Residents from across Canada’s national capital region who were hit hardest by Friday’s devastating tornados have started the difficult task of rebuilding their homes — and their lives.
Festus John worried about his future Monday in a Gatineau, Que., community centre that had been transformed into an emergency shelter for hundreds of people unable to return to their storm-ravaged homes.
The 35-year-old Christian man fled to the United States from Nigeria five years ago after marrying a Muslim woman and receiving threats against his life.
John was one of hundreds who crossed by land into Quebec in January in the hopes of seeking asylum in Canada. He only recently moved to Gatineau, a city just north of Ottawa.
While he escaped without injury when a tornado struck Gatineau, John’s home — and the documents that he needed for his upcoming refugee hearing — were not so lucky. High-speed winds tore off the roof and rain flooded the basement where he had been staying.
“I lost everything,” he said, adding that he will be expected to present documents supporting his story during his refugee hearing. But “the evidence is gone. So I don’t know how the situation can work out for me.”
John was only one of many still struggling in the aftermath of Friday’s tornados, which devastated several communities on both sides of the Ottawa River.
Life through much of the region appeared to be on the verge of returning to normalcy after a weekend in which hundreds of thousands of residents were without electricity. On Monday, hydro crews working around the clock in both provinces were able to reconnect power in most areas.
Schools in Ottawa were shuttered Monday and most federal civil servants stayed home as city staff contended with power outages at hundreds of traffic signals across the city.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said he expected schools to re-open in most areas and the request to keep the roads clear would be lifted.
Hundreds of residents, however, in Gatineau as well as the suburban community of Nepean in west Ottawa and the Ontario village of Dunrobin, where whole homes were levelled by Friday’s twisters, will feel the after-effects of the intense storms for the foreseeable future.
“This is a project that’s going to take months and months, if not a couple of years, to get all the houses up and built again,” Watson said Monday over the sound of chainsaws as he toured one of the most heavily damaged parts of Nepean.
“In some instances, I suspect, they’re going to have to tear them down because they are structurally unsound.”
The tornado that struck in Gatineau was largely centred on a part of the city featuring apartment buildings, many of which were populated by newcomers to Canada and low-income families.
Among them was 21-year-old Assag Mohamad, who had spent days in a shelter with his mother and siblings. The whole family had recently fled to Canada from Djibouti to escape ethnic fighting in the East African country.
He didn’t know when his family could return to their apartment.
“They say there is no electricity for the alarms and that the balconies could be weakened,” said Mohamad, who has been waiting for his permanent residency in the hopes of studying biology.
“Some power lines might be lying around too. So we cannot go back now.”
Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, who was touring the emergency shelter with Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, said about 600 people have been evacuated from the apartment buildings, and that the city had a special team specifically looking at the structures to ensure they are safe for return.
In the meantime, Pedneaud-Jobin said, housing will remain the most-critical challenge for the city in the short and long term, though he expressed confidence that the Canadian Red Cross and Gatineau’s experience with mass floods last year would help ensure a proper response.
While she praised the response in Gatineau, Payette acknowledged that there are residents who are facing severe strain because of their financial situations or a lack of family support.
“It breaks your heart,” she said. “We met some people who are completely new to the area. They don’t have any family. For them, the stress is very high. Then there are mothers of young children. There are many of them.”
Across the river in Dunrobin and Nepean, shaken residents were trying to clean up and repair homes and businesses as well as they could before the arrival of rain that was forecasted to start on Monday evening.
One of those was Paul Butler, whose home was among hundreds damaged when a tornado touched down in the picturesque Nepean neighbourhood of Arlington Woods, bringing towering pine trees down on roofs, flinging them through walls and leaving few still standing.
“We’re living in the basement right now until they tell us to get out,” Butler said as friends and family cleared piles of branches around the house, adding that the entire neighbourhood was worried about the coming rainfall.
Residents in Dunrobin were similarly working overtime, trying to salvage what they could even as the small rural community struggled to come to grips with what had just happened.
The Ottawa Paramedic Service did not have an update on six people reportedly injured in Friday’s tornados, including two who were listed in critical condition. But an official did say there had been reports of additional chainsaw-related injuries and cases of carbon-monoxide poisoning over the weekend.
Amid the devastation were touching moments and signs of neighbours coming together in a time of extreme need.
In Nepean, a group of volunteers walked from house to house offering soup, coffee and bottles of water. Businesses were offering to feed tired hydro workers. And in Gatineau, donations were flowing in even as many people at the shelter tried to remain upbeat despite the uncertainty ahead.
“We didn’t lose any lives, as far as I understand. But all the people from that area, they have gotten to know each other,” Corsini Alexander said with a smile as he stood outside the shelter.
“Some people did not speak to their neighbours. Now they’re speaking. So that’s a blessing.”
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press