Was it a tornado? Meteorologists stumped by severe weather event in Canada’s Northwest Territories

As of Monday morning, debris still littered streets in parts of Fort Smith, N.W.T. Environment Canada still cannot definitively say what caused the extreme weather event. (Alex Brockman/CBC)
Environment Canada still can’t say for sure what happened in Fort Smith, N.W.T. Sunday night.

High winds and severe rains caused widespread destruction in the community, uprooting trees, downing power lines and damaging property.

No injuries were reported, but debris was scattered far and wide. Residents posted video to Facebook of pieces of wood and siding swirling hundreds of metres in the air.

‘Absolutely terrifying’

“It was fast and furious and absolutely terrifying at the same time,” said Ramanda Sanderson, a Fort Smith resident who recorded a video of the storm from the safety of her vehicle.

“All of a sudden there was debris flying everywhere,” she said. “I looked to my right, and I see the funnel cloud coming down.”

I started driving in the opposite direction,” she said. “By the time I turned around the corner, it wasn’t even a minute later, and the funnel cloud was already going up. It was so quick.”

As of Monday morning, Environment Canada said they hadn’t seen conclusive evidence to indicate the presence of a funnel cloud or tornado in the community.

To assess local weather events, Environment Canada relies on reports from members of the public, together with satellite imagery and weather stations like the one at Fort Smith’s airport.

Satellites indicated a storm would hit the community, but Environment Canada meteorologist Dave Kulak said the service “did not have any forecasts of severe weather.”

This photo shows a shed that was destroyed in Sunday’s storm. (Alex Brockman/CBC News)

At around 4 p.m., Environment Canada received reports from the Fort Smith airport of winds reaching just over 70 km/h. But based on video posted to social media last night, Kulak estimates winds at the centre of the event were likely much higher.

“Certainly, we’re seeing evidence of damage… that would suggest winds were significantly stronger than 70 km/h,” said Kulak.

Now, Environment Canada is asking for video footage of the storm that could confirm the existence of a funnel cloud or tornado.

A sudden storm in Fort Smith, N.W.T., on Sunday took down trees and power lines. (Submitted by Thomas Koidhis)

“We’ve seen some swirling debris but we haven’t actually seen a condensation funnel or a cloud that we could identify,” said Kulak.

Though tornados are rarely reported in the region, Kulak says that doesn’t mean they don’t occur.

“When we do make plots of reported tornados in Canada… there’s an uncanny resemblance to the highway and the road grids, which suggests that the ones that… we’re hearing about are because that’s where people are there to report them,” said Kulak.

“There’s probably a lot more out there that we’ve never heard about.”

Chris Westwell, acting Fort Smith mayor, says the community acted fast to clean up debris. (Alex Brockman/CBC)
Community rallies to clean up debris

Fort Smith mayor Lynn Napier Buckley was out of the community when the storm hit, but she left the community in good hands.

Acting mayor Chris Westwell was also the stand-in leader when wildfires twice threatened the community.

“If I ever decided to be mayor, it’d be a real disaster,” he joked.

“We’re very lucky in that we managed to get away without any injuries.”

Acting mayor Chris Westwell

Westwell said despite “fairly substantial” damage to homes and vehicles, the community has “bounced back pretty well.”

“We’re very lucky in that we managed to get away without any injuries,” he said.

Chris Westwell, acting mayor of Fort Smith, said the storm caused ‘fairly substantial’ damage. (Submitted by Ramanda Sanderson)

Local volunteers and power corp officials were on the scene “with trucks and chainsaws” before other parts of the town even knew the storm had hit, Westwell said.

Doug Pendergast, communications manager for the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, said power was restored to most of the community after a few hours, though several houses are still disconnected from the grid.

The town’s dump is taking in debris gathered at the curb, and the local health centre is offering support to people who may be experiencing post-traumatic stress.

“Don’t feel like you’re being a burden,” said Westwell.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada’s Northwest Territories prepare for busy fire season, CBC News

Finland: Weather warming up across Finland, Yle News

Sweden: Strong winds roar across central Sweden, Radio Sweden

CBC News

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