Opinion » Pique'n Yer Interest

Are you prepared to deal with a natural disaster?



Last week, I went back home to Ottawa for a visit.

It was perfect timing to escape the first dose of cold days and torrential rain that often signals the end of summer in Whistler.

Luckily for me, Eastern Ontario was hit with a late-summer heatwave. I went swimming in the St. Lawrence, hung out on sunny patios, and even spent a few evenings at an outdoor music festival without a jacket. It pretty much hit all the major hallmarks of a tropical vacation.

But one day after I left, all that heat and humidity contributed to the formation of three tornadoes touching down in the capital region, causing the worst damage since the 1998 ice storm. (Ask anyone who remembers living through the ice storm in Ottawa—they've got stories).

The twisters touched down early Friday evening, on the last official day of summer. Environment Canada ranked one of them as an E/F3 tornado on the zero to five Enhanced Fujita scale, with winds reaching up to 260 kilometres/hour (the others were classified as an E/F2 and an E/F1, respectively).

Roofs were lifted, windows shattered, and houses were torn apart. Barns and other structures were flattened. Cars were overturned. Trees were uprooted and tossed around while power lines were downed.

The storm damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, and left thousands without power. The city's general manager of emergency and protective services told the Ottawa Citizen it was "a miracle" that no one died during the storms, though several people were admitted to hospital with injuries.

Following the storm, schools were closed and all federal government employees were told to stay home from work on Monday. City officials urged everyone able to work from home to do so, partly due to the hundreds of traffic signals that remained without power on Monday morning.

Hundreds of people in the hardest hit neighbourhoods—including Gatineau, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River—have still been unable to return home.

The tornadoes affected the opposite side of the city from where I grew up, which meant, happily for me, all of my friends' and family members' homes stayed intact.

But that doesn't make it any less surreal to see photos and footage of decimated neighbourhoods, littered with scattered debris that looks like it was created for a war movie set.

I clearly remember Ottawa receiving a handful of tornado warnings while I was growing up—The Wizard of Oz was my favourite movie as a kid, so each warning was an especially dramatic occasion for me. One time I even brought all of my favourite stuffed animals to the basement (we all have our priorities) and hung out in the corner for a while. Looking back, that was likely more due to a fear of the Wicked Witch of the West than my family's home being at risk, despite Ottawa falling within one of Canada's "tornado alleys" that stretches across Southern Ontario.

But I can't remember any tornadoes actually touching down and destroying homes.

Selfishly, the more I witness catastrophic events like these, the more I realize how completely unprepared I am for any form of natural disaster. I definitely don't keep enough water and food for 72 hours tucked away, nor do I have an emergency go-bag packed with essentials. I would imagine that puts me with the majority.

I realize it's nearly impossible to plan for something as immediately devastating as a tornado ripping through your home, or a wildfire blazing through your neighbourhood—just as I realize hoarding extra water wouldn't be helpful in that scenario—and yes, at the end of the day, almost everything that can be damaged in a catastrophe is replaceable, aside from lives. Regardless, it's still sobering to imagine it happening to your community, especially when natural disasters seem to be happening more and more frequently.

From what I understand, tornadoes aren't common in British Columbia. But after suffering the two worst summers for wildfires on record, learning that receding glaciers are making Pemberton volcano Mount Meager increasingly instable and listening to scientists tout the risk of the "Big One" hitting the West Coast for years, it's hard not to freak out a little (that, and immediately pledge to further reduce my carbon footprint).

I'm not trying to be all gloom-and-doom here. Although they may appear to be worsening or happening more often (at least from my perspective), natural disasters are still rare. And when they do occur, it's always heartening to see how communities come together, move on and rebuild in the face of a disaster. Besides, living in constant fear of the unknown would be a pretty awful existence.

But maybe it's time to keep an extra container of water or a bag with important documents handy, just in case.