OTTAWA – The remains of totalled fences, blown-out windows and ripped-off roofs were scattered across a south-end neighbourhood in Ottawa on Thursday after a tornado hit with little warning.
After the skies had cleared, families sat out on their porches looking out at downed poles and uprooted trees as emergency services and hydro personnel worked to clear debris and restore power.
While residents described themselves as shaken and stressed-out, there were no deaths or serious injuries.
Environment Canada confirmed that at least one tornado had hit the Ottawa area just after noon on Thursday in Half Moon Bay, a neighbourhood in the Barrhaven suburb.
Later on Thursday, it confirmed that a tornado also touched down in Mirabel, Que., north of Montreal. It said no injuries or damage had been reported.
Another as-yet unconfirmed tornado was suspected to have hit an area with no built infrastructure southwest of Montreal in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Que., also causing no damage.
In Barrhaven, about 125 homes were damaged, said Kim Ayotte, the general manager of emergency and protective services for the City of Ottawa.
He told reporters late in the afternoon that most of the damage involved roofs being ripped off homes, broken windows and damage from falling trees.
“It’s a variety of damage, from small damage to quite substantial damage,” he said.
He said only one minor injury had been reported involving someone who sustained a cut to their foot.
Monica Vaswani, a warning preparedness meteorologist at Environment Canada, said several funnel clouds were reported in the Ottawa area Thursday afternoon but only one tornado had been confirmed as of mid-afternoon.
The community is about 22 kilometres south of Parliament Hill in the city’s rapidly growing south end. The area includes detached homes and townhouses built in just the last few years.
Vaswani said the tornado has been confirmed through videos posted to social media that show debris being “lofted and rotated.”
An expert from the Northern Tornadoes Project at Western University in London, Ont., is heading to the area to help determine the speed of the tornado, she said.
Laurie Gillespie told The Canadian Press that her 82-year-old mother and her sister were at the home they share on Watercolours Way when her sister noticed a storm coming in and stepped outside to pull in a chair so it wouldn’t blow away.
“Just as she came back inside, the back window blew in and the screen came flying across the room and landed at my mother’s feet,” said Gillespie.
The home, which Helen Feltham has lived in for three years, sustained significant damage. The windows in the living room, bathroom and bedroom all blew in, strewing glass everywhere, while much of the roof was torn off.
“The curtains on the bathroom window were sucked right out and they ended up on the roof,” said Gillespie, who was not at the home at the time.
She said she lives about 15 minutes away and drove over as soon as she got the call that the storm had happened. By the time she got there, the streets were already flooded with emergency responders and even a representative from the developer that is building homes in the neighbourhood.
He was comforting her mother, holding her close and gently telling her it was over.
“She is extremely shaken,” said Gillespie, who brought her mother away from the area to her own home.
Gillespie said there is damage for about a two- to three-block radius around her mother’s home. Some roofs were ripped apart, and foam blocks used as insulation in the attics exploded.
“It was literally snowing Styrofoam outside,” she said.
There were also many downed trees and some damaged hydro poles in the area.
Nearby streets Merak Way and Umbra Place were also in bad shape on Thursday afternoon.
Deepak Singh, who has a rental property on Merak Way, said he will have to relocate a family that has two children while damages to the house are being repaired.
He speculated that the repairs could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Between losing out on rent, insurance deductibles and paying for temporary accommodations for his tenants, he said he expects to lose something like $10,000 in the immediate future.
“It’s very stressful,” said Singh. “But people are safe.”
On Wednesday, Environment Canada had warned that Thursday’s weather could bring the possibility of severe thunderstorms that could produce tornadoes. At 12:28 p.m., the weather agency issued a tornado warning for a large swath of eastern Ontario.
Gillespie said the tornado hit her mother’s home sometime between 12:30 and 12:45 p.m.
Emergency alerts were issued by the cellphone network at around 12:49 p.m.
Ottawa police asked individuals to avoid the Barrhaven area and stay away from downed power lines. Firefighters and gas company workers from Enbridge were visiting affected homes, checking for damage, confirming the safety of occupants and shutting down gas lines.
Ayotte said the gas lines were being turned off for safety reasons but there were no reports of gas leaks.
Hydro Ottawa said on Twitter that more than 1,600 homes and businesses were without power Thursday afternoon. It said power in the neighbourhood was expected to be restored by 7 p.m. ET.
A family reunification centre was established at a nearby recreational complex, but by late afternoon only five families had taken advantage of it. The city said it would remain open as needed, including overnight if affected residents needed it.
Police and journalists took cover there when a second tornado warning was issued for the area at around 2:45 p.m., but no additional tornadoes were spotted.
Ottawa has been hit with a string of severe storms in recent years. In September 2018, six tornadoes touched down in several places in the Ottawa area as well as across the river in Gatineau, Que.
Dozens of homes were damaged and 25 people were injured. One tornado struck a city power station cutting power to about half the city’s homes, some for several days.
In May 2022 the city was hit hard by a derecho, a long, straight line of storms with winds often in excess of 100 km/h, that damaged dozens of homes and toppled power lines like matchsticks. Power outages again stretched across large swaths of the city and some weren’t restored for several weeks.
– With files from Thomas MacDonald and Stephane Blais.
Feature image: A resident looks out a window of a damaged homes following a tornado in the Ottawa suburb of Barrhaven on Thursday, July 13, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick