Fear, Awe, and Insurance — reliving the tornadoes of September 2018
People & Places

Fear, Awe, and Insurance — reliving the tornadoes of September 2018

Mark MacDonald outside his home in the Craig Henry neighbourhood. Photo by Simon Gardner

Disbelief in Craig Henry: “To this day, I can’t believe no one was killed”

Mark MacDonald, a retired businessman, and his wife, Karen, a dentist, are among the many people who narrowly escaped injury when tornadoes swept across the region last September 21.

The couple live in the Craig Henry neighbourhood, between Greenbank Road and Woodroffe Avenue. That day, they arrived at their house around 4:45 p.m. By some twist of fate, they could not get into their home — neither of them happened to be carrying door keys. Usually they would just get in through the garage, but the garage door would not open because the power was already out.

“We decided, well, let’s go get a pizza,” says Mark.

Thunderstorms were forecast, so they decided to take their dog Bailey with them instead of leaving her in the backyard. While they split a small pizza at the nearby Big Rig restaurant, feeling guilty about leaving Bailey in the back seat as the rain pummelled down, they started hearing reports of tornadoes. Then they got a call from a neighbour saying they needed to come home right away.

When they got to their cul-de-sac, the sight was shocking. “It was just simply ‘Wow, are you kidding me? What happened to our beautiful home on our beautiful street?’ ”

As Mark got a closer look at their house on Craigmohr Court, he saw that the force of the tornado had sent an evergreen tree crashing through their front window — the exact spot where, Mark says, he would have been standing, enjoying a glass of wine, when the tornado hit. “We were very fortunate we were not home … if we were able to get into the house, I’m certain I would have been standing in that study window watching the storm come in.”

Mark adds that if they had left Bailey, a Cairn Terrier, in the backyard, the tornado would have killed her. “Our backyard was a disaster. She never would have survived, never.”

It has been many months since that fateful night, and the couple still marvel at their good fortune. But that sense of relief is now mixed with frustration at how long it’s taking to settle the insurance claim and rebuild. They had assumed the process would be well underway by Christmas, but by the time this issue went to press, the remains of the house were still standing. “And it looks now that we have absolutely zero chance of being in that house in 2019, none,” Mark says.

A number of neighbouring houses on Craigmohr Court were also damaged, but none as badly as the MacDonalds’. Their brick house didn’t stand a chance against the force of the tornado. Mark says the engineer they hired to assess the damage found that even the foundation needs replacing. “The tornado compromised about 80 per cent of the structure. There are cracks around the main structural beams, there are cracks in bricks all over the house, we are missing big pieces of roof,” he says.

There was no way they could continue living in the house, but he didn’t know the full extent of the damage until he consulted with people in the housing business. “I’ve known since the 20th of October that house was going to be a complete write-off,” he says.

By the middle of December, he had become so frustrated dealing with his insurance company that he hired an Ottawa law firm to negotiate the multi-million-dollar claim. “They were not returning emails, so I just turned it over to the lawyers.”

They are currently living in a rented house that the insurance company is paying for. “I’m sort of in this limbo. The big picture is that nobody was hurt, and we are grateful for that. Our cat, our dog, and our fish lived through this. My daughter was away at college. It’s just material stuff. It can all be replaced. But at the same time, it’s also very frustrating because you are trying to get on with your life.”

Dave Barstead owns the Produce Depot on Carling Avenue. Photo by Simon Gardner

Frustration at Produce Depot: “Why do we even bother getting that kind of insurance?”

David Barstead says he never took the threat of a tornado in Ottawa seriously. “I was told about the tornado watch in Ottawa. I said, ‘It’s probably not even going to touch down, and if it does, what is the chance it is going to hit us in this little community?’ ”

David and his wife live on the same cul-de-sac in Craig Henry as the MacDonalds.

“We were in Virginia. We have two boys going to school in Virginia. We went down to see them playing their opening hockey game.”

On September 21, he got a text from their 26-year-old daughter, who was worried about driving to Toronto because she had heard warnings about tornadoes. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Nothing ever comes of it.’ My other son was working, so he wasn’t at the house. So fortunately there was nobody home.”

