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Disaster

Cleanup underway after storm leaves at least nine dead, thousands without power

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OTTAWA — Emergency crews rushed to restore power and clear roads on Sunday a day after a deadly and destructive storm swept across southern Ontario and Quebec, though officials cautioned that some of the outages could take days to resolve.

The true human toll of Saturday’s storm is still unclear, but police in Ontario reported seven people killed by falling trees in locations across the province during the storm Saturday, and an eighth killed by a falling tree branch in the storm’s aftermath on Sunday.

Police reports on the various deaths suggest victims were doing everything from camping to playing golf to taking weekend strolls when they were killed.

A ninth person died Saturday when the boat she was in capsized on the Ottawa River near Masson-Angers, Que.

The storm tore through southern Ontario and Quebec in a matter of hours, breaking hydro poles and toppling towers, uprooting trees, and ripping shingles and siding off houses.

Several people reported their backyard trampolines were tossed around like feathers, taking out fences like dominoes and landing many houses away. Others are facing extensive home repairs as trees crashed through roofs and windows.

Environment and Climate Change Canada meteorologist Gerald Cheng said the storm measured winds up to 132 kilometres an hour, marking the first time a thunderstorm was severe enough to trigger an emergency alert broadcast.

Cheng said the storm itself looks to have been what is called a derecho.

“When they say derecho, it’s widespread, long-lived wind storms that are associated with rapidly moving thunderstorms, and that seems to be what we had yesterday,” he said. “Because when you look at the damage, that was widespread, it wasn’t just one track.”

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said at a news conference late Sunday afternoon that the storm’s impact is affecting every corner of his city.

“Yesterday’s storm was fast and violent,” he said. “It ravaged really the entire city.”

And while he sympathized with residents struggling to cope without power, he warned they may not see it restored for three or four more days.

“This has been a very, very difficult 24-hour period,” he said. “We don’t have clear sight as to when everyone will get their power back.”

Watson said the city didn’t need to declare a state of emergency because that mainly allows it to override procurement processes and that’s not necessary right now.

But widespread damage did compel the Ontario towns of Uxbridge, north of Toronto, and Clarence-Rockland, east of Ottawa, to declare states of emergency.

Uxbridge Mayor Dave Barton said the downtown core sustained significant damage, including to several residential buildings and a brewery. But he said power outages and downed phone lines are causing the most distress.

Internet networks and cellular service were down in many locations.

The damage to the power grid is extensive and complicated, hydro utilities reported Sunday.

“Between trees, branches, broken poles and wires down, it’s really a very very messy messy cleanup,” said Hydro One spokeswoman Tiziana Baccega Rosa.

Hydro One said in a news release late Sunday that crews had restored power to 360,000 customers, but 226,000 were still without electricity.

It said that in the Ottawa area, its crews were building a temporary bypass after four transmission towers were toppled by the storm.

Joseph Muglia, director of system operations and grid automation at Hydro Ottawa, said only about 5,000 customers had their power restored Sunday, leaving more than 170,000 still in the dark.

He said more than 200 hydro poles were damaged beyond repair, many snapped in half by the force of the winds. A truck was loaded with replacement poles Sunday and was on its way to the city, but he warned the repairs are complicated and the utility hasn’t finished assessing the situation yet.

It has been less than four years since this many customers lost power in Ottawa, but the tornadoes in that September 2018 storm caused more localized damage. The tornadoes led to about 200 unique outages and most were fixed within 36 hours. On Sunday Hydro Ottawa was still dealing with more than 550 unique outages.

Power to the city’s water treatment plant was restored late Sunday afternoon, one of the priority repairs for Hydro Ottawa. Muglia said the Ottawa airport should be back on grid power before the end of the day.

The City of Ottawa has opened nine respite sites at community centres and areas for people to charge their devices, take showers and, in some cases, access some food. The Salvation Army and Canadian Red Cross are aiding at many of the sites.

Across the provincial border, Hydro-Québec said the storm cut power to 550,000 customers from Gatineau to Québec City at its peak, while as of Sunday afternoon there were close to 350,000 customers still cut off.

Sophie Desjardins, who lives in Lachute, northwest of Montreal, posted a photo of what was left of her truck after a tree crashed on the vehicle while she was driving back home with her boyfriend.

“The sky turned so dark, and the wind was so intense,” Desjardins said on Sunday.

“We felt a huge impact and the window shattered … When we saw the condition of the truck, we realized we had gotten pretty really lucky. If the tree had fallen two seconds earlier, it would have fallen directly on us … The furniture that was in the back of the truck was completely destroyed.”

David Sills, executive director of the Northern Tornadoes Project at Western University, said wind speeds could have reached much higher than already reported, given the concentrated damage.

“We’re seeing evidence of some damage, such as roofs off and hydro towers crumbled, that kind of thing that gets more into … 180 to 220 kilometres per hour,” he said.

He said teams from the project have gone to the Uxbridge area as well as to southern Ottawa over suspicions that they could have been hit by tornadoes or elevated winds.

The last derecho storm to hit the region with such strong wind speeds was back in 1995, said Sills.

“This is a fairly rare event in Canada where it’s just widespread wind damage over a long, long track and reaching wind speeds that are quite high.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2022.

— With files from Virginie Ann in Montreal.

Ian Bickis and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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Disaster

‘If there’d even been five minutes’ warning’: Woman questions storm alert system

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Bethany Armstrong watched as the sky turned a tint of green on Saturday afternoon.

The Peterborough, Ont., woman was out camping with friends in Lakehurst, Ont., at the time, so she checked a weather app on her phone and noticed a thunderstorm warning.

