When I was nine years old, a tornado ripped through my neighbourhood in Barrie, Ont. In moments, a verdant, muggy spring afternoon had become a postapocalyptic landscape of ruined homes and lives. Eight lives were lost, and 600 homes were damaged or destroyed.
In the days to follow, news helicopters and camera crews descended; my hometown was suddenly national news … for a single cycle.
The most powerful (and lasting) story of the Barrie tornado wasn’t the devastating storm or the rubble-strewn front yards. That story was the response to the tornado — the way we reacted, assisted and rebuilt. People were pulled from cars and ruined homes by anonymous heroes. Teams of residents, organized by police and firefighters, worked through the night in search of missing people, then clearing rubble and salvaging pets and treasured possessions. Homeowners painted messages on their ruined garage doors (“Gone with the Wind” was a favourite). Issues like the fragility of some home insurers were exposed, leading ultimately to changed regulations. And the stories of generosity and compassion were endless.
These stories would never have been told if not for local media. The national networks left in a day or two. But in 1985, Barrie had two daily newspapers, a network TV station and four radio stations. And their journalists, cameras and tape recorders told the stories of the humour, heartache and humanity of the response to the tornado. It was only because of local journalism that…