The tornado pulled a stone wall 15½ inches from the garage and peeled back an 18-foot section of his roof. Amazingly, the plastic vapour barrier remained intact, so the interior of the house stayed dry. “We required a new roof. The wall had to be taken down immediately before it fell. We were afraid it might fall on somebody.”

The damage added up to more than $100,000, and that does not include outside damage to the backyard fence, the pool, and the hot tub. After filing his claim, David got a call from a woman in Calgary who had been contracted by his Ottawa insurer because local adjusters were just too busy with all the other claims. He feared that if he waited for his claim to be approved before going ahead with the repairs, the damage would only get worse because of the threat of water seeping into the house. So he went ahead and paid upfront. “The roof got done because I hired a contractor. I hired the guy to do the brick. I sent [the insurance company] the bills. They were very good — they paid them.”

Many other items in the house, such as windows, still need replacing. He expects he will be dealing with the insurance claim for several years. “I think it’s the way insurance works — they were overwhelmed by it,” he says.

But he is not so forgiving when it comes to his business insurer. David owns Produce Depot, a grocery store on Carling Avenue specializing in fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, and meat. When a Hydro transformer station fell prey to the tornado, Produce Depot was thrown into darkness for three days.

“With fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and seafood and deli meats, dairy products, stuff like that — you can’t take the chance that they are going to be okay when you are without cooling.” He and his staff made the decision to toss out food, which he says was valued at between $40,000 and $50,000.

“When we contacted the insurance, they said, ‘Okay, you have business interruption [coverage] but you were not directly hit by the tornado … so it was a secondary outage and therefore you are not covered.’ ”

He expects they will eventually get a tiny bit of money, but nothing that will compensate for their actual losses. “It was very disappointing. I mean, why do we even bother getting that kind of business interruption insurance when you think you are covered, but you are really not?”

Tim Johns and Kim Carroll in their Dunrobin home. Photo by Simon Gardner

Fear and Awe in Dunrobin: “Just happy to be alive”

Tim Johns got a front row view of the storm. Tim, his wife, Kim Carroll, and their seven-year-old twin boys live in Dunrobin, the West Ottawa community hardest hit by the tornadoes. The family had lived in their house on Dunrobin Road for 14 years; the home was destroyed in a matter of seconds by the powerful twister. They still live in a state of anxiety and turmoil.

“The hardest part now is just dealing with insurance,” says Kim, “the length of time they are taking to settle, delaying everything.”

“They don’t treat their clients well,” adds Tim.

Despite the ongoing struggles, the family is luckier than some. Kim’s parents live just down the road, so they had a place to go. But the memories of September 21 are still vivid. Their two boys were in the basement. Some friends, Bob and Leslie, had popped over with a new car they had just purchased. Everybody was in the garage. Tim had just cracked open a bottle of beer.

“And then it started to rain — rain real hard,” he says. “Then an alert came on my phone that there was an imminent tornado on the ground. I said, ‘If the rain goes to the left and then switches back to the right, everybody go downstairs.’ And I probably drank the neck of the beer when I saw the fence go, and then I grabbed my wife because we could see the tornado coming through the field. We ran downstairs.”

Tim says everybody huddled together under the stairs, the strongest part of the house. They got there just in time.

“The sound was unbelievable,” says Tim. “It sounded like 35 locomotives going by. And the air pressure was coming into the house so strong that it was making your sinuses fill up, your eardrums were going to explode … and the windows had blown out. My friend Bob looked at me. And he doesn’t scare easily. And we watched the foundation of the house separate from the house about eight inches. And he looked at me and said, ‘See ya, buddy.’ ”

Tim says he feared the whole house was going to be sucked into the air. “The house landed back on its foundations, and we said, holy shit, and it was all quiet. And then, all of a sudden, bang, that is all we heard, the house shook real bad. We didn’t know at that point, but a car had gone through our garage from the neighbourhood behind us and had taken out the garage and gone through and hit the Dunrobin grocery store.”

They dug themselves out of the rubble and got to the top of their stairs.

“Bob and I were laughing and screaming, just happy to be alive,” says Tim.

He was so overwhelmed that he didn’t even notice when he stepped on a board with exposed 3½-inch nails. “They were stuck through my foot. I didn’t even know they were there,” he says.

Kristina Watt in her family’s South Keys home. Photo by Simon Gardner

Heartbreak in South Keys: “These events make everything harder to handle”

Kristina Watt is an actor who teaches at the University of Ottawa theatre department.

