Volunteers return heirlooms lost in Ottawa tornadoes

A group of volunteers is literally helping people pick up the pieces of their lives that have been strewn across the Ottawa-Gatineau area after the September tornadoes.

Family who lost everything touched to get pictures back

Jessica Woods, left, and her daughter Kalie Cain, right, say they appreciate the work volunteers have done to return their family photos after they were blown away by the tornado that touched down in Dunrobin in September. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

When a tornado flattened Kalie Cain's parents' Dunrobin home in September, the family thought they'd lost everything — including photos of the 12-year-old as a baby and a young child.

Unbeknownst to them, Cain's photos had ended up scattered across a farmer's field, a swamp, and the bush.

Now, thanks to