Many of this year’s client newsletters include articles revolving around the theme of “memories.” Being on the front line of a tornado that hit Ottawa on Friday, September 21, 2018 is a memory that my family won’t soon forget.
Growing up in Ottawa, I’ve heard tornado warnings all of my life. It has always seemed, though, that the tornadoes that actually showed up hit relatively sparsely populated outlying areas or the upper parts of the Ottawa Valley. I can remember once or twice seeing in the news that a suburban home had a roof ripped off by a tornado.
So when we heard the warnings this time, we weren’t overly concerned. Besides, what could we do to prepare?
In the mid-afternoon, the storm had started and power was out in the West end of the city. Because we have a gas stove, our family had a mostly normal supper by candlelight. It was a bit of fun and a change from the everyday. We loaded up the dishwasher, got it ready to run, and sat around the table a while, talking and listening to the radio.
Around 5:50pm, my younger son (age 11) said, “Wow! It just started to rain really hard. There must be a tornado coming.” I turned to him and replied, “Just because there’s lots of rain, doesn’t mean there will be a tornado.” But he was soon proven right.
The Tornado Hits
About a minute after my denial, my family watched in amazement as the nearly 40-foot-tall tree on our lot was pushed back into our house. This tree was over two feet wide at the base and was leaning away from the house. Its top branches smashed one of the bedroom windows upstairs.
We all hurried toward the front of the house to see what was happening. Our heavy storm door was closed though the front door itself was open, typical for a warm day. The glass of the storm door blew in so, when I reached the front door, I closed it. By now, the rain was falling horizontally, beating against the front door and front window on the main floor of our house. I remember thinking how unusual it was, even in a strong storm, that any rain would reach the front door and window because they’re protected by an overhanging part of the roof that covers a porch nearly four feet wide ahead of them.
Glancing over at the front window, I saw a wave of water and debris pushing up against it. Again, I remember thinking, “It looks like a tree is trying to get into our house.” A few seconds later, that window blew in. Thankfully, our whole family was in the hallway next to that window but not in the room in front of it. Soon, we realized that the front-facing windows in the bedrooms upstairs had also blown in.
In about one minute, it was all over. The destruction had passed when our family hurried down to the basement. After waiting a few minutes down there with nothing happening, we went out to survey the damage. The scene that greeted us was post-apocalyptic.
Our quiet, suburban, residential street looked like it had been hit by a bomb. Just about every tree east of our house on our street was broken or fallen. Debris covered every square foot of our lot. There were tree limbs, leaves, siding, shingles, glass, plastic, wood fencing, and some of every other building material imaginable strewn on the lawn. Most of the vehicles near our house, including our own, had smashed windshields, dings, dents, scratches, and other body damage.
My wife came out and began to cry. She kept repeating, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?,” until I pointed out the house of our neighbour across the street; the roof had been lifted right off. That calmed her down immediately. The damage to our roof was largely cosmetic. No one in our family was hurt – miraculously, no one in our neighbourhood was killed and even the one injury that happened was not life-threatening.
The response from emergency services was excellent. Within a few minutes of the tornado’s passing, police were on the scene making sure that everyone was accounted for. Firefighters assessed the situation and shut down the gas supply to a few houses in the neighbourhood. Insurance companies authorized hotel stays, though our family remained at home after putting up plastic over broken windows.
The next couple of days, Saturday and Sunday, our street was lined with vehicles from contractors of all kinds. Of course, restoration and tree services figured most prominently. City vehicles were visible, too, as assessments were made of the most-urgent repairs needed to infrastructure.
What was most impressive, though, was the response from friends and from neighbours – even neighbours we’d never met before. People from adjoining streets who were less-affected went from house to house, raking and sorting through debris. Roving packs of men with chainsaws cut up fallen trees and dragged them into piles. The pile in front of our house, collected from our lot and a couple of others, ended up being about 20 feet long, 4 feet tall and 8 feet wide.
Women we didn’t know pressed food into our hands, saying it had just been made. We ended up sharing it with others because we had more than we could eat – but how do you refuse someone begging you to take what they’ve made out of such compassion?
My wife and I were concerned about our children in the wake of the storm. They aren’t particularly young (15, 12 and 11) but a disaster could leave hurtful memories. Happily, ours have taken it as an adventure. We camped out in our own home (no electricity) though we did have water for drinking and gas for cooking. There was shattered glass in many rooms that we had no way of cleaning up until power was restored the following Tuesday afternoon. Our kids took it as an opportunity to wear shoes in the house – which is normally forbidden.
My oldest son said, “I’ll always remember that all of these people came to help us.”
About the Author
Anil Balaram is Ideal Carpet Cleaning’s part-time Marketing Manager. Anil was raised in Ottawa and works full-time as a software engineer. He and his wife have three children.