“I was teaching an acting class that afternoon. All of us got this warning on our cellphones. Basically everyone ignored it.”

She was performing that evening at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After she got to the venue on Wellington Street, she received news from residents in the South Keys neighbourhood where she grew up: the tornado had entered the family home, and all the windows were blown out. “The entire roof had to be replaced,” she says.

Her parents bought the home in the late 1960s and lived there until quite recently. Her father died two years ago from Parkinson’s disease; her mother, who suffers from dementia, moved into an Ottawa care home in late 2017. She is sure that if someone had still been living in the house, they would have been seriously injured or worse. “When I got there, the walls were peppered with sticks, with debris. There was glass.”

The aftermath of the tornado became “overwhelming” for Kristina. “By the end of the winter, I had developed an ulcer. I had other stress-related things. The fact is, these events make everything harder to handle. And one of the most delicate was being the primary caregiver for my mother and knowing what had happened to the house but, because of her dementia, not wanting to share it with her.”

Kristina eventually told her mother about what had happened, but only after the repairs had begun. The theatre proved to be a way to deal with turmoil and stress. “Knowing I had to turn up there every night was a lifeline. And at every show, we took donations for the Red Cross for the families.”

The tornado disaster of September 21, 2018, does have a silver lining. The event brought out the best in people as they pulled together to get over the worst of the crisis.

Kristina Watt says neighbours who usually kept to themselves were suddenly out on the streets helping people they had never met. “There were people from different blocks showing up to cut down branches for different people, and I heard that was happening everywhere.”

The Silver Lining: “We are here to help”

In Dunrobin, Kim Carroll says she was amazed at how much support and help people gave in the weeks and months after the disaster. “Everybody didn’t know everybody before, and now everybody knows pretty much everybody by name.”

Tim Johns says managers at Tomlinson, a large infrastructure company where he is employed, are among the unsung heroes of the disaster.

“Ron Tomlinson, Dennis Colautti, Yvan Piche, Don Pasco — they came right to our house about three days after. I’d taken them on a tour of the whole neighbourhood subdivision. They stopped at our house, took a bunch of pictures, and said: ‘We are here to help. We are not just going to look after you, but we are going to help everybody here.’ ”

Tomlinson provided portable toilets, temporary outdoor lighting, garbage bins, and heavy equipment.

Members of the West Carleton Warriors hockey team volunteered to clean up, and eventually won over $100,000 through the Chevrolet Good Deeds Cup for the West Carleton Disastor Relief Fund. Photo by Simon Gardner

Winning in West Carleton: “I want to keep helping”

Some of the most energetic helpers were also some of the youngest. The West Carleton Warriors, a Peewee hockey team, sprang into action just one day after the tornadoes hit, collecting more than $4,000 in disaster-relief donations at the Carp Fair.

That was just the start. With help from his dad, 12-year-old Wally Lucente and the team applied for the Chevrolet Good Deeds Cup, an annual competition open to Peewee teams from across Canada that aims to promote positive values by inspiring young hockey players to make a positive change in their communities. General Motors makes donations to charities on behalf of Peewee teams that enter and win the competition. The West Carleton Warriors put together a video showing the tornado damage to their community, intercut with video clips of the boys describing how they responded to the disaster. In mid-February 2019, the Warriors made it into the finals, winning $5,000 for their cause, and on March 2, they learned that they had won the grand prize of $100,000, which will go directly to the West Carleton Disaster Relief Fund.

“Our boys have found their niche,” says Wally’s mother, Heather Lucente, “a way to help the community.”

“We were so happy. It’s just amazing and surreal,” says Shelley Welsh, mom of Blake Voelker.

Blake says he and his teammates are thrilled by the publicity they have received but also are motivated by the need. “Because everyone was affected so greatly,” says Blake, “I want to keep helping and being a part of a team that makes a difference.”

This spring, the boys plan to be out in the community helping anywhere they can. That includes searching for lost items that were sucked out of houses and clearing debris that is still embedded in the ground. There are shards of glass in the ground, so the boys will be wearing protective gear.

Shelley beams with pride when talking about the team’s community goals.

“The plan is for the long haul. There is no plan to stop. They see what has been happening — they see themselves as part of the change.”