After watching the news coverage of the recent tornado in Barrie and with climate change something we can no longer ignore, a couple of important things come to mind that make me think it is perhaps time to review and make changes to the Ontario Building Code as well as to implement a better early warming system.
As many will recall, a severe tornado went through Barrie in May 1985. It ripped across Highway 400 from the west, blew windows out of the grandstand at the Barrie horse racing track that was in place at the time and proceeded up the hill next to where the Holiday Inn and Mandarin restaurant sit today wrecking havoc on the areas above. That event killed 8 people, injured 155 and ultimately destroyed 300 homes. The 1985 tornado was rated as an F4 with winds in excess of 300 kph.
The recent tornado was an F2 with winds estimated at 220 kph and ran further south and east. By all accounts it was very severe, thankfully no one was killed and injuries were minimal but whether it’s a fire, flood, a tornado or any other event losing one’s home or just sustaining significant damage has both a financial as well as an emotional cost, the latter of which is hard to put a value on.
Clearly the global weather system is changing. Storms appear to be getting more severe, temperatures fluctuate up and down both winter and summer as well as on a daily and weekly basis. Overall there is no denying that the earth’s atmosphere is warming and weather systems are changing. In addition to intense storms we are seeing extreme floods, mudslides, forest and grass fires plus other weather scenarios more frequently and with more power. While Barrie has now had two tornadoes in the past 36 years, in some parts of the world such as the southern and mid-west United States they happen annually and for people in those areas it just seems to be an accepted way of life.
Looking at the photos below it would appear that perhaps it is time to review and amend the Ontario Building Code for areas such as Barrie and elsewhere where tornadoes pose a threat. We have all seen how quickly subdivisions can pop up and homes are built. What was a farmer’s field a couple of years ago might now be a relatively established subdivision with a hundreds of homes and more on the way.
I don’t profess to be an expert but I do have some thorough construction knowledge and when I think back to the home I grew up in which was build in the late 1950’s, construction methods were far different that they are today. My parent’s home was solid brick top to bottom on all four sides. The double car garage had concrete block walls on three sides and rather than drywall the house had lathe and plaster walls. Many of today’s home are brick veneer on the front that shows to the street with vinyl siding on the remaining three sides and or vinyl siding is used on the second floor as an accent finish as show above. Looking at the above photos and others following last week’s tornado, it is very clear that vinyl siding attached to building wrap over pink styrofoam insulation doesn’t stand up well to a 200 kph+ tornado. Some of the affected homes in last week’s tornado suffered complete collapse of their brick veneers. Many homes lost shingles if not the entire roof structure, trusses and all. Homes used to be built and more expensive homes still are with tar paper or a building paper of some sort on the roof before the shingles are applied, not so here. Other homes were ripped from their foundations which begs the question how firmly were they attached.
The map below outlines the key locations in Canada that are deemed as being in “Tornado Alley.” The area from Windsor to Barrie which includes Southern Georgian Bay was established by the Northern Tornadoes Project (NTP) at Western University in London Ontario.
Not surprising the areas in red are locations of widespread relatively flat land where wind and storms can accelerate and really build up speed. To the west of Barrie it is for the most part flat open farmland all the way to Lake Huron. It’s not hard to see why there are hundreds of wind turbines located there.
Let me be clear, I am by no means complaining about development or population growth that is a story for another day but looking at the destruction in Barrie you can’t help but think that it’s time to do as I mentioned above, re-evaluate and make changes to the Ontario Building Code that would make homes in tornado prone areas more resilient. Yes they would cost more but so it replacing them and better quality cponstruction might help[ to lowser home insurance rates. There would appear to be a real need for a better early warning system. Maybe people in the affected area last week complained about the lack of notice.
In the early 1990’s I lived in the U.S. just west of Chicago. That area borders the U.S. mid-west and is known for server weather systems. In the area I lived there was a siren that went off in the event there was a severe weather warning with chance of a tornado. It went off a few times during the four years I lived there but fortunately no tornadoes every landed. During my residency there I built a shed in my backyard. The local building code required that I anchor the shed to the ground going down four feet below the frost line line with concrete. This was required to prevent the shed from blowing away in high winds which were a regular occurrence. Chicago has earned its name the “windy city.”
Last year I built a 24′ X 32′ detached garage/workshop behind our house in the Thornbury area. The Building Code required that I install anchor bolts in the freshly poured concrete every 6 feet to secure the walls. The 9 foot high walls were 2″ X 6″ construction and they were double blocked to prevent any twisting and provide added snow load. On the outside wall I used 1′ thick pine board and batten siding versus vinyl siding that was screwed and not nailed on. When the building inspector came he was impressed with my construction and I feel confident that the structure can withstand almost anything Mother Nature throws at it even more so than our house.
It’s going to be interesting to hear the numbers but I suspect the cost of Barrie’s latest tornado will cost insurers hundreds of millions and we may all pay the price. Surely it’s time to re-evaluate current construction methods especially in areas that cane be subject to violent weather. In Canada we think of a 75 or 100 year old as being old. In other parts of the world such as Europe, homes, churches and other structures are centuries old and in their eyes a 100 year old home is new.
Perhaps the hardships that our neighbours in Barrie are enduring right now as they clean up from last week’s tornado and move forward will bring some good but I for one believe some changes are needed into how we build today’s homes to prevent or at least minimize the impact and damage future weather systems brings to those located in Canada’s Tornado Alley.