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Real Estate Ottawa homeowners ready to rebuild after September’s tornadoes

Arthur Jian stands in front of his home in Ottawa, on April 13, 2019.

Justin Tang

Six months after one of the worst natural disasters in Ottawa’s history, the only part of Arthur Jian’s garage still standing is the door. Even though whole of the garage is gone, ironically, the door remains shut.

“The insurance company said it would repair the house,” Mr. Jian says, “but the garage they’ll rebuild, because, well, it’s gone.”

Mr. Jian lives In Ottawa’s Craig Henry neighbourhood, about 20 minutes from downtown. It was one of six parts of the greater Ottawa area – including Gatineau, Que. and Calabogie, Ont. – that were hit by tornadoes in September.

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The tornadoes swept violently through Ottawa late in the day on Sept. 21, 2018, and resulted in six people taken to hospital. The largest tornado – estimated to be 500 metres wide – had wind speeds of between 240 kilometres an hour and 260 km/h and hit areas of Kinburn and Dunrobin in Ontario and Pontiac and Gatineau in Quebec. The tornado that hit the Arlington Woods and Craig Henry neighbourhoods had sustained wind speeds of 220 km/h.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said at the time the tornadoes were “in the top two or three major traumatic events that have affected our city.”

But Mr. Jian says life is returning to some semblance of normal these days, although he, along with many others impacted by the record-setting storms are still waiting on insurance claims to be pushed through and construction to begin after a rough winter in Ottawa. The city had snow cover of at least one centimetre of snow for more than 144 straight days, a record.

Howard Jian, 11, rides past his family's home. The Jians were forced to move into a rental property after the house was destroyed by a tornado.

Justin Tang

Mr. Jian says he was home alone with his dog at the time of the storm – his wife and young son were at a swimming lesson, while his mother-in-law, who also lives in the house they purchased in 2005, was not home – and heard something “like a train approaching.”

The whole house was shaking, he says, and when he looked out his front window he saw his porch and front entrance was gone. Insulation, he says, was flying all over the place. After the storm, which lasted only 45 seconds, had ended, he went outside to see his garage had disappeared. His home had been sideswiped by a tornado.

“When I went out of the house I saw … the whole street was damaged badly. Someone’s pick-up truck was moved almost 15 metres away,” Mr. Jian says. “We got hit pretty bad, but my house got hit the worst.”

Windows were blown out and the roof of Mr. Jian’s house remains covered in a blue tarp. The backyard fence is gone and plywood covers most of the front entrance and the whole side of the house where the garage once stood.

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Mr. Jian got on the phone with his insurance company right away, which advised him to find a long-term rental. The family spent a few nights at a friends’ house before spending a month at a hotel in Kanata, Ont. They’ve since found a rental home in the nearby Centrepointe neighbourhood and will be there for the rest of 2019.

The storm blew the roof off of the Jians' garage and lifted the roof of the main home, causing significant water damage.

Justin Tang

Mr. Jian says his family didn’t even bother to try to find any of the contents of the garage and he’s going back-and-forth with his insurance company on a 46-page document to try to confirm everything that was missing or damaged.

He’s long accepted the fact that he won’t be returning to his home for the balance of the year and points to the lack of construction resources as the problem.

“We are limited in the amount of people to do work,” he says.

But despite the biggest natural disaster on record, it hasn’t impacted the real-estate market in the neighbourhoods of either Dunrobin or Arlington Woods/Craig Henry. They remain as strong as ever – a reflection of Ottawa as a whole, which, according to a recent Royal LePage study, is now the fourth most-expensive city to buy a home in Canada, jumping Calgary for the first time after a first-quarter increase in average price by 7.7 per cent – and showing no signs of slowing down.

Asked whether buyers have been “turned off” by the tornadoes, Kanata-based Innovation Reality sales representative Mary Lou Donohue said she had seen no such sign.

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“They see it as a real fluke. … Something that could have happened at any neighbourhood.”

Howard Jian was at a swimming lesson when the tornado hit the house.

Justin Tang

Ms. Donohue says buyers in the Dunrobin area were more concerned about the significant flooding of the Ottawa River in 2017 than the tornado.

Fourteen homes were sold in Dunrobin and neighbouring Dunrobin Shores in the fourth quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018. A year later in the same time frame, 18 homes were sold. In the first quarter of 2018 only one home was sold in Arlington Woods, while three have been sold in the first quarter of 2019.

“Are people concerned about [the tornado]? I think the numbers would tell us they’re not,” Ms. Donohue says.

Although home sales have increased and the numbers are turning positive, the negative impact the tornadoes had on people such as Mr. Jian and Ben Rousseau and his family will be felt for much longer.

Mr. Rousseau and his family of now five are still trying to pick up the pieces of their past life. The “For Sale” sign posted on the lawn of their house when the tornado hit was later found 125 kilometres away on a farm in rural Quebec.

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The Rousseau family was going to move to Carp, Ont. in a custom-built house, but now they are going to return to Dunrobin – hopefully by Christmas. Right now, only the foundation to their old house remains.

He says the builder of the house in Carp, Doyle Homes, refunded them the whole amount they had paid up to the point of the tornado. Grape Vine Realty, Inc., who they listed their home with, also refunded them the full amount for their listing.

But dealing with insurance, he says, has become the equivalent of another full-time job.

“In certain situations I could start an e-mail and three hours go by just trying to get stuff planned out and organized with insurance and contractors. And we’re not even in the building phase,” he says. “It’s been a lot of babysitting on their end. The amount of e-mails I’ve written and phone calls I’ve been on is worse than my job.”

He says his neighbours have otherwise been satisfied with the recovery process so far, despite the long road ahead. They started a Facebook group to share stories and residents of the community have never been closer.

Mr. Rousseau says his family actually got the old “For Sale” sign back from the farmers in Quebec and with a laugh he says they might frame it. It’s a memory they’d like to forget, but can’t.

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As with Mr. Jian’s home in Craig Henry, the Rousseau family house will be kept mostly the same when it’s redone. Mr. Rousseau says the only update will be to add a fourth bedroom to accommodate their new daughter, born three months after the tornado.

“Then hopefully,” Mr. Rousseau says, “we can move on."

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