'It's been a long year': City, Hydro Ottawa look back on 2018 tornadoes

One year after tornadoes ripped through the Dunrobin, Merivale and Greenboro neighbourhoods, the City of Ottawa is only now summing up its lessons learned.

It's been a challenging year, after all: a fatal bus crash, record spring flooding and another, smaller tornado in Orléans have given emergency staff little time to reflect and make formal changes.

"We're in this operational tempo that seems to be much higher than we're used to," said Anthony Di Monte, general manager of emergency and protective services.

"It's been a long year," agreed Bryce Conrad, CEO of Hydro Ottawa.

An expensive storm

The widespread power outages following the Sept. 21, 2018, tornado strikes had a lot to do with the direct hit to Hydro One's generating station off Merivale Road.

The provincial utility spent $10 million and several months repairing that transmission station.

The municipally owned Hydro Ottawa also shelled out nearly $3.5 million to respond to the tornadoes and rebuild parts of the electrical grid.

Its aging power poles and conductors quickly toppled as the winds swept through, said Conrad, remembering how the devastation forced Greenbank Road to shut down for days.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press

"All that marginal stuff has been replaced with brand new rock solid stuff, so our infrastructure is better today than it was before the tornadoes hit," said Conrad.

The City of Ottawa, meanwhile, has tallied its tornado costs at $3.8 million — which included launching an emergency operations centre that existed for weeks, and paying social services and recreational staff who helped residents affected by the tornadoes.

New radios for execs

City staff wrapped up their debriefs about last September's challenges long ago, but Di Monte's team is only now finishing a package of recommendations on how to address those challenges, particularly how to communicate when cell towers are out and phone batteries die.

At the time of the storm, city manager Steve Kanellakos admitted the city's top issue had been communication. He urged residents to get battery-powered radios.

Kanellakos described how even he could not get a signal and had to drive in his pyjamas until his phone had a few bars so he could talk with his senior team.

That would no longer happen today, Di Monte says.

Senior city staff now carry portable radios that are on a dedicated, encrypted channel and can be reached in an emergency.

The city has also explored three manufacturers offering an umbrella or dome-like product often used by the military to set up communications in remote areas.

Leah Hansen/CBC

Communities rebuild

In the lead-up to the one-year anniversary, Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli said he's been reflecting on the trauma the tornado inflicted on his ward's neighbourhoods of Arlington Woods and Craig Henry.

"My community is still rebuilding, very much so. But there's just been such a renewed sense of community as a result of the tornado," he told CBC News this week.

For instance, a new community association has sprung up in Craig Henry.

The Trend-Arlington area also has a full day of events planned Saturday, including tree-planting in Bruce Pit and a sold-out dinner.

The community will also unveil a new entryway to its community building, built out of wood from trees that came down during the tornadoes.