The Day a Tornado (Or Two) Hit Ottawa

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“Did you know the French have a specific word for major power outages?”

“Really? What?”

Merde.”

There are events you know you will recall vividly years later—what you were doing, where you were, how you dealt with the situation.

I’m pretty sure Friday, September 21, 2018, will be remembered in Ottawa and around.

The first day of fall was very warm but windy. Environment Canada has issued a severe thunderstorm watch with strong wind gusts, but these weather statements are common enough in Ottawa, and Canada thrives on extreme weather warnings, so it was business as usual for most of us. I carried my yellow Breton fisherman raincoat for most of the day but it didn’t rain that much. I eventually dropped it off at home around 3:30 p.m. and changed to shorts. One more work-related errand and the week was over. I was planning to be home around 6 p.m.

“Feng? Yeah, I might need a ride…”

“But it’s pouring!”

“Which is why I’m calling you to say I may need a ride.”

“Where are you?”

“Not that far, on Merivale. I took shelter at the supermarket, I was on my way home. Oh… OH! Fuck, looks like we lost power.”

“Wait… Me too. Don’t move, I’ll call you back.”

Given the sheets of rain falling, I wasn’t going anywhere—except that since the power was out, customers were asked to leave the supermarket. I dashed to the library, also closing because of the situation.

Minutes before the Ottawa tornado, pouring on Merivale Road

Feng called me back.

“Sorry… the car in the garage and—”

“—since the power is out, the door opener doesn’t work,” I completed. “Never mind I’ll make it home. Looks like it’s not raining as hard now.”

I walked home, passing closed shops and confused drivers—negotiating Friday rush hour without traffic light is commuting on hard mode. On the way, I called my best friend who lives across the river, in Gatineau, Quebec. The power was out over there as well.

Walking home on Merivale minutes after the tornado

Walking home on Merivale minutes after the tornado

Walking home on Merivale minutes after the tornado

I was mildly annoyed. I had plans, you see. It had been a long busy week and I had three assignments to complete, plus an overdue grocery shopping trip, dinner prep, the usual weekend cleaning… at least I had gotten a head start on the laundry.

Oh, fuck. The laundry.

“Tell me you put the laundry in the drier,” I said as soon as I stepped in.

“Yep.”

“Phew.”

“Ten minutes ago. Yeah, I know. But I managed to open the garage’s door!”

Mark gave me a tour of the home without power. “See? No light in the bathroom! No light in the kitchen! No light in the fridge!”

Fuck, the fridge.

As backpackers, we’re used to deal with unpredictable events and somewhat rough situations. I can live without convenient appliances like a fridge, a stove or a microwave. We’re used to taking cold showers and we dealt with water supply issues a few times on the road. We know how to find food when nothing is open around, we can survive without a car, sleep pretty much anywhere and pack what we need and run away if needed.

But we don’t have that much experience with power outages lasting more than an hour or two. On top of my head, I can only think of two instances where we had no power—in Tulum, Mexico (and we were on board with the idea of sleeping in a bare cabaña on the beach) and in Shenyang, China (the outage was somewhat planned so we prepared for it).

“So, what do we do?”

“Mark’s gotta eat. Let’s go to my parent’s place, I think they are on a different power grid.”

My in-laws are in China right now, but we have the keys to their place. I was soaked so I changed, then we packed the laptop, chargers and USB cables. Top priorities? Food, charging devices and getting info.

Driving around, looking for food and power after the tornado

Driving around, looking for food and power after the tornado

Driving around, looking for food and power after the tornado

Driving around, looking for food and power after the tornado

Driving around, looking for food and power after the tornado

It’s only when I checked Twitter on my phone—20% battery left—in the car that I realized the situation was actually serious. Two tornadoes had ripped through Ottawa and Gatineau, wiping out neighbourhoods and power across the National Capital Region.

“Feng… This is the road to your parent’s suburb. No way they still have power. It’s not even safe to drive around right now, at night, without traffic lights.”

The power was out everywhere. At one point, we saw the Bayshore Shopping Centre from the freeway. Light!

This is where we ended up at 8 p.m. This neighbourhood had been spared, for some reason. I plugged in my laptop at the food court while the guys were queuing for takeout. A seemingly endless stream of people kept on pouring in despite the late hour and the fact the mall was, in theory, closing at 9 p.m.

I connected to the Wi-Fi network and monitored the situation on Twitter.

I was cold, tired but I wasn’t hungry—or rather, I wasn’t craving anything from the mall food court. I knew I’d pay for my French culinary snobbery later. I had leftovers in the fridge, but nothing to warm them up.

