alert within minutes of driving away from his farmyard where he’d been rummaging about for a tool. Had he been delayed, Colangelo may have been caught in the tornado’s path.
“We can go from nothing to a full-fledged massive thunderstorm in as little as 20 minutes,” said Environment Canada meteorologist Natalie Hasell.
If meteorologists are lucky, they’ll issue a tornado watch several hours in advance of an event, she said. A tornado warning triggers Alert Ready, Canada’s emergency alerting system, which contacts a user’s phone if they’re within range of a cell phone tower or internet connection.
However, it’s not always clear-cut.
Meteorologists may not pinpoint the location or time of a tornado until it’s already happening.
“Tornadoes are small. They’re tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny,” said Hasell. “They can hit one quarter of a small village and not hit the rest of the area.”
August 7 was a tricky day, according to John Hanesiak, a professor of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba.
“A lot of that part of Manitoba, in general, doesn’t have a lot of good observations that we need to do a proper diagnosis,” he said. “That was part of the problem.”
Canada is installing new radar systems, said Hanesiak, which are useful for showing the goings-on in the moment. But meteorologists require better information and more research to identify the tornado-producing storms, which could help people adapt and prepare.
“Without better observations, we’re still going to be rather hamstrung,” said Hanesiak. “We can rely somewhat on computer models, but they’re only as good as the observations that go into them.”
Hanesiak said the southern part of the Prairie provinces, where most people live, lacks sufficient observations to reveal the conditions in the middle and upper parts of the atmosphere, something weather balloons, for example, could help fix. Weather balloon sites usually launch two per day, every day of the year and can cost several hundred dollars a day, not including labour, said Hanesiak, which explains why the Canadian government only operates a few of them.
An Environment Canada spokesperson said the department is reviewing its upper-air network but isn’t planning on adding weather balloon stations in the near future. Rather, it’s considering other technologies to complement the current network.
Hanesiak said setting up weather balloon launch sites in Winnipeg and Brandon, with another two in southern Saskatchewan, could make the difference between issuing a tornado watch or not.
“If we can have these sites sitting on standby and do these measurements when we think we need to, then that would certainly save costs and lives down the road.”
Investing in risk mitigation key, researcher says
Colangelo didn’t sleep well the night of August 7. At 2 a.m., he made the “terrible mistake” of heading back to his farmyard where he stayed until morning.
“That was the worst, probably the worst day of my life,” he said. “I thought lots of bad things.”
Colangelo said he lost around 80 per cent of his grain storage capacity. Only six of 24 grain bins were still standing after the tornado lifted, with no insurance to cover those losses.
“I was very proud of my place,” said Colangelo. “I feel the loss of the property more now than I did then because back then I was, ‘Oh my God … I have harvest that I have to do … How am I going to pay the bill and the extra bill that I’m going to have?’”
Manitoba Public Insurance covered the damage to his grain tracks, and Colangelo anticipated the province’s Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) would provide financial support for uninsurable losses. Filing those receipts would take many months, and Colangelo said he didn’t know when he’d receive the money. Colangelo qualified for DFA for some business essentials because the provincial government deemed the Scarth tornado an extraordinary natural disaster eligible for coverage according to The Emergency Measures Act.
But everything else wasn’t covered.
From the 1980s until 2011, Colangelo was insured with Wawanesa Insurance. When the 2011 Assiniboine River flood swamped his basement, he said the company denied his claim.
The experience left a sour taste in his mouth.
Colangelo said he had never filed a claim with them before. He withdrew his business and hasn’t sought insurance elsewhere since. The resulting costs from the flood damage hadn’t amounted to his annual thousands in premium payments.
Despite his current predicament, Colangelo said he doesn’t plan on getting insured in the future, even for tornadoes.
Flooding is Canada’s most common and costly natural hazard, according to the Intact Centre. Historically, the insurance industry only covered damage from water coming back up through sanitary and storm sewer systems, not ground or overland flooding, including extreme rainfall or river overflow. But this changed after the 2013 floods in Calgary.
“This prompted the federal government and the insurance industry to explore an expansion of insurance to include overland flood insurance, which emerged as a product in 2016,” said Jason Thistlethwaite, an environment, enterprise, and development professor at the University of Waterloo.
The problem is overland flood insurance isn’t available in many areas that need it most, he said.
“If it is available, it’s often prohibitively expensive,” said Thistlethwaite. “Flooding is one of the major gaps in our current approach through insurance in Canada.”
Insurance is already unaffordable for many. Houses in higher-risk areas can be difficult to sell, and realtors aren’t required to disclose that information unless a buyer asks.
“Ultimately, what government needs to do to keep the insurance market available and affordable is investing in risk mitigation,” said Thistlethwaite.
He said this means investing in strategies that reduce risks before they materialize: buying out properties in high-risk areas, investing in stormwater infrastructure, and providing available, affordable insurance for those who live in high-risk areas and can’t afford it.
As part of the prime minister’s mandate letter to the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness that came out after the last federal election, Justin Trudeau called on Bill Blair to prioritize working with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to create a low-cost national flood insurance program and an action plan to help at-risk homeowners with potential relocation.
“The smart way to do it would be to have relocation programs already in place, not just for flooding but any type of hazard, and go into the community and say, ‘Look, you actually are exposed to significant risk here,’” said Thistlethwaite.
It comes down to political will, he said. Governments need to increase funding and work toward measures that include adaptation.
“The critical difference between Canada and a lot of other countries is our federal government, for the most part, is missing in action.”
Although Canada has some policies and programs in place, disaster risk reduction falls under provincial jurisdiction, Thistlethwaite continued, which poses a problem for smaller provinces with limited resources.
In the face of a rapidly closing window of opportunity, research suggests our current adaptation efforts aren’t enough to prevent the impacts of climate change. Experts are calling for more action on adaptation, where assessing and reducing risks are paramount.
British Columbia and Quebec shine as Canada’s “gold stars” on the adaptation front, said Parry.
“They’ve had a longstanding support for climate risk assessment and awareness, and both provinces have invested heavily in the actions that they’re taking,” she said.
Manitoba has awarded Prairie Climate Centre a contract to perform a vulnerability assessment of the province’s policies and programs, which has just gotten underway.
“We’re ignoring lessons that we see over and over again when we look around at other communities,” said Lindsay of emergency management. “(Heeding these lessons) wouldn’t be easy, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be impossible.”
The morning of August 8, after Colangelo’s sleepless night, a neighbour rolled into the farmyard to offer moral support. Soon after, around 50 people from a church near Cromer arrived with a chainsaw, tractors, and meals in tow to tidy the chaos of fallen branches and scattered fragments of equipment into piles.
“Everything that did happen that day — it did put me in a different mood. It did give me hope,” said Colangelo. “That was the positive thing about it, was that people really came together.”
Colangelo has spent months away from his family to farm grains halfway around the world since the 1980s. Because of this, the unravelling of his years of work aches a little more. More doubt now clouds his mind.
“I had all the answers,” he said. “I don’t have no more answers.”
Despite the uncertainty fogging his future, Colangelo remains dedicated and works away.
“We are survivors. Human beings are survivors.”