08/07/2018 20:44 EDT | Updated 08/07/2018 20:48 EDT

Spotty Cell Coverage Left Some Residents Vulnerable To Deadly Manitoba Tornado

Jack Furrie, the 77-year-old who was killed in the storm, hadn't had cellphone service since June.

ALONSA, Man. — Walking through rubble strewn across a Manitoba field where his grandfather's body was found, Kelly Brown found comfort in locating his grandmother's wedding ring.

Jack Furrie, 77, a retired schoolteacher and farmer, was found dead in the Rural Municipality of Alonsa on Friday night after a twister tore through the community and obliterated homes and cabins.

Furrie's wife, Kate, had died eight years earlier and his grandson hoped her ring was a sign that his grandmother was somehow with his grandfather that tragic evening.

Vanessa Whyte via Facebook/THE CANADIAN PRESS
A tornado touched down at Margaret Bruce Beach, east of Alonsa, Manitoba on Friday, August 3, 2018.

Furrie's rural property, about 165 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, was often bustling with family members, but he was alone as the sky darkened with the incoming storm.

"He was all by himself — a 77-year-old man scared, alone and afraid,'' Brown said Tuesday from Portage la Prairie.

Had Furrie received a text-message alert on his cellphone, Brown said his grandfather might have known he needed to leave. But he said his grandfather hadn't been able to get any service since June, when Bell MTS did upgrades to the local network.

Vanessa Whyte via Facebook/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Debris is strewn about after a tornado in Alonsa, Manitoba on August 3, 2018. Residents are frustrated that they didn't receive emergency alerts on their cell phones.

"The alerts were going out 13 minutes or so before the storm came through,'' Brown said. "He might have needed two minutes to get away, that's all. He had to get half a mile away and he would have been okay.

"But they were complacent about getting it fixed.''

Pamela Sul was at her home watching television when an emergency alert went across the screen.

The chief administrative officer for the rural municipality saw the tornado warning and quickly packed up to leave. Her husband was out on a tractor and heard it on the radio.

The couple received a text-message alert on their cellphones once they'd left the area where the tornado tore through.

"You are worried. You are hoping for the best,'' Sul said, recalling the concern she had for her neighbours who she was unable to call and warn about the storm.

"You are hoping that they have heard it somewhere else, either on the radio or on the TV.''

People are aware that living in the area means having limited service, Sul said, but residents have lost most of the coverage due to the system upgrades. So when the storm ripped through, many were left without warning.

He might have needed two minutes to get away, that's all. He had to get half a mile away and he would have been okay.Kelly Brown, grandson of Jack Furrie, who was killed in the deadly storm

The EF4 tornado is estimated to have had wind speeds up to 280 km/h. Trailers in a campground disappeared, presumably into nearby Lake Manitoba. Trucks were lifted off the ground and a house was pushed off its foundation.

Wireless public alerts can only be received when a phone is connected to an LTE network. Bell MTS spokeswoman Michelle Gazze said some communities in that part of the province are primarily served by older networks that were in place before LTE.

The company recently upgraded the LTE wireless sites in some parts of the region and some small pockets may have seen reduced coverage, she said.

Access to better cell coverage is an ongoing issue throughout Manitoba but it becomes even more apparent during emergency situations, said Chris Goertzen, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.

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The association has been talking with the province and cell companies for more than a decade about how important communications infrastructure is for daily life, business and safety.

Goertzen said the association is encouraged by Bell MTS's commitment to expanding coverage, but it isn't enough. The company pledged a five-year, $1-billion investment plan for the province in 2017.

"There are ... areas in Manitoba that have mediocre or non-existent cell coverage,'' Goertzen said.

The Alert Ready program, which sends emergency alerts via cellphone, is "one tool that people have to be aware and ready for severe weather, but it is not the only tool,'' Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said in a statement.

Vanessa Whyte via Facebook/THE CANADIAN PRESS
An overturned trailer in the aftermath of a tornado at Margaret Bruce Beach, east of Alonsa, Manitoba on August 3, 2018.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission set targets for basic telecommunications services in 2016, which included calling for LTE to be available in homes, businesses and along major Canadian roads, a statement from the regulator said.

But Furrie's family members, who are still picking up mementoes of his life strewn across his property, said there needs to be coverage now.

Brown said it's too late for his grandfather, "but for the rest of the community, it could be the difference some day.

"I'm not saying it would have saved him or whatever, but it would have gave him a chance at least. He had no chance.''