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Our Community, Crisis & Change

From Calm to Chaos: My Experience Living Through a Tornado in Rural Ontario

Laila Harris

Laila Harris

February 25, 2024

The Calm Before the Storm


In the summer of 2006, I returned home from the University of Guelph to my small town in the Ottawa Valley, in order to be close to family and to ground myself in the beauty and peace of nature. That summer my job was at a local restaurant which sat on the river’s edge in a little clearing beside a forested area, and the restaurant itself was a small, wooden building with open-concept windows and doors that allowed for an immersive dining experience amongst the picturesque scenery. On the afternoon of August 2nd, I arrived at work as usual and began to prepare for the busy evening ahead. It was an extremely hot and humid day, and as the afternoon progressed, I noticed that the sky had turned a strange yellow-green colour, and that a cold wind had started. Later, when I went out to set-up the patio tables, I saw large, grey clouds moving quickly in the sky towards us, and I remember thinking at that time that a storm was developing. That evening, as guests arrived for dinner, I became quite busy and because I had already noticed storm clouds earlier on, I didn’t think much of it when the sky outside the restaurant became ominously dark. Eventually it began to rain and the guests that were seated on the outdoor patio moved into the main dining area which, despite having no windows and doors, did have a metal roof to protect from the elements. However, despite the change in weather, I don’t think any of us realized what was to come that evening, nor did I realize that I was about to have an experience that I will probably remember for the rest of my life.


Chaos Along the Twister’s Path


It was 8:30pm, and all I remember is looking outside to see the river suddenly rising up more than 15 feet in the air into a huge wall of water that went high above the roof, and then came rushing inside the restaurant through the open windows and doors. People started screaming and chairs, tables, and vases were flying around the room. Clusters of marbles were floating in the air, rotating in circular patterns in front of me. Everything was happening so fast, yet it was as if time stood still. What stood out most though, was the noise. All you could hear, all at once, was the screeching of the wind, people screaming and crying, intense crashing and banging sounds, and the sound of glass smashing everywhere around us. It was unbelievably loud and chaotic, and I didn’t know what was happening because I had never experienced anything like it before. Amidst all this panic and chaos, the woman who managed the restaurant shouted to me and the other staff to get down, gesturing for us to pile together into a heap on the floor. She then proceeded to jump on top of us and wrapped her arms around the entire group, using her body to shield us from flying objects and to prevent us from being carried away by the high winds. Truly her quick-thinking, selflessness, and protection is something that I won’t forget about that night. And then suddenly it stopped, and everything became quiet. Tables, chairs, and broken glass were strewn everywhere. People were crying and we were all in shock. By that time night had fallen, and it was still raining outside. Because rural areas don’t have many streetlights like you find in cities, the nights can be extremely dark, and it is difficult to see anything unless there is bright moonlight. So, while it was obvious that we had just experienced some sort of extreme weather event, we could not really assess our surroundings or even see the forested area around us because it was almost black outside. Instead, guests and staff alike were either completely silent, trying to come up with a plan of action, tidying up the mess, or weeping loudly, including a few of the guests who were heavily pregnant and very scared and upset. The crying and fear only intensified after one of my co-workers found a flashlight and went out to survey the surrounding area. In the adjacent forest and parking lot she found that several massive trees had been uprooted, landing directly on people’s cars and destroying them. That’s when I realized that the sound of breaking glass that I’d heard earlier had been from the cars in the parking lot being smashed by huge trees!




After seeing the damage in the parking lot, we were unsure of what it would be like outside the property of the restaurant, or if it was even safe to venture out into the night to try and make it home. I was also worried that whatever had just happened might happen again, so I called to check on my mom who lived only a 5 minute drive from the restaurant and pleaded with her to remain indoors, and to move away from any windows and go into the basement.


The Aftermath


After remaining at the restaurant for about an hour, waiting for news about what to do, eventually, people began leaving in small groups, travelling together in any of the vehicles that had not been damaged by trees. The drive home was shocking. Advancing slowly down the winding roads, the vehicle headlights illuminated a scene of intense wreckage, with huge trees laying in the middle of the roadway, completely blocking our route and making it impossible to continue. With no other way to get home, we were forced to wait where we were, unsure of how to proceed. Then, about 20 minutes later, some of the men from our local area who had years of experience working in trades and outdoor settings, seemingly emerged out of nowhere and began to chainsaw through the fallen trees, creating openings large enough for our cars to pass through. This was another moment that truly stuck in my mind, because it highlighted the power of community in rural areas, and greatly deepened my respect and appreciation for these men who, amidst all the chaos and destruction, came out in the middle of the night and use their skills and equipment to help us get home. As we continued along the route, we saw that the roadway was littered with wood and debris, and that the hydro lines had been torn apart and were hanging on the side of the road with fiery sparks spewing out. Thankfully we made it home safely, and a few hours after that, our local area was declared to be in a state of emergency. Throughout the night, large white trucks with flashing red lights began moving through the community, which I assumed were to assess the state of damage that had occurred, and to check for any injuries or casualties. However, because it was still so dark out, we still didn’t fully understand what had even happened.


Observations of An Altered Landscape


The next morning, we jumped in the car and started driving towards the main part of our town where the restaurant was located so that we could assess the damage in the light of the day. Along with a few cars ahead of us, we drove very slowly down the road, avoiding large, fallen branches, broken Hydro lines, and passing through the same trees that had been opened up by chainsaws the night before.



However, it wasn’t until we turned the corner onto the main road that we were truly able to see the destruction that had been caused. Looking up in disbelief, we realized that the 200-year-old pine tree forests that contributed so much to our area’s magnificent views had been wiped out, and that the entire landscape had changed completely. What was left of the forest was shredded and destroyed, and the scene looked apocalyptic. Like many others who had entered the central part of town to see what had happened the night before, we abruptly began to cry. We realized that those trees, which were hundreds of years old, were gone, and that the breathtaking beauty and beloved scenery of the area would never be the same again in our lifetime. Instead, the lush forests we had always admired and appreciated as part of our rural landscape had been decimated, and had been turned to flat, wounded-looking spaces. All around us, people were weeping, and I think we had suddenly realized how connected we were to the forests, and how much we loved, and would miss those magnificent trees. If you had grown up with the beauty of those trees, admiring their size and height every year; basking in their cool shade; and inhaling the clean, pine-scented air they produced, and if you also had secret paths and meeting spots in those forests with your childhood friends, you would surely understand how crushed we were that they were gone.

 

In the days and weeks after the tornado, we would travel around different roads in our area only to see further devastation and ruin everywhere we looked. Fallen trees, pine needles, and branches covered the roads, and one of the local buildings had its roof torn off. When we went back to the restaurant, we were able to see the damage that had been caused by uprooted trees, and it became clear that those of us who had been at the restaurant that night were incredibly lucky to escape harm. What we later learned, through news reports and word-of-mouth, was that our town had been hit by a 400m wide F2 tornado that was on the ground for 29km, devastating our town and causing the forest along the its path to be completely decimated. As such, our region was eventually approved for close to 1 million dollars in disaster relief. Environment Canada investigators also suggested that the heavy forest, which bore the brunt of the winds, “likely prevented vehicles and cottages from being picked up and thrown,”1 so in a way I guess the trees saved us. Interestingly, the tornado that shredded the forests of our area was one of seventeen tornadoes that touched down in Southern and Eastern Ontario that evening, setting a record (at that time) for the, “largest tornado outbreak ever recorded in Ontario.” (Source: https://highwaysandhailstones.com/tornado/august-2-2006-combermere/)




Reflections

Because huge sections of forest were flattened and so many pine trees had been uprooted, for months the air was filled with the fragrant scent of pine sap. Our town also had a sudden and persistent onslaught of wasps, perhaps because their nests had been disturbed by the high winds and fallen trees. However, even though the damage extended as far as a 45-minute drive away, miraculously, no one had been injured by the tornado, which was one of the blessings of that night, and something that we were all thankful for. Ultimately, my experience living through a tornado taught me about the importance of community, and about the beauty of people coming together to help and protect each other during a time of crisis. My experience being outdoors during an extreme weather event also taught me that the strength and power of Nature should always be respected and never underestimated. To this day, I get indoors as quickly as possible if there is a storm and pay close attention to unusual weather patterns such as extreme temperature changes or strange colours in the sky. Living through a tornado, and witnessing its aftermath, also taught me that people are deeply tied to the natural landscapes in which they live and have close relationships and memories within their local environments. That’s why, to this day, I still miss the scenic forest views and tall pine trees from my childhood.


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