Ottawa was part of a big storm that swept through the area yesterday. Lots of property damage and five people died. One was killed in a trailer when a tree fell on it, two more were killed while out walking and got hit by trees, and then there were two that people are claiming were obvious morons and hence worthy of a Darwin Award. I’m not so sure I would cast a vote for them for such an award.
The logic seems almost unassailable at first blush. The risk of thunderstorms was forecast, and then in late afternoon, an emergency alert went out to all phones. Severe storm watch with risks of funnel clouds. So if you were out in it and died doing something stupid to do in a storm, you must have been a moron.
The two supposed nominees were on a golf course (man) and on the river in a boat (woman).
I’m far from being a strong knowledgeable boater, but I spent the first 20 years of my life around lakes and boats. And I didn’t have that same reaction to the boater death at all. And not just because I don’t like the idea of mocking someone who died and suggesting they deserved it.
I was out shopping, saw the alert, but I never once thought, “Oh, I should seek shelter immediately”. I was in my car, which conveys a false sense of security to many of us. Literally, thousands of other people were out in their cars and got the same warnings. Most would do what I did. Assume that there will be a graduated ramp-up, some darker clouds, some early rain, distant thunder and lightning.
I’m 54 years old, I’ve lived through a few bad storms in my life, many of them in far less urban surroundings and shelter. But I confess I have never seen a storm hit so hard or so fast in my life.
I was at Greenbank plaza, with no real signs of rain or storm other than some darker skies off to the NW. I went into a store, picked up my shopping in about 10 minutes, came out, got in the car, and there was still nothing to say the storm was about to start. I moved my car about 200m to park beside a grocery store to wait for Andrea and Jacob to come out. And then everything changed.
It went from “yeah, it looks like it will rain before we get home” to “holy crap, I feel like I am in a car wash that is out of control” in less than 90 seconds. It was super intense and lasted about 2 minutes.
I’ve never experienced anything like it, not at the lake, not at the house, not in other countries, nada.
When I heard about the boater, my thought was the complete opposite of most people. If it had been a normal storm, sure, I probably would have thought, “What kind of idiot stays on the water during a THUNDERSTORM?”.
But, as I said, I saw how fast it hit. From nothing to chaos with no ramp-up. I bet a lot of experienced boaters got the crap scared out of them too.
As I mentioned, I grew up around water, with lots of time with small boats. At the lake, we would normally have a good 30-45 minute warning that a storm was coming just from reading the water or the white line on opposite shores. We’d wander around tents or trailers shutting windows, moving loose stuff inside, etc. Once in a while, we would have to rush to shut windows, but usually just because we procrastinated, not because we didn’t see it coming. If you were on the lake, and lots of people would be as fish confuse the darker skies for early night and start feeding, you headed in when the darker clouds started appearing on the horizon. With small runabouts, that could still be a 15-30 minute run home, depending on distance and the size of your motor. On the way, you would be watching the horizon, often hugging the shoreline. But your primary worry would be lightning, or getting soaked, not that your boat was going to capsize and you might drown. Which is what happened to the woman who died.
That literally never happened on our lake unless you were in a sailboat, and then you didn’t even really need a big storm. The tall mast was likely enough. Sure, if you’re on an ocean or the Great Lakes, you’re always at risk of capsizing, but very hard to do in simple lakes and rivers unless you’re in a kayak or canoe. Most small pleasure craft have flatter bottoms and low profiles for wind, and the waves themselves don’t get so high compared with the sides of the boat…a lower centre of mass generally keeps them righted. If you were driving like a bat out of hell in big waves, you could flip a boat, but it wouldn’t be “expected” just from a storm.
I have no trouble believing that a lot of experienced boaters got caught off-guard by the atypical rate of onset. I was in a CAR and felt like it came out of nowhere.
Some people are pointing out, “Well, yeah, sure, but there were ALERTS on phones.”
Uh-huh. And an alert on your phone doesn’t do you much good if it comes 10 minutes before the storm hits and your 30 minutes from base. Or, more likely, if you follow all the pop advice out there about disconnecting from the digital life and turning your devices off while you embrace nature. Which a lot of experienced boaters do. Many deliberately don’t take their phones out on the lake. That’s the reason they’re out there. They’re not partying and needing a selfie every two minutes or Instagramming their flip flops, they’re disconnecting.
But I saw the alert. And if I had been on a boat? I would have headed into shore, heading back to our campsite. Yet with the speed of onset from normal “we’re going to get wet” to “we’re actually in serious danger” chaos, even being along the shore? I doubt I would have had time to pull all the way in, find a place to tie-off, and get under better shelter. I’ve seen nothing in any of the articles talking about how far she was out in the river or how far from her base, or if she was headed back. I am betting there will be several articles this summer in boating magazines about what to do if you do get caught in a sudden storm that comes up too rapidly to get to shore. Maybe she was within five feet of shore, maybe the capsizing caused her to hit her head, maybe she was trapped in the boat. I don’t know, but I’m not willing to write her off as a moron.
The other evidence we do see
My reaction to the golfer isn’t too far off that. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they were too far out from the clubhouse when it hit to get all the way back. I’m betting literally dozens across Ottawa alone were in the same situation, but you didn’t hear about them, cuz they didn’t die. If they were walking and far enough out, even if they started back with the alert, they may not have made it to the clubhouse in time.
But while people want to nominate either of them, it is the evidence of the two who died while walking that seems the most compelling to me. They were both seemingly walking in their own neighbourhoods. Before the storm hit, or even when it first started, they were likely within 100-200 feet of a house. They could easily have stepped up on someone’s porch and said, “Hey, let me in, I need help, I’m caught in a storm.” But before either could actually do that, before they felt they were unsafe and needed to get out of the storm RIGHT now, the storm intensified enough to knock two trees over on them.
If two people out walking in their own neighbourhood couldn’t get to shelter in time, likely because of the rapid onset of the storm from dark skies to Holy Hannah, I doubt a golfer or a boater would have been able to either.
Of course, if someone finds their phones and sees him or her taking selfies in the middle of the lake or golf course while the storm raged around them, I’m willing to vote. Until then, it’s just sad.