Like most Canadians, we have an “emergency supply” at home, mostly in case we can’t make it to the supermarket because we’re sick or because of the weather—bottled water, a frozen pizza, soup cans, tuna cans, and let’s not forget about the 50-pound bag of rice at the bottom of the pantry.

“I can make oatmeal… oh, wait, no. Fine, toasts and… damn, no.”

Turns out we don’t stock up on the kind of food that can be eaten cold.

We stopped by WalMart to buy batteries and we drove home.

Charging devices at Bayshore’s food court, tired…

Any hope the power was back on was short-lived. The city was pitch black, and so was our neighbourhood. Even the Tim Horton at the end of the street was closed, the “last-resort Timmies” that serves Iced Capps on Canada, hot chocolate on New Year’s Eve and power through ice storm, blizzards and a long list of major events.

Our residential neighbourhood, pitch dark

Candlelight at home

The kitchen at home

When the power is out, you immediately think, “damn, no lights!” Make sense. But in fact, this is probably the easiest aspect of the issue to deal with. A flashlight, a few candles and ta-da, the monsters are gone!

However, no power also means no heat, no hot water, no fridge… and that’s a bit more problematic.

Mark took his shower first, the water was still a little bit hot.

Our bedsheets were wet, still in the drier, and so was my “home outfit”. I promise to buy several sets of bed sheets like a responsible adult.

Then we all tried to sleep. Surely, the power would be back on in the morning… right?

No power, 11 p.m.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

17 Comments

  1. On the weather channel they showed the tornado, but didn’t say where it was in Québec. After that, I’ve heard that it was essentially Gatineau that has been hit, Ottawa seems to have only flood and power outage.
    Are you OK now?

    • All good, no damage here. We have power again, so that’s cool because power is… ahem, kind of useful. Bit of a mess around here though, today, many neighbourhoods still didn’t have power and supermarkets nearby are closed.

  2. I saw the news last night and immediately thought of you.. I’m still in a bit of a shock and hope you are all doing okay.
    Its scary to learn first hand how very dependable we are on power, logically we know it but experiencing it is quite eye opening
    Stay safe and well, I’ll be thinking of you

    • We are doing okay, thank you! No damage, just dealing with the effects of the event like everybody else. It was a crazy weekend but I’m sure I’ll see it as an interesting experience in a little while 😉

  3. Oh no! I hope you get your power restored soon.

    And yes, sometimes you realise that there are resources that we just take for granted. The last time I experienced a major power outage was in 2006 in Buffalo, when there was an ice storm in October, which caused very wet and heavy snow to fall and topple down trees who still had leaves on them. The city had no power for 6 days, and I realised I should have been stacking up on emergency food items better.

      • I was creative. On the first days I actually spent time in the university, which somehow had power. I slept in my lab sofa, only returning home to take a shower and make sure that everything looked alright. Then I had some friends who had their power restored before me, and offered to take me in. It was a crazy week but somehow we survived!

  4. Our power came back Saturday night. At first not having power was fun, like an adventure. We’re used to it on the boat. But by Saturday afternoon, I wanted to charge my phone and have a hot shower. Don’t even get me started on the fact that we couldn’t use the toilet (in the basement). I definitely did a happy dance when everything came back on. Hopefully you didn’t have any work to do! When did you finally get power back?

    • Same, Saturday night. We were lucky, the other side of the neighbourhood (including Starbucks) didn’t have power until Sunday night. I tried to text/email on Saturday but I couldn’t reach you, the network was super patchy.

  5. We had a few longish power cuts when I still lived in Fernie (several hours) but never as long as you guys!
    It really shows you how much we rely on it… and I should have a contingency plan as well now that I live on my own.
    To be an adult

      • I don’t either lol Well I did but I don’t anymore now that I’m on my own.
        The new man in my life looked a little shocked (he’s very organized, and a full grown adult, very refreshing for me after the man child) when I told him, but once he saw the logic in washing and drying it the same days (yes I wash it) he relaxed haha

  6. In Brazil it happened so often that I always had half a dozen candles ready in the kitchen. But then, the kitchen stove was gas, not electric, so we could still warm up our food if needed. As for internet, well, power or not it was inconstant anyway. Over here we get used to have everything working great all the time, so when it doesn’t (not very often), we feel the paaaain! lol

    • We always have candles too as well as flashlights. The funny thing was, no lights wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean, it’s not like we live in a huge pitch dark castle… it was not being able to cook, have hot water, etc.

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