That was the only indication she said she had that a vicious storm was about to hit.

Armstrong said she never received the emergency alert that many Ontario residents got on their cellphones, warning them to seek shelter ahead of severe weather that ultimately killed 11 people.

One of those who died was a close friend of Armstrong’s family – Armstrong says that friend didn’t get the alert either.

“If there’d even been five minutes’ warning … she would have gotten inside,” Armstrong said of the woman she likened to her second mom.

Joanne Labelle, 64, of Cornwall, Ont., was among those killed as a result of the storm. She had been staying in a trailer on Armstrong’s parents’ property in the Peterborough area when the intense winds and rains hit.

Labelle’s husband and Armstrong’s father found Labelle struck by a tree – Armstrong said the family thinks Labelle had been trying to get from the trailer to a house on the property when she was hit.

Armstrong said her family and Labelle’s husband later checked Labelle’s cellphone, which was with her during the storm, but found no evidence of an alert.

“I just think like, ‘Wow, you know, if she had got the alert, we wouldn’t maybe be in this situation,'” Armstrong said, describing Labelle as a “smart” woman who loved the outdoors and would have taken a severe weather warning seriously.

Emergency alerts are issued in Canada through the Alert Ready system, which delivers critical alerts to Canadians through television, radio and LTE-connected and compatible wireless devices.

The system was developed with many partners, including federal, provincial and territorial emergency management officials, Environment and Climate Change Canada, weather information company Pelmorex Corp., the broadcasting industry and wireless service providers.

Cecelia Parsons, a spokesperson for Environment Canada, said “broadcast immediate” alerts are sent through the Alert Ready system for tornado warnings and severe thunderstorm warnings involving wind gusts of 130 kilometres per hour or greater and hail that is at least seven centimetres in diameter. Saturday’s storm was the first time such an alert for a thunderstorm was sent through the system, she said.

However, some residents may not have received an emergency alert on their smartphones for a number of reasons, including their phones not being “compatible,” Parsons said.

“This may occur for a variety of reasons: the phone is turned off or in silent or airplane mode; the phone is not physically in the specific area targeted for the alert; device compatibility, connection to an LTE network, cell tower coverage and device software and settings,” she said.

Martin Belanger, director of public alerting for Pelmorex, said smartphones need to be in the area where an emergency alert has been issued in order to receive an alert and also need to be connected to an LTE or 5G network — a requirement established by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

As of April 2019, the CRTC requires that new phones sold by Canada’s wireless carriers be compatible with the emergency alerting system, Parsons added.

Belanger said Environment Canada was responsible for issuing the emergency alerts on Saturday and Pelmorex received those alerts and made them available to broadcasters and wireless service providers.

He added that Pelmorex received “some” reports from the public about not getting an emergency alert during Saturday’s storm. When the company receives such reports, it shares that information with its partners, he said.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said that with 11 people dead, the early warning system didn’t work as well as it could have to protect residents from last weekend’s storm.

“I think there needs to be improvement,” Blair said on Friday from Indonesia, where he was attending international meetings on disaster risk and mitigation.

“When (there’s) information that Canadians need to take the steps in order to be safe, we need to make sure that they get that information.”

Blair said public education is also needed so Canadians know what to do when they receive such an alert. He also said the country’s public alerting system, controlled by provinces and territories, is applied “inconsistently.”

“The tragic loss of life and the damage that occurred in Ontario and Quebec over the past several days demonstrate to us that there is still more work to do, and we’re committed to doing that,” he said.

Armstrong, who made it through the storm last weekend by taking shelter in a nearby home, said she would like to see the Alert Ready system improved.

“I just hope that things can improve for the future and that they can get either a better system in place or adjust the criteria that has to be met,” she said as she remembered Labelle as a beloved matriarch and a mainstay at the pharmacy where she worked. “So we can try and help save other people.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2022.

– with files from Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa.

———

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press

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Disaster

Storm leaves at least nine dead, many powerless

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Tens of thousands of people remain without power after Saturday’s powerful storm that left at least nine dead and caused extensive damage throughout southern Ontario and Quebec.

Hydro utilities reported Sunday that the damage to the power grid is extensive and complicated, meaning even as crews worked around the clock to make repairs, it could still be days before the outages are resolved.

Hydro One said in a news release late Sunday that crews had restored power to 360,000 customers, but as of early Monday morning outages were still affecting more than 200,000 customers, while Hydro Ottawa reported more than 166,000 customers were still without power.

Across the provincial border, Hydro-Québec had nearly 1,450 outages affecting more than 237,000 customers

The storm tore through southern Ontario and Quebec in a matter of hours, breaking hydro poles and toppling towers, uprooting trees, and ripping shingles and siding off houses.

The total death toll from Saturday’s storm is still unclear, but police in Ontario reported seven people killed by falling trees in locations across the province during the storm Saturday, and an eighth killed by a falling tree branch in the storm’s aftermath on Sunday.

A ninth person died Saturday when the boat she was in capsized on the Ottawa River near Masson-Angers, Que.

David Sills, executive director of the Northern Tornadoes Project at Western University, said wind speeds could have reached much higher than 132 kilometres an hour reported by Environment and Climate Change Canada, given the concentrated damage.

The widespread damage prompted the Ontario towns of Uxbridge, north of Toronto, and Clarence-Rockland, east of Ottawa, to declare states of emergency.

Sills said teams from the project have gone to the Uxbridge area as well as to southern Ottawa over suspicions that they could have been hit by tornadoes or elevated winds.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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