Investigating windstorms: Why it took days to confirm Ontario, Quebec tornadoes

WATCH: Environment Canada now says six tornadoes struck Ontario and Quebec Friday - and that number could rise, as some investigations take months. Abigail Bimman reports from Calabogie, Ontario, where some people say they were forgotten once Ottawa was struck by the storm.

Renfrew County resident Brenda Moran was working at the Calabogie Lodge Resort when a violent windstorm hit the area on Friday afternoon.

She and a group of coworkers ran into the lodge’s laundry room, shut the door, and watched the storm wreak havoc through a little vent.

The sky, Moran recalled on Tuesday, was “a really awful, awful colour” — all grey, except for a white streak.

“Everything was just so scary,” said Moran, who lost her garage and parts of her roof to the storm.

A third tornado hit Ottawa-area, says Environment Canada

Moran perhaps caught a glimpse of the twister on Friday, but it wasn’t until Monday evening that Environment Canada confirmed that her house and her community, located about 100 km west of Ottawa, had indeed been hit by a EF-1 category tornado and downburst, and not just by a bad storm.

The Calabogie twister, in fact, was the third tornado from Sept. 21 to be confirmed by investigators, despite having been the first of three to touch down in eastern Ontario that day, according to Environment Canada.

WATCH: Path of Ottawa-Gatineau tornadoes

The federal agency first confirmed that an EF-3 category tornado, with winds reaching 265 km/h, hit Dunrobin, a rural community in west Ottawa, and then moved to Gatineau. Environment Canada later confirmed on Saturday that a slightly less powerful tornado was responsible for carving a path of destruction from Arlington Woods to the Hunt Club and Greenboro areas around the same time on Friday.

So why does it sometimes takes days to make the call on whether a windstorm was actually a tornado?

Investigating a possible tornado

Eyewitness accounts and photo or video evidence make all the difference, says Peter Kimbell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada’s meteorological service.

“If we get somebody sending us video or photographs in real time, then we can confirm almost right away,” Kimbell said in an interview with Global News on Tuesday.

Kimbell said the agency was “overwhelmed” with information about the windstorm in Dunrobin, which allowed his team to confirm that tornado quickly.

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But that wasn’t the case with suburban Ottawa and Calabogie. In fact, Environment Canada initially thought Ottawa’s west and south ends got hit with a downburst, he said.

When the agency isn’t able to confirm the exact nature of a severe weather event right away, that’s when the investigators are called in.

Kimbell said Environment Canada managed to rally a team of 10 to 12 investigators by late Friday night and dispatched them first thing on Saturday morning to examine the damage across the city.

“We scaled up pretty rapidly when we saw the scale of the event,” Kimbell said.

WATCH: Emotional residents of Dunrobin relive the moment when the tornado hit

On the ground, Kimbell said, investigators study the positioning of the debris — like where and how trees have fallen.

When a downburst hits, debris can typically be found lying in the same direction on a fairly wide path. But when it’s a tornado, debris will usually be lying in multiple directions and on “a very long and relatively narrow path,” he explained.

Investigators also assess the extent of damage to structures and trees and use a scale to match that damage to windspeed. Aerial and satellite imagery also inform Environment Canada’s investigations.

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Depending on the scale of the weather event and the resources available, these investigations can take time — not just days, Kimbell said, but months.

“Last year we had a big tornado outbreak in Quebec and it wasn’t for months that we were able to determine that it wasn’t four tornadoes, but actually 10 or 12,” he said.

WATCH: Goodale praises the ‘ordinary people who were there for each other’ during Ottawa tornado

With the Calabogie storm, Kimbell said Environment Canada was able to confirm on Monday evening that a tornado did occur, thanks to a combination of aerial and satellite imagery and on-the-ground reports.

The agency determined the twister hit at about 4:15 p.m. on Friday and that its winds reached 175 km/h.

Here’s how the Ottawa-Gatineau tornadoes formed so quickly

Kimbell said the agency’s investigation into Friday’s severe weather events is ongoing, and further confirmations continued to roll in on Tuesday afternoon.

Environment Canada verified that another three tornadoes touched down near Val des Bois, Baskatong, and Otter Lake — all areas north and northwest of Gatineau — on Friday, bringing the total numbers of twisters in the Ottawa-Gatineau region that day to six.

For anyone left questioning why the weather authorities may hold out on providing the public with definitive answers following a major storm, Kimbell said investigators “just want to get things right.”

“We don’t want to categorize it as a tornado lightly,” he said. “We want to really be sure … before we say it is.”

“We’re interested in scientific accuracy. We’re interested in being correct.”

— With files from Abigail Bimman and Bryan Mullan

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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