It was a weather event without precedent in the National Capital Region. A tornado touched down late on Friday afternoon in the western part of Ottawa and the northern Hull area of Gatineau. Weather forecasters had been predicting a dramatic drop in temperature all week as a cold front approached to push out unseasonably warm temperatures. The cold front slammed in like a car hitting a brick wall. The most severe property damage was in the suburban village of Dunrobin in the northwest corner of Ottawa. Buildings were completely destroyed there.
I live in the Pointe-Gatineau area of Gatineau. My mobile phone vibrated madly at 4:44 pm when a federal emergency alert message arrived stating Environment Canada had issued a tornado warning. No big deal I thought, I’ve been through these before. I grew up in much more tornado-prone southwestern Ontario where these warnings were more common and often didn’t amount to anything. We had tornado drills in school and one twister hit just east of my hometown a few years ago.
But on Friday, as the thunder rolled outside, the wind got stronger and stronger. I live in a basement apartment and as I watched out the window, I could see debris flying around high in the slate-grey sky. After things settled down, a friend of mine in the Aylmer area of western Gatineau shared on Facebook that the power was out at his place. I joked back that it was on at my place and that my neighbourhood always seems to escape power outages. He responded by telling me it was because a tornado had hit nearby. Social media was suddenly crowded with messages about the situation and reports from local media started coming about what had happened.
It was getting dark, I went out to the supermarket and noticed evidence of the tornado along the way. As the storm headed west, it had deposited things it had picked up on the football field of Le Carrefour high school. I stopped to look around and saw broken pieces of drywall, lumber, and insulation. A provincial election campaign is underway in Quebec right now. I knew this was no ordinary windstorm when I was seeing campaign placards that had blown in from other districts! In the supermarket checkout line, everyone was talking about the tornado. Someone showed me a photo one of their friends had taken of the twister itself.
The hardest hit area in Gatineau was in the Mont Bleu area of Hull. I went up to look around on Saturday morning and saw trees completely uprooted, lamp posts knocked over, and roofs totally lifted off of apartment buildings and houses. The English descriptions of the scene I heard most often included terms like “war zone” as a metaphor for the damage.
Tornadoes are so random and precise in their damage. Along Cité des Jeunes Boulevard, where several apartment buildings are uninhabitable, homes a block away looked like nothing happened. People were already out cleaning up with rakes, brooms, and chainsaws. The grounds of the local community college campus and Mont-Bleu high school were extensively damaged.
As of 2:30 pm on Saturday, several roads remained closed in Ottawa and Gatineau. The city power utility Hydro-Ottawa was still working to restore electricity to 137,000 customers. The storm had damaged part of the large Merivale substation which supplies power to a large part of suburban Nepean. Areas of the Kanata and Gloucester suburbs were also badly hit. City and utility officials are saying it could be several days before the power is back on in parts of the city. Hydro-Ottawa said this is the largest power outage the city has seen since the 1998 Ice Storm.
About 100,000 customers of Ontario’s Hydro One utility were affected by the storm. As of 2:30 Saturday afternoon, there were 112 outages affecting 10,500 customers in the area surrounding Ottawa.
Hydro-Québec reported that 200 crews were working to restore power to homes and businesses across the western portion of the province, but mostly in Gatineau. 100 outages were still being repaired in the city at 2:30 pm Saturday with hundreds more in outlying rural areas and around Montreal.
Severe weather can be a serious danger for large public events. The annual Beau’s Oktoberfest, a weekend of music, food, and craft beer, was just getting started on Friday afternoon at the fairgrounds in the village of Vankleek Hill Ontario, between Ottawa and Montreal. Organizers heard about the approaching weather system and the damage it had already caused and shut down the festival for the rest of the day before the storm hit.
Early reports estimate the tornado was a category F2 on the five-point Fujita scale. That means it had winds ranging from 113 to 157 miles per hour or 181 to 253 kilometers per hour.
The City of Ottawa has opened up community centers, schools, and public libraries for people needing shelter or assistance because their homes are without power and running water. In Gatineau, the city, Salvation Army, and Red Cross are providing similar assistance. Traffic lights are out in many areas of both cities, often creating traffic jams, especially due to many sightseers coming to survey the damage. Many gas stations and supermarkets are also closed due to power outages.