In Dunrobin, despair sets in as tornado recovery drags on

Three weeks after a tornado tore through the west Ottawa community of Dunrobin, victims and volunteers alike are struggling to come to terms with the enormity of the task ahead of them.

Victims, volunteers struggling to come to terms with enormity of job ahead

Laurel Wingrove assesses the tornado damage to her home in Dunrobin. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

In the hours and days after a tornado tore through the west Ottawa community of Dunrobin, when stuffed toys and family photos still littered the ruined landscape, an army of volunteers switched into emergency recovery mode.

They got right down to the business of clearing away debris, allowing victims to return to their devastated homes to gather up what little was spared.

Three weeks later, as the initial shock wears off, those working closely with both the victims and the volunteers fear despair is now setting in as they begin to grasp the immensity of the job ahead. 

"Despair starts to set in when people realize … that the long-term recovery is going to take a significant amount of time," said Jamie Aten, the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. 

"Their adrenaline is really starting to wane, and it really comes down to what happened," said Greg Patacairk, who's been coordinating volunteer efforts in Dunrobin.

'They have run themselves ragged' 

The tornado tore through the community on Sept. 21, destroying more than 50 homes in Dunrobin, one of the worst-hit areas in the region. 

The danger of volunteer burnout looms large, and has prompted Patacairk to divide his volunteers into two groups.

"I have Group A, [which] has been with me since the beginning. They are extremely tired. They have slept four to six hours [per night] for two weeks straight. They have run themselves ragged in attempting to help."

The second group of volunteers is made up of community leaders from across the region, and is helping to recruit and coordinate potential volunteers.

"I knew in the back of my mind, once we passed this part, there needed to be a larger plan," Patacairk said.

The long road ahead 

Patacairk said most victims were initially focused on getting into their damaged homes and recovering whatever belongings they could. Now, most have moved on to struggling with insurance claims, finding suitable shelter and getting the mental health help they need to deal with the trauma of the disaster.  

Patacairk, who's also president of the Dunrobin Community Association, said much of the initial wreckage has been cleared away.

"But this doesn't mean that the village does not look like a war zone. It absolutely does," he said. "These houses can't be rebuilt overnight.

Patacairk estimates it will be 18 months before Dunrobin returns to some kind of normalcy. The community will need a coordinated, sustained volunteer effort to see it through, Patacairk said.

"We [have to] take it from a catastrophic, humanitarian, boots-on-the-ground, effort to a rebuild of our community," he said. ​