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Officials confirm tornado in city's south end; 8 people taken to hospital

'We are so fortunate to be standing here tonight not talking about the loss of life,' says mayor following afternoon tornado

Although secondary searches were still underway tonight, officials believe no one was killed when a confirmed tornado touched down in Barrie's south end this afternoon. 

Eight people were sent to Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, four of whom suffered serious injuries while the remaining four were considered less serious.

"I am very relieved to report that we had no confirmed fatalities at this time. We do not believe anyone's been killed," Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman said during a news conference held Thursday night at the surface water treatment plant on Royal Parkside Drive.

"We are so fortunate to be standing here tonight not talking about the loss of life," added the mayor, who arrived on scene quickly today to survey the damage and speak to residents. "I can't tell you how incredible it is that nobody has been killed. This certainly could have been a much more serious disaster."

Not far down the street from tonight's press conference, emergency crews were still working at the scene doing secondary searches following the afternoon twister near Prince William Way and Mapleview Drive East.

Andrew Robert, director and chief of Simcoe County Paramedics Services, said ambulance crews began responding to the scene around 2:20 p.m. He declined to comment on the nature of the injuries sustained or ages the of the victims, citing patient confidentiality and next-of-kin notification. Robert did say seven of the injured people were trauma-related and the other was a medical situation. 

"We also managed to support the treatment of other patients on scene for less serious (injuries) that did not require any transportation (to hospital)," he added. 

A triage centre was also set up at St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic School on Prince William Way. Paramedics will remain there throughout the night, Robert said. 

Door-to-door searches were also continuing into the evening to assess the damage and ensure everyone was safe. 

"The latest (information) that we do have from our first-responders suggests that everyone is accounted for, but it is early yet. I want to stress that," said Lehman, noting some of the hardest-hit areas include Sun King Crescent, Majesty Boulevard and Prince William Way. "There is extensive damage... to homes and property, and this is heart-breaking for all of the residents."

"Crews are literally checking under every bed and behind every door to make sure there is no one left unaccounted for," said Barrie Fire Chief Cory Mainprize, adding around 20 single-family houses are considered uninhabitable tonight to varying degrees. 

The fire chief was unable to pinpoint how many people are seeking alternative accommodations this evening, but did say "the damaged area is very localized within about five streets." 

Lehman also urged people to allow emergency crews to complete their secondary searches tonight.

"There are homes that are heavily damaged and won't inhabitable, so we want to keep people from coming to the area with offers of help for now, but I know this community is going to turn out en masse in support of anything that people need," the mayor added. "Whenever there's a serious situation that affects the city, the generosity is unbelievable."

Mainprize said crews responded to multiple 9-1-1 calls for reported a tornado and extensive damages in the south end. There were "hundreds of calls" about power lines down, gas leaks, damaged and destroyed buildings. 

The first emergency crews on scene quickly began searching for injured people in the most heavily damaged areas, he said.

"Multiple structures were affected, with approximately 20 to 25 suffering significant damage and two or three being completely destroyed," the fire chief said. "We will remain on scene for as long as required to support our community during this event."

Mainprize said he arrived on scene about 10 minutes after the first crew.

"It was certainly a scene of chaos  a large number of buildings that had been damaged or destroyed," he said. "A lot of conflicting information about who was occupying which buildings and where. A significant number of people who were very concerned and distraught. There was debris literally everywhere. Trucks had challenges even navigating the road safely." 

The fire chief said crews quickly developed a plan to break up into different divisions with city police and paramedics to conduct searches in the most heavily damaged areas, first looking for injured people then fanning out into other areas. 

Police Chief Kimberley Greenwood also said there were "significant police resources" on scene to help as needed, as well as provide security and traffic control in the area.

"We have received numerous offers of assistance from individuals, social organizations, businesses and our service partners," Greenwood said. "We are a very strong community and it's evident in what I have been able to see and other first-responders have been able to see at the site."

Ontario Provincial Police, South Simcoe police and York Region paramedics also came to the scene to help. The fire department did not activate its mutual-aid system with neighbouring municipalities, however. 

Alectra crews are working into the night to restore power.

"We had a very large outage in the city. That's been reduced. Given the heat and the conditions, that's very important that power come back on as quickly as possible, but some of the affected area will be out for at least a day," said Lehman. "However, that number is rapidly coming down. It should be less than a thousand homes without power overnight."

Officials are still asking people to avoid that area of southeast Barrie, while residents living in the area are being asked to remain patient. 

"I know this is an incredibly difficult day," added the mayor. 

Lehman said a community is defined by its response to incidents like this, and commended residents for coming to people's aid "in its most difficult days, and this is one of them."

He also praised emergency crews for their "tremendous work," people helping their neighbours, as well as businesses providing food and water. Lehman said he had also been in touch with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford to update them on the situation, as well as other mayors. 

"This is a remarkable community," Lehman said. "Its character comes through in times like this. We will respond and rebuild, but most of all tonight, we want to make sure everyone is safe."

Lehman lived in the city's Allandale area when a deadly F4 tornado struck in May 1985, destroying 600 homes. 

"The scene today is reminiscent of it," he said. "I lived in that neighbourhood as a boy. It's shocking. You never expect to see it again, a disaster like this in your community, yet here we are again.

"Unfortunately, we're no strangers to severe weather in central Ontario or in Barrie," Lehman also said at the news conference. "Our emergency services personnel do prepare for this kind of situation, but we do hope to never see a situation like this one."

Officials were also asked about the public emergency alert system and whether or not people were notified in time.

"This one was very sudden, and I know there will be a discussion to come around the alerts and those sorts of things," said Lehman. "This was shockingly fast. ... If you're outside, that's the real nightmare scenario. People did the right thing: they sought shelter, even though it was so sudden."

However, Lehman did say much has changed since the 1985 tornado, with improved technology such as weather apps on their cellphones and more widespread news coverage.

"The severity of this was very, very fast," he said.