Residents from across Canada’s national capital region who were hit by Friday’s devastating tornadoes have started 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 home.
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, across the river from Ottawa.
While he escaped without injury when a tornado struck, 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. “The evidence is gone. So I don’t know how the situation can work out for me.”
John was one of many still struggling in the aftermath of Friday’s tornadoes, which devastated several communities on both sides of the Ottawa River.
On Monday, officials with Environment Canada confirmed that three twisters touched down in the capital region – updating previous reports that the damage was the result of just two tornadoes.
The newly discovered twister developed in Calabogie and was the weakest of the three, with winds of up to 175 kilometres per hour.
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 reconnected 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 Tuesday and the request to keep the roads clear would be lifted.
But hundreds of residents in Gatineau as well as the suburban community of Nepean and the Ontario village of Dunrobin, where whole homes were levelled by Friday’s twisters, were still reeling.
“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 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 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 a team of specialists was figuring out when the structures would be safe for return.
The mayor said housing is the most critical challenge for the city.
The strain clearly struck Payette.
“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 in advance of heavy 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 his neighbourhood, bringing towering pine trees down on roofs, and walls.
“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.
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 tornadoes, including two who were listed in critical condition. But an official did say there had been reports of additional chainsaw-related injuries and carbon-monoxide poisoning over the weekend.