Sarah Reid stood surrounded by fallen bricks, branches and shingles in her front yard on Tuesday as she surveyed the damage from a deadly weekend storm that barreled through much of Ontario, leaving many residents still waiting for power to be restored.
The Uxbridge, Ont., woman has been without hydro since Saturday, her cherished garden is destroyed, and her home has been damaged.
“It’s not ever going to be normal again,” she said as she stood in her yard where much of the roof of a nearby church had landed.
Reid said she didn’t receive a cellphone alert about the storm but heard some of the warning on the radio shortly before it hit.
“The sky went black. There was a great whooshing, roaring, screaming, howling. Suddenly there was a crash,” she recalled.
A tree snapped in her front yard, breaking the window she had been standing near. Another smashed into her patio, while winds sent tiles flying off the roof and debris crashing into her yard.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I thought, ‘oh, it’s a big storm.’ There’s been big storms before but nothing like that,” she said.
Uxbridge, along with the communities of Clarence-Rockland and the Township of Greater Madawaska, east and west of Ottawa, declared states of emergencies after the storm. At least 10 people in Ontario and Quebec died as a result of the severe weather on Saturday.
Down the street from Reid’s home, bricks from the nearby church were scattered on the ground while uprooted trees were seen all through the area.
The area around Uxbridge’s historic train station was particularly hard hit. One home in that neighbourhood that was taped off and appeared to have been ripped from its foundation. Another home’s backyard was a sea of downed trees on Tuesday and a team worked to clean the mess.
Scott Crone watched as contractors fixed the roof of his beloved family home in the badly hit neighbourhood.
“A tree’s on my garage and my whole house is now leaning,” said Crone, whose family has spent the past few days staying with friends and relatives.
“We spent the last 25 years putting our blood, sweat and tears into (this home) … it’s heartbreaking.”
In Uxbridge and across parts of Ontario where the storm left its mark, crews were working to remove trees from roadways, repair powerlines and fix damaged property.
Provincial provider Hydro One said Tuesday afternoon that more than 142,000 customers were still without power, while Hydro Ottawa said it had 74,000 customers without service around midday.
“We anticipate having everyone restored over the course of the next several days,” Hydro One spokeswoman Tiziana Baccega Rosa said in an interview.
Hydro One said the damage from the storm included more than 1,400 broken poles, 300 broken crossarms and nearly 200 damaged transformers as well as “countless trees.”
In Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson said “most” customers still without power should have service restored within the next two to three days. But he warned it will be several weeks before the storm damage is fully cleaned up.
Watson said people should stay home if possible to keep roads clear and told gawkers looking to take photos of some of the worst-damaged areas to stay away. Nobody needs “storm tourists” getting in the way, he said.
Joseph Muglia, director of system operations and grid automation for Hydro Ottawa, said the damage in Ottawa is “catastrophic” with three times as many hydro poles destroyed by the storm, compared with the 80 poles taken out by tornadoes in 2018.
“This level of infrastructure replacement would commonly require about six months to complete,” he said. “We’re performing it within a matter of days.”
Muglia said there may be a handful of individual customers who aren’t back on the grid this week because of damage to their direct lines but couldn’t say how many or when they’d be restored.
A 2019 climate vulnerability study done for Hydro Ottawa warned that storms with winds above 120 kilometres an hour posed an extremely high risk for the city’s power grid.
Hydro staff said north-south power lines were “particularly vulnerable” to high winds, and that played out in real time Saturday when many buckled and toppled along multiple arteries in the city, many of which remain closed Tuesday.
Muglia said such risk assessments are a mainstay of Hydro Ottawa’s capital planning.
“We’re certainly always looking at alternatives for our poles, for our infrastructure, looking at more robust equipment,” he said. “But it it’s a balance, it’s a very delicate balance between trying to storm harden, but also providing the right equipment for what it’s intended for, and the environment that it’s intended for.”
Joanna Eyquem, managing director of climate-resilient infrastructure for the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, said efforts to slow climate change mean we are becoming more reliant on electricity and it is more important than ever to safeguard the power grid against major breakdowns.
“We can’t have everything kind of falling apart because we have power outages as well because it just makes us less resilient,” she said.
Eyquem said ensuring transmission lines are not at risk of being hit by falling trees or wayward branches is one relatively easy measure to take, but she also noted there is no requirement in Canada for utilities to undertake a climate risk assessment. Some have, but she said power companies in the United Kingdom have to provide reports on what they are doing to adapt to a changing climate.
Meteorologists have dubbed Saturday’s storm a derecho – a widespread, long-lived windstorm associated with rapidly moving thunderstorms.
Derechos are uncommon in Canada but with hotter weather expected in the years to come, these kinds of storms are likely to become more frequent, said Eyquem.
Saturday’s storm triggered an alert on the National Public Alerting System, a decision a spokeswoman for Environment Canada said was made based on specific criteria, including a tornado warning, or severe thunderstorms with wind gusts above 130 kilometres an hour.
A severe thunderstorm warning was issued by Environment Canada through its normal channels but not on the Alert Ready system, at 11:08 a.m. Saturday morning.
The wind in Saturday’s storm hit more than 130 kilometres an hour in Kitchener, Ont. Around lunchtime and at 12:30 Environment Canada meteorologists sent the severe thunderstorm warning out by the Alert Ready system. It was repeated in additional areas over the next six hours as the storm moved east.
– with files from John Chidley-Hill
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2022.
Noushin Ziafati in Uxbridge, Ont., and Mia Rabson in Ottawa, The Canadian Press