Ottawa-Area Tornado Survivors Face Long Road To Recovery

Zi-Ann Lum
Alex Carlson shares a picture of what's left of his Dunrobin, Ont. home after it was damaged by a tornado.

DUNROBIN, ONT. — The force of the tornado that moved through an Ottawa-area community on Friday was strong enough to hurl a metal dumpster over the length of a football field, landing three metres (roughly 10 feet) shy from Alex Carlson's front door.

"There were two [dumpsters] that went over our house," Carlson told HuffPost Canada on Monday. Luckily, he and his girlfriend were in Toronto for a wedding when winds ripped away the second floor of their two-level apartment in an 130-year-old building.

A truck is covered in debris after a tornado tore through Dunrobin, Ont. on Sept. 21, 2018.
Debris covers a house on Dunrobin, Ont. after a tornado struck the community on Sept. 21, 2018. No fatalities were reported.
A home in Dunrobin, Ont. lost its roof after a tornado swept through the community on Sept. 21, 2018.
A home is left damaged after a tornado swept through Dunrobin, Ont. on Sept. 21, 2018.

Their upstairs bedroom is now gone — a door frame leads to an open-air space with an elevated view of wood and metal debris, and tufts of fibreglass insulation caught on the branches of fallen trees around the property.

Carlson's unit had no basement, which is where people are advised to take shelter during a tornado warning. He said his neighbours hid in their kitchen when the winds outside began to break the windows.

Nearly 60 buildings were damaged when the tornado moved through the community of 1,000, about a 30-minute drive northwest from downtown Ottawa. About 25 people sustained injuries related to Friday's storms, according to the City of Ottawa. No fatalities were reported.

"I don't think anybody knew something this big was possible around here," Carlson said.

With wind speeds clocked at 265 km/h, Environment Canada confirmed the tornado to be in the EF-3 category. EF-5 is the highest tornado classification for twisters with wind speeds over 315 km/h. After it made its way through Dunrobin, the same tornado crossed the Ottawa river where it made landfall and destroyed parts of a Gatineau neighbourhood.

A tornado of equivalent strength was recorded in Goderich, Ont. in 2011. Many residents said it's the first tornado they've experienced since living in Dunrobin.

It was one of two tornadoes that struck the region Friday. Damaged hydro lines left more than 200,000 customers in the dark at the height of the power outage that, for some, has lasted three days.

On Monday, police officers and firefighters continued to block the main road through Dunrobin to allow hydro workers and contractors space to clear trees and restore power lines.

The West Carleton Secondary School, just north of the road, has been converted to a temporary shelter and a hub for volunteers and donations. A steady stream of people from Dunrobin and neighbouring communities have been going in and out of its doors to trade stories with friends or to drop off food, water, and clothing.

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Kara McShaw Plourde and her friends pulled up to the school in three trucks, each packed with orange insulated tarps in the back.

Her home in nearby Constance Bay, Ont., was destroyed in last year's devastating floods and she wanted to "pay it forward" by dropping off the tarps that had been used in her house's reconstruction.

"We don't need them. So they can be donated," she said.

After a clear-weather weekend, rain and a thunderstorm is now expected in the forecast. Emergency workers asked for tarp donations so they could be used to protect damaged homes from further destruction.

The Canadian Red Cross has two campaigns underway to assist its operations in Gatineau and Ottawa. Disaster management volunteer David Fraser told HuffPost that they've had about 50 people use emergency lodging at the West Carleton emergency shelter, but none on Sunday night — friends and family have mostly taken in residents who lost their home.

Destruction of a Dunrobin, Ont. neighbourhood on Sept. 22, 2018.
Kara McShaw Plourde (left) donated tarps for Dunrobin residents to use to protect their homes from expected rain.

Suzanne Dubé and Steve Zabarylo have been coming to the West Carleton high school to shower and to get hot meals. Since their Dunrobin home was damaged by the tornado, they've been sleeping at their cottage in Calabogie, Ont., with no running water.

Dubé said the winds smashed all windows of their home, and even moved some interior walls. But the structure of their 1871-built house somehow remains intact. They were out grocery shopping when the winds whipped through their home. They weren't hurt and neither was their dog Sasha.

The recently-retired couple lost all the trees on their property as well as a 35-ft. workshed. They had just moved their motorcycles and bicycles into a trailer for future travelling plans, but the tornado took that away, too.

There were trees flying, there was shingles and siding, and my neighbour saw a dog fly through the air. Jen Ayers, Dunrobin resident

"It's strew over the six yards behind us. In trees," Dubé said of her belongings.

Resident Jen Ayers said her house was spared despite it being on the wrong side of the street when the tornado touched down. She was outside in her backyard when she received an emergency alert on her phone, which was on vibrate.

In the time it took to glance at the alert, she said she noticed a dramatic change in the weather. For a brief moment, golf ball-sized hail fell from the sky.

"You could start to see the clouds turn a little —and debris start flying. It sounded like a freight train was coming in," she said. "There were trees flying, there was shingles and siding, and my neighbour saw a dog fly through the air."

After the tornado passed, Ayers said she emerged from her home and saw the neighbour's bay window "punched in." Another house was missing half its roof. She described making her way down the street to check in on other as "walking over people's houses in the middle of the road."

Ayers is staying in Kanata with her dad while the clean up is underway. She praised emergency workers for their "amazing" response time, but added that she knows some residents don't plan to return to the community after what they've seen and lived through.

"When you walk out of your house and see a funnel cloud taking out your neighbour's house and you're running to your basement just in time... I don't even know how people came out of their basements with the debris on top of their house," she said.