A year after a large wind storm tore through the region, the city continues to clean up the mess it left behind.
Meteorologists dubbed it a derecho, the Spanish word for “straight.” More common to the U.S. Midwest, a derecho is a group of fast-moving thunderstorms that spans a great distance. Unlike tornadoes with their twisting winds, derechoes move in straight lines.
The storm struck southeastern Ontario and southwestern Quebec on May 21. Gusts of up to 190km/h battered everything in its path, turning forests into trash heaps, taking down power lines, ripping roofs off homes, and injuring many bystanders. Across the region 11 people were killed, including two from the Ottawa area.
According to the National Capital Commission (NCC), rising temperatures could mean that more wind storms like the 2022 derecho are coming. Their experts found that by 2041, wind storms above 60km/h could occur 16 times a year, and wind gusts above 80km/h will hit the region once or twice per year. Since 2018, residents have lived through three tornadoes. But the 2022 derecho was the strongest wind storm to ever pass through the area.
The city deployed cleanup crews to pick up fallen trees from streets and parks; community centres opened their doors to those seeking food and water. But the long-lasting effects have many wondering about the efficiency of Ottawa’s storm management plans. Residents want more proactive solutions to limit the impact of the city’s next major storm.
The derecho left many of Ottawa’s green spaces unrecognizable.
“Immediately after the storm, it was all hands on deck,” said Tracey-Lee Schwets, who works in the forest management branch of the city’s public works department. Contractors and 600 city workers got to work removing fallen trees. By September, the city had spent $9 million to remove debris, plant new trees on city property, repair broken infrastructure, and reimburse community centres that supported residents. According to a fall memo, the city plans to spend an additional $6.25 million on those projects, plus $4.25 million to repair municipal buildings damaged in the storm. Schwets noted that damage estimates do not account for forested areas or private properties, which would increase the count by thousands more.
Last May, former mayor Jim Watson said the province agreed to cover Ottawa’s cleanup costs, but according to Stittsville councillor Glen Gower, the city has not yet received those funds. Schwets predicted that the city’s cleanup initiatives would continue well into the summer — at an additional cost she was not able to estimate — and said that particular attention will be paid to putting the right tree in the right place.
Martha Copestake, a forester with the city, said many of the trees that were uprooted by the storm were species that have shallow roots, which tend to be more vulnerable to the effects of strong winds. To ensure that future wind storms do not further threaten Ottawa’s trees, Copestake said her team will ensure the locations are hospitable. “You can’t just stick a tree in the ground and not pay attention to what’s underneath,” said Copestake.
Copestake also said the city would continue to maintain and assess the health of existing trees throughout the year to improve the resiliency of the urban forest
“Trees are such a fundamental part of building a healthy and vibrant city, and humans that live in cities need trees,” said Copestake. Even though many trees were lost, the experience has only invigorated the city’s planting efforts. She said more trees could counteract the effects of rising temperatures in the long term. “It’s
something that we have to keep doing.”
Hydro Ottawa deemed the 2022 derecho the most destructive storm to hit Ottawa since the 1998 ice storm. Thousands of residents were without power for up to 10 days after the weather event took down 500 hydro poles.
Chandra Pasma, MPP for Ottawa West—Nepean, described the lengthy outages as “a human rights disaster” at a city council committee meeting. Pasma was there to build support for a bill called the Protecting Human Rights in an Emergency Act, which would require high-rise residential buildings to install generators in order to keep at least one elevator working. It would also require landlords to keep the emergency lights on and the water running.
Pasma said the storm inspired her to help create the bill. During the blackouts, many disabled persons could not exit their apartments for days because the elevators were not running. It was especially disastrous for people in buildings that didn’t have functional water systems during the power outage. According to Pasma, one woman who could not leave her apartment is now storing buckets of water around her apartment, just in case another big storm comes.
Despite some support at city hall, MPPs in Queen’s Park voted against the bill on Feb. 22. They said they did not want to inadvertently make housing more expensive.
Councillor Sean Devine for Knoxdale—Merivale, who is a member of the city’s emergency preparedness committee, said he didn’t think the extra measures would lead to rent increases. He views this requirement as a fulfillment of tenant rights, comparing it with mandatory emergency sprinkler systems. The province was compelled to create and enforce this requirement to ensure human safety was prioritized over developers’ bottom lines.
Devine said he will stick with efforts to “prevent vulnerable residents from being stranded in the case of an extended power outage.” He suggested an additional set of voluntary guidelines for installing backup power systems in residential buildings, similar to what the city of Toronto has developed. Those guidelines specify that a generator should have enough power for lights and at least one elevator; they also include details about how generators can be used to help with tenant evacuation and first-responder operations. He said it would be wise for Ottawa to require multi-unit residential buildings to install an external hook-up for generators, and acquire a fleet of its own that could be used during lengthy blackouts.
Apartment tenants were not the only ones to struggle through the blackout. Restaurants and grocery stores in every corner of the city had to throw out spoiled food because they could not keep their fridges and freezers running.
Romil Patel, co-owner of Kanata’s Freshii grocery store, said his store lost power for 72 hours after the derecho. He lost three days of business and $2,000 worth of food because he had no power to keep his fridge cool. Patel’s insurance company reimbursed him for the losses. Despite the temporary disruption, Patel does not want to invest in an emergency generator. “This does not happen that often. This is rare.”
Though Patel plans to take his chances with future weather events, not every business owner is comfortable with that risk. Jim Foster, the owner of Pelican Seafood Market and Grill in Alta Vista, has a plan. Even though his store did not lose electricity during the derecho, if it ever does, his team will transfer its fresh goods to one of its suppliers who is equipped with backup generators.
“When we saw the length of the outages […] we felt this would be the best thing to do,” said Foster, who wanted to buy a backup generator for the restaurant but reconsidered once he learned of the $100,000 price tag.
Over in Stittsville, where residents experienced 10-day outages, Gower said he would not want to force businesses to buy generators. He said it should be up to businesses to decide their course of action.
However, in the neighbouring city of Clarence-Rockland, Mayor Mario Zanth said he would like to explore the idea of mandatary emergency generators for grocery stores. “If history teaches us anything about the future, it’s that the planet is getting hotter, storms are moving north, and they’re becoming more powerful,” he said.
In his town, the storm destroyed more than 200 hydro poles and left all of their grocery stores and gas stations in the dark.
Zanth would also like to require new essential businesses to install emergency generators, and said it is crucial to have operational gas stations during blackouts so that those living in rural areas can travel to access services like hospitals and stores.
“The Ottawa area was never known as a tornado alley. We’ve had tornadoes in the past, but now they’re more frequent,” he said. “We can’t do anything to stop that, but we can be better prepared.
The derecho was not Devine’s first wind storm. The councillor lives in Trend Arlington, which was devastated by the 2018 tornado. Even though he expressed frustration with the increasing frequency of natural disasters in the capital region, he also said that residents and the city alike are becoming more equipped to bounce back from extreme weather events.
Gower echoed that sentiment. He said the derecho encouraged many residents in his ward to prepare themselves for future wind storms. Gower has since prepared staff by creating an emergency kit including physical copies of city maps, emergency contacts, and a step-by-step guide for what to do during a major storm. He also said he would ensure his staff is first-aid certified.
Devine noticed that compared to the 2018 tornado he and his neighbours approached the post-derecho cleanup calmly. When he was confronted with the post-storm mess, he picked up a chainsaw and helped clean up fallen trees.
“My entire neighbourhood had already experienced the trauma [that comes with a] natural disaster,” he said. “So when the derecho hit, […] we were a little bit more prepared to handle it because we had already been through a massive cleanup.”
Based on his experience, Devine suggested Ottawa residents better understand how to handle post-storm cleanups. In addition to experiential knowledge, the councillor suggested every resident take time to hone their emergency preparedness skills so that the city can better recover from natural disasters.