Our house on Aug. 4, 2014 after an F3 tornado hit Aylmer

Our house on Aug. 4, 1994 after an F3 tornado hit Aylmer, QC

Leaving one’s windows halfway open whenever uncertain weather is predicted may just help you save yourself and your house in a strong tornado, eminent Canadian meteorologists said back in 1963. The key is not to wait until you are panicked by a tornado alert or, worst still, its arrival. Anyway, we believed them and this may have saved us and our house twenty years ago.

Here’s our story:
On the sunny morning of Aug. 4, 1994 in Aylmer, QC we took our cousin Ann (who was visiting from Switzerland) sailing on Lac Deschenes in our 23-foot sloop.

At 11 a.m. our boat radio predicted rain and possible thunderstorms in the afternoon. When we saw clouds gathering around 2 p.m. we went home and checked to make sure we had left all our double windows open part way. Outside panes to the right, inside ones to the left. All of them were set like that except the big French window in the dining room. We’d been doing this when “possible thunderstorms” were forecast ever since my husband,

Tom, a mechanical engineer/freelance journalist, wrote a half-hour documentary in 1963 for CBC-TV’s program, The Nature of Things. The pioneering TV weatherman, Percy Saltzman, and a government meteorologist, S.J. Butler, were ‘on camera’. They built a little apparatus to show how a tornado worked and re-ran all the available film footage of actual tornadoes. Then the two weathermen and Tom discussed what could be done to protect oneself against tornadoes. They came to the conclusion that it was best to leave windows part-way open to relieve the pressure difference between inside and outside.

Aylmer had never had a tornado, but it is in the tornado-prone belt the government defines as stretching from Manitoba to New Brunswick. Two or three tornadoes occur within a 124-mi. radius of the Canadian capital each year, mostly in isolated rural areas. Out of precaution, Tom made a house rule: “When a possible storm is forecast, the windows should be opened half-way.” This prevents water from coming in while venting the house. And so, that’s what we’d been doing ever since and that’s what we did on that day, twenty years ago.

At the fateful hour of 3 p.m I (Marg) was in the kitchen, Ann was in the dining room and Tom and our son Leslie were upstairs at the McIntosh computer. All of us were facing windows on the south side. Suddenly a torrent of rain crashed down, the sky went dark and a violent wind from the west roared in on us like a freight train.

The house shook; we were scared, transfixed and dumbfounded.
“The wind! It came in!” Ann cried in awe. (Actually it probably went out.) Upstairs, rain lapped at the computer and flying debris scratched the window in front of Tom and Leslie’s noses. “We should all get down to the basement,” I yelled at the top of my lungs. I got as far as the side-door landing when the freight-train roaring stopped as abruptly as it had started. The 30-second nightmare was over. “That must have been a tornado,” Leslie said. The power was off and sirens sounded.

Tornado 3

The morning after the F3 tornado in Aylmer

We opened the front door onto a street streaming with stunned, bewildered, bewetted residents walking and looking in disbelief at what an F3 tornado (as we found out it was later) had done. Some houses were still standing and some gone. A full-size Chevrolet was wrapped around a big tree and a 20-foot Russian Olive tree was ripped out of the ground right next to our property, leaving an eight-foot deep hole in the ground. Our house was missing over half of its shingles in the back and some of the soffit was dangling from the carport roof. A block away on the other side of the boulevard we saw a brick bungalow with its side caved in and its roof missing.

A big refrigerator was sitting on a K-car, both of them smashed. The refrigerator had been sucked out of its kitchen; it flew about 200 feet. One house had its whole facade as well as its roof blown off so the bedrooms and bathroom were exposed. Miraculously, no one was killed. A dozen people were treated in hospital for cuts, bruises and abrasions; one more seriously hurt person was kept overnight. The property damage to 325 homes in our small residential neighborhood amounted to $10 million.

Fourteen houses had to be totally replaced and 62 were badly damaged. Before the storm blew itself out at Saint Pascal, Ontario, 27 mi. east of Aylmer, 1-1/3 in. of rain had fallen and 400 basements got flooded. We and all the other “sinistrés” (the French word for victims of a disaster) went out for dinner that night at the municipality’s expense. The area was evacuated so inspectors could look for gas leaks while the police protected the area from looting. The next days’ newspapers reported the weather office had been tracking a low-pressure system from the American midwest that hopscotched its way to the Calabogie Hills (46 mi. west of here) and touched down at the Aylmer marina.

Reasons officials later gave to the Ottawa Citizen and Aylmer Bulletin for not having issued an alert or warning included “it was too close, in a blind spot right in front of our instruments”, “we are not very good at detecting tornadoes,” “we thought it might be a microburst” and “we did not want to make people panic.” Since then they have changed their policies for the better. We were lucky to survive with so little damage. The worst of it, losing more than half of our roof shingles and part of the soffit from the carport, was covered by insurance. It was “one of the most intense tornadoes in history in the National Capital Region.” (Wikipedia)

The McIntosh computer could only type “iiiiiiiiiiii” for about two months but then recovered completely.With advice from a forester friend, we were able to prune our Colorado blue spruce, which had had its top four feet severed by flying debris, so that it eventually grew a new leader. As for the abstract metal sculptures our artist daughter had installed in our backyard — may they rest in piece.

Tornado 1

This house near ours had its windows closed tightly when the F3 tornado struck;

Tom did the engineering calculations that had been woefully lacking. He’s convinced, and thinks weathermen should be, that windows should be left partly open in a tornado. They should advise people to arrange their windows that way calmly in advance whenever the weather is “iffy.” Although many people, especially scientists, agree with him, the conventional wisdom in the U. S. seems to be that that is not useful. Even the CNN meteorologist, Chad Myers, recently told the public that windows should not be opened because debris might come in. The only other explanation given is that running to a safe place, like the basement or a bathtub, is more useful. We think you can do both.

Here’s Tom’s professional pitch:

“Tell people to open their double windows (if that is what they have) so that the air can escape and equalize the pressure when a tornado hits. Even leave single windows open a crack and accept some water coming in. “Of course people should run, not walk, to the basement or other safe places in their houses in a tornado alert. But they should arrange their windows in advance if a tornado might happen, before it is announced. It may well save their house.

“An F3 tornado, such as the one that passed over our house, would cause a pressure difference of about 100 millibars, or about a pound per square inch, betweeen inside and outside. A pound per square inch would have had a lifting force of some 100,000 lbs on our roof. That could lift it and maybe a floor of a 600 square-foot area house like ours, as well. The top floor windows, especially, should be open. The roof is fairly light. “We saw the debris of a neighbor’s attic less than a block away. Had we not opened the windows, we think our roof could have been ripped off, too.

“Wind speeds reported for tornadoes have never been properly measured by competent engineers. And weathermen estimate air speeds no higher than those in hurricanes. But reports that toothpicks have been embedded by tornadoes in steel beams indicate that the real maximum speeds, rather than those reported by weathermen, can reach the speed of sound and probably higher.”

Thank you for dropping by. This blog for all lovers of life and language aims to be useful and entertain. Topics vary from how to build a canoe to how my mom moved from “prince to preacher and fog to bog” as a war bride after world war one. Writing advice is squeezed in between. Find out more about A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void,  Kathleen’s Cariole Ride and Eating at Church on Amazon,  Goodreads or my website.

I will be at Britton’s Glebe, 846 Bank St., Ottawa on Sat., Aug. 9, 10
a.m. to 2 p.m. to honor the WWI 100th anniversary. Please drop in  if you would like to chat and pick up a signed copy of my book.

Happy Reading from Cozy Book Basics!