DUNROBIN, Ont. – Rachel Gill huddled in her basement with her young daughters, husband and the family dog, anxiously waiting for sounds of howling wind and smashing windows to subside.
The tornado warnings issued for an area south of her home in Dunrobin, Ont. Sept. 21 seemed far-fetched until the power started to flicker around 5 p.m. Even then, the electricity going off and back on again in a matter of minutes seemed to signal that everything would be OK.
“I didn’t take it very seriously because sometimes you get warnings like that,” she said.
Turns out, the initial power outage was only the beginning of what was in store for her neighbourhood.
As the rain and wind intensified, Gill grabbed her one-year-old daughter, her husband got their three-year-old, and they headed to the basement of their bungalow with the family dog in tow.
They had no way of knowing how crucial that split-second decision was as they waited out the storm, unaware of exactly what was happening above the surface.
“As soon as we got down there, things got super loud and the wind was crazy. I just heard things crashing and windows breaking and things banging around. It was insane, and I was freaking out because I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t know how long it was going to last,” Gill recalled in a phone interview Oct. 11.
Things quieted in what, Gill estimates, was a matter of minutes. But life in the aftermath was just beginning.
“There was rain coming down into the basement and my husband opened the door to the stairs to go upstairs to see what was happening and he could see the sky because the roof had completely lifted off of the house.”
The military family moved to Ontario in 2015, but they had never seen anything like the sights that met their eyes as they made their way out of the basement before.
“When we walked outside we realized that it wasn’t just us. It was our whole neighbourhood, everyone’s houses were just destroyed – roofs gone, walls collapsed in,” said Gill.
“One house right down the road from us was completely leveled, it was just rubble. It was very surreal. It was like we were in a movie or something - it just didn’t feel real.”
Neighbours stood in shock. Downed trees blocked streets leading out of the community. Uncertainty set in.
“We couldn’t go anywhere because there was trees down everywhere. The firefighters arrived right away and were making sure that everyone was OK and kind of doing triage around the neighbourhood, making sure that nobody was trapped inside any of the houses,” said Gill.
They walked to the community centre behind their house and waited for first responders to clear the roadways.
“The first responders were amazing from the beginning, helping everyone out,” she said.
“The whole community came together supporting each other.”
The local high school became a support centre for those with no place to go. The Red Cross came in to assist residents living in the path of destruction. There were meals, donations of food and clothing and volunteers helping with cleanup on a daily basis.
Environment Canada reported that the EF3 twister, with wind speeds measuring up to 265 km/hr, was the most powerful tornado to touch down in eastern Ontario since an F4 tornado was recorded in Chesterville in 1902. The weather agency noted, however, that the powerful tornado that tore through Masson-Angers, Que. in 1978 briefly crossed over into a rural region of eastern Ontario.
In a prepared statement issued Sept. 23, Environment Canada said the Dunrobin tornado “damaged or destroyed numerous buildings, overturned vehicles and snapped many trees and hydro poles. There were also reports of multiple injuries, including several people that were critically injured.”
Gill’s home was deemed to be beyond repair after the roof was blown off. The roof remained intact over the garage, making it possible to salvage that portion of the structure, but the house will have to be rebuilt with the help of insurance money.
“We were pretty lucky because most of our belongings stayed in the house,” said Gill.
“Since it happened we’ve just felt really lucky and grateful that we’re all still alive and well, and we were all together when it happened. The outpouring of support from the community has been amazing and overwhelming.”
They’ll carry on with life with hearts full of gratitude and a new outlook on tornado warnings, Gill said.
“I’ll definitely be taking them seriously from now on.”