Canadian Underwriter

Why Barrie’s 2021 tornado damage was “largely preventable”

May 4, 2022   by Jason Contant

Damage after a tornado in Barrie, Ont. in July 2021

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More than 35 years after a deadly tornado in Barrie, Ont. – the site of another strong tornado last year – the industry is still looking for modernizations to the Ontario Building Code and tornado protection construction practices.

“Since before 1985, we have known that for a few hundred dollars a home we could largely eliminate the risk damage from a tornado up to EF2 in strength, like experienced last year,” Paul Kovacs, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, told Barrie, Ont. councillors Monday in prepared remarks. “Analysis of the damage last July found that every building was likely built after 1985, however tornado protection knowledge does not appear to have been applied.

“There was little change in tornado protection construction practices over the past 35 years. Since 1985, the number of people living in Barrie doubled, unfortunately it appears that the new structures were not made more resilient. $250 million in losses last year were largely preventable.”

Kovacs addressed Barrie city council Monday evening to provide an update on an August 2021 resolution by local Coun. Natalie Harris that included specific measures to modernize the Ontario Building Code, among other items. The motion was tabled Aug. 9, 2021 and passed unanimously.

Changing building code regulations will take time, as Kovacs observed in an email to Canadian Underwriter.

“Preventing/reducing tornado damage requires buildings with stronger connections between the roof, walls and foundation,” Kovacs wrote. “The specifics can be complex and are technical. Conversations of this nature take time. There are many homebuilders, building science experts, manufacturers and code officials with views to contribute.”

Work was completed in the 1980s that led to improved anchoring provisions for homes and small building in all codes in Canada. Research conducted in 1984 found that where deaths occurred due to tornado, they occurred when the entire building lifted off of the foundation.

“We have had one successful code change in the Ontario Code, for example, requiring an increase in the number of nails used to secure the roof decking,” Kovacs says.

The Barrie councillors’ call for Ontario Building Code changes follows an EF2 tornado in Barrie on July 15, 2021 that severely damaged 71 homes, injured 10 people and resulted in more than 2,200 claims. The industry will pay $90 million to 1,500 homeowners that experienced damage, and $10 million to 125 business, Kovacs says in prepared remarks from his council address.

A resident surveys the damage left after a tornado touched down in his neighbourhood, in Barrie, Ont., on Thursday, July 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

“Beyond $100 million in direct damage to structures covered by insurance, there has also been extensive damage to vehicles, indirect damage and intangible losses,” Kovacs adds. Indirect damages include expenses incurred while homes are repaired and loss of business; intangible losses include stress and a loss of personal security. While there are no measures of indirect and intangible losses, it’s estimated those may exceed $150 million.

The violent 1985 F4 tornado was even more severe. Eight people were killed, more than 150 were injured and there was extensive damage to homes and businesses.

The resolution by Coun. Harris included two motions. In brief:

  • A proposal of specific measures to modernize the Ontario Building Code with respect to severe wind protection for new homes, including the requirement for the use of straps, clips or other mechanisms to better connect the roof, wall and foundation of homes. The first motion also involved the development of an awareness campaign to inform Barrie residents about the risk of destructive tornadoes, options to assess risk of home damage and risk reduction best practices
  • The feasibility of introducing a rebate program for installing wind-resistant protections for homeowners who did not experience tornado damage in July 2021, as well as financial incentives for those whose homes were damaged.

“I am excited about progress in addressing the first motion and I will identify action required by council to complete this work,” Kovacs says. “I am disappointed that Barrie did not yet act on the second opportunity.”

Kovacs reports Barrie’s chief building official Michael Janotta has “completed his work to develop comprehensive advice and it was transmitted to the Ontario government last week,” which ICLR supports.

While the City of Barrie did offer a credit for a portion of 2021 property taxes for homes with an unsafe order and waived building permit fees for homes affected by the tornado, Kovacs says he is “disappointed that Barrie did not take bolder action.” ICLR’s initial estimate is that the additional cost of adding a comprehensive package of tornado protection features to a new home would be $2,500.

“Most damaged homes will be rebuilt without enhanced tornado protection,” Kovacs says. “Barrie cannot require tornado protection but can offer incentives for tornado protection in homes that are rebuilt and new homes built before change is made in the building code.”


Feature image: Damage left after a tornado touched down in a neighbourhood in Barrie, Ont., on Thursday, July 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov