By Caroline Rodriguez-Charette
Tornado warnings are not unheard of in Ottawa-Gatineau weather forecasts, but they have usually provided little cause for concern. All of that changed on Sept 21. That’s when an outbreak of six tornadoes hit Eastern Ontario and Southern Quebec.
Between 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m, one of the tornadoes caused a great deal of damage in the small community of Dunrobin, located in the west end of Ottawa, moving on to devastate the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood in the Hull sector of Gatineau.
Approximately 1,500 residents from Thomas’s complex were homeless, and given very few updates regarding the situation, which caused a lot of anxiety for most people.
The Dunrobin-Gatineau tornado was classified as a high-end EF3 (capable of considerable damage) by Environment Canada, with wind speeds reaching up to 265 km/h.
As a result of the tornadoes, approximately 30 people were injured, and more than 1,700 buildings were damaged. This left numerous people without homes, displacing them to hotels and community centres. Powerlines and trees were downed, leaving over 200,000 residents without electricity and debris all over the streets.
In addition, l’École Secondaire Mont-Bleu was evacuated when it caught fire after school hours. The fire is believed to have been started by a lightning strike from the storm. The school has been shut down and nearly 1,500 students were relocated.
The 1,500 students are currently attending classes at l’École Secondaire de l’Île – splitting the two schools into morning and afternoon sessions. Mont-Bleu students will start attending classes at the Asticou Centre in December, while their school will be closed for repairs for the remainder of the year.
Kelly Thomas, a single mom residing in the nearby Jardins Radisson neighbourhood in Hull, was at home with her nine-year-old son Aiden when the tornado happened.
“My windows were all open so we did see everything, which was very scary,” said Thomas. “My son was yelling ‘Am I gonna die?’ And inside, I was afraid he would and I wouldn’t be able to save him. But, once it was all over and my son was unharmed, all I could feel was happy.”
Thomas’s balcony shattered but her apartment was okay. “We thought we would be home once the power was back, but when we were evacuated and saw the extent of destruction to our complex and the entire neighbourhood, the situation started to become very real,” said Thomas.
Due to the damage to the buildings and grounds, as well as dangerous debris everywhere, the residents were displaced for as many as 10 days. Approximately 1,500 residents from Thomas’s complex were homeless, and given very few updates regarding the situation, which caused a lot of anxiety for most people.
Residents of the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood were searching for answers from the City of Gatineau in order to start rebuilding their lives. However, residents told the CBC that the city was generally unhelpful and uninformative.
Little information was made available to residents and, as the situation went on, little resources brought to the area, with city-run relief was largely inaccessible.
Jardins Radisson and Mont-Bleu are very diverse, low-income neighbourhoods, where many new immigrants live, and they faced a lot of destruction.
“To be displaced for over a week was awful for everyone,” said Thomas. “But to those who have no means to get through such a situation, it was brutal. People in our neighbourhood would be seen walking dazed and confused, waiting for some kind of relief or support to show up.
“The city should have had a presence on the ground,” she added. “It would have made a difference.”
Many residents and concerned people reached out to the City of Gatineau, the Canadian Red Cross and the CLSC to find out if they had an information table on location or nearby, to assist them. According to Thomas, they were told that residents who needed help had to get it themselves, as the various services were unable to bring help directly to those affected.
People from other communities did not know what was happening in Mont-Bleu. They wanted to help, volunteer or donate but were being turned away by the city relief facilities. People did not understand why they were being turned away. Thomas tried to inform and help, by guiding them through the needs of the residents and sensitivity of the area.
“We just did things to help. It started with Chelsea Shawarma writing to me to offer hot meals. When I went to pick up the food, a handful of people from the ‘Chelsea Folks’ Facebook group, who I had never met before, showed up to help. And, every day this happened.”
Individuals and businesses from the Chelsea and Wakefield areas brought relief to the neighbourhood with their donations and generosity. “I really feel like the people of Chelsea and Wakefield went above and beyond to get a whole neighbourhood through such a disaster,” said Thomas.
Chelsea Shawarma donated nearly 50 large pizzas and shawarmas, volunteers organized a barbecue with food donated by the IGA in Farm Point, and Chelsea Freshmart donated groceries and necessities, allowing Thomas to set up a pop-up grocery for her neighbourhood. Wakefield’s Petalia store even organized a pet support table.
A ‘Community Support Village’ was also set up, coordinating offers of help and featuring an information table, coffee, treats, and more.
In sum, the community came together to help itself when governments and official agencies were missing in action.
The help was badly needed, as residents faced an otherwise-grim situation.
Yousry Okguchung, 19, for example, was a resident living in the Daniel-Johnson neighbourhood in the Mont-Bleu area. He had been working at the Carp Fair when the tornado took place.
On his way back home, he found the entire area blocked off. The police told him that he could not stay inside his building because it was not safe. He could only go in to get certain essentials and then was required to leave.
“I was extremely sad,” said Okguchung. “‘Why did this have to happen to me?’ I asked myself. Luckily, my building was still in one piece. I saw some other buildings and their roofs were completely gone.”
Although Okguchung’s home was still intact, the damage to the structure was too severe for it to remain habitable, leaving him temporarily homeless.
“I have never seen so much fear and hysteria,” Okguchung said. “I remember seeing people sleeping on the streets.” However, everyone came together as a community to help each other.
“We were all in the same boat, going through the same thing. It really made the community that much closer, given the chaos we had just been through,” said Okguchung.
Donations are still welcome, as residents continue to suffer the after-effects of the tornado. Whether it is delivering groceries to an affected family or donating to GoFundMe campaigns, every little bit helps.
“This was very life changing. We still feel different. Life feels different. The continuing support is very helpful, but the crisis is over,” said Thomas.
Thomas can be contacted at email@example.com for more information on how to help or donate.