Newsmakers 2022: Ottawa’s devastating derecho

It only took a few minutes when cold air from Michigan blew east into Ontario and formed a severe storm. The result was devastating.

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It only took a few minutes. On May 21, cold air from Michigan blew eastward into Ontario and formed a severe storm, reaching Ottawa by mid-afternoon. The result was devastating.

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Winds of 120 kilometers per hour downed 400 power poles and countless trees across the city. Nearly 180,000 Ottawa-area homes and businesses were left helpless, some for a week. The storm destroyed cars, homes and businesses.

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The cleanup took months, and the impacts of the storm – considered a derecho due to its widespread reach and straight-line motion – continue to be felt now, seven months later.

Navan, where Catherine Kitts, city councilor of Orléans-Sud-Navan, lives, was a particularly affected region.

“Navan is a tight-knit little community — Sarsfield too, Carlsbad Springs too,” Kitts said. « There was a lot of grief, but there was also this great community spirit that really shone through. »

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Kitts lost about 40 trees on her own property but avoided damaging her home, she said. Others weren’t so lucky.

Driving down her street today, Kitts said she still sees homes with parts of their roofs covered in tarps from storm damage. Some farmers still have to deal with significant damage to their barns, even as winter approaches.

There are signs of hope, like Kitts’ friend who recently framed a new barn, she said. But the storm’s legacy – at least in Navan – is still being felt today.

« You probably walk past a damaged barn every day if you’re in this part of the country, » Kitts said.

Delays in repairs frustrated Kitts, who passed a motion after the derecho asking the province to activate the Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians, or DRAO, program. But the program only applies to jurisdictions designated by the province and the province has not included Ottawa on that list.

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« I would say my optimism is diminishing at this point, » Kitts said. « [It is] very disappointing that the province was not able to help the residents of my area.

Another frustration for Ottawa residents trying to get past the derecho is the difficult process of claiming insurance for storm damage. The derecho was the sixth costliest weather event in Canadian history, the Insurance Bureau of Canada said, but many Ottawa residents struggled to get cooperation from their insurance company.

For those who don’t mind getting compensated for repairs, a lasting legacy of the derecho is its impact on Ottawa’s forest canopy. The city estimates that thousands of trees on city streets and in parks were lost, in addition to downed trees in forested areas, according to Ottawa Forest Management Program Manager Tracey-Lee Schwets.

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« Tree canopy coverage is an important part of the city’s green infrastructure and provides a number of benefits to residents and the environment, » Schwets said in an email.

Benefits include capturing carbon from the atmosphere, improving quality of life, and cooling and shading, which reduces energy demand and diverts stormwater runoff, Schwets said.

The city collected aerial photography data in late June as part of its regular forest canopy monitoring. The data will be available in late 2023, according to Schwets.

This fall, the city planted about 100 trees on residential streets and 6,000 trees in six forested areas affected by the derecho. However, Schwets said « it will likely take decades to restore lost forest cover. »

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