Army of volunteers head to Arlington Woods tornado zone

Dozens of volunteers descended on the Ottawa neighbourhood of Arlington Woods Tuesday to help clean up following last week's devastating tornado.

Arlington Woods Community Church turned into a volunteer hub

With Knoxdale Public School still closed due to damage from the Sept. 21 tornado, some students spent Tuesday helping with the cleanup effort in Ottawa's Arlington Woods neighbourhood. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Driven by a desire to help, and connected through social media, dozens of volunteers descended on the Ottawa neighbourhood of Arlington Woods Tuesday to help clean up following last week's devastating tornado.

Most of the damage in the community near West Hunt Club and Greenbank roads came from fallen trees that had crashed through houses. 

Coun. Keith Egli estimated that more than 100 homes in the area have significant damage and will require months to repair.

Some residents, Egli said, may even have to tear down their houses. 

"Many homes don't have roofs anymore. I've seen homes with the sides completely gone, like children's dollhouses you look into. I've seen examples of that on a number of streets," said Egli.

"Many are going to have knock down and start over again. Or it will take several months of restoration."

Volunteers with chainsaws and hot food descended on the neighbourhood of Arlington Woods on Tuesday, in an effort to clear tree branches and other debris after last week's tornado. 0:55

'Inundated' with help

The community has not had electricity since Friday. Hydro Ottawa said it hopes to have the lights back on by Wednesday afternoon, making Arlington Woods likely the last area in the city to have power restored.

It's with this backdrop that retirees, elementary school teachers and landscapers spontaneously gathered in the parking lot of the Arlington Woods Church to wait for their marching orders.

Sean Devine, the president of the Trend-Arlington Community Association, put out a call for assistance on Twitter using the hashtag #ArlingtonWoodsrelief.

He said the community had been "happily inundated" with volunteers.

"It's a miracle that no one died, but what can't be replaced is the hundreds and hundreds of of white pines that we lost," he said.

"We're kind of all in shock ... but we are emanating the spirit of the white pine. We're strong and we're standing really tall right now." 

Sean Devine, head of the Trend-Arlington Community Association, is using the #ArlingtonWoodsrelief hashtag on social media to organize volunteers.

The challenge now involves coordinating the effort, Devine said, since the hardest hit streets are considered unsafe.

The tornado cut off the tops of pine trees and downed hydro lines. The size of the trees means that heavy equipment must be used for the cleanup.

On Tuesday, Ottawa police blocked off several roads to allow heavy machinery, including tractors and cranes, to go through.

Volunteers were prevented from entering the area, but there was still plenty of work to go around. Organizers sent some out to clear brush in parks, while others headed to a nearby senior's home to help throw out spoiled food.

Volunteers descended Tuesday on the neighbourhood of Arlington Woods, chainsaws in hand, to assist with the cleanup. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Teachers, neighbours lend hand

Joanne Stynes and her 10-year-old daughter Claire put on rubber boots and rain jackets and signed up for yard clearing duty.

They live in Arlington Woods but were lucky to not have much property damage. 

"It's sad to see all our great white pines are down," said Claire Stynes.  "At least we still have trees and everybody is not hurt. Homes can be rebuilt but people can't."
Joanne Stynes and her daughter Claire, 10, pitched in for the cleanup in Arlingotn Woods. Claire attends nearby Knoxdale Public School, which is closed due to damage. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

The elementary student attends Knoxdale Public School, which was still closed because of the tornado damage. That meant nearly all of Knoxdale's teachers decided to join the volunteer crews. 

Kindergarten teacher Megan Skentelbery said the mothers of the group brought food and water and helped take care of the children, while others moved trees and cleared lots to make it safer for children to return to school.

"We heard a cry for help and we came," said Grade 1 teacher Karl Herbert, who has several students from Arlington Woods.

Some students stopped by with their parents Tuesday to get snacks and to recharge their phones.

Herbert said he appreciated being able to check in on them.  

But its congregation has been hard at work anyway, supplying phone-charging stations, coffee and hot food to neighbours in need. 8:23

with files from Giacomo Panico