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The Day a Tornado (Or Two) Hit Ottawa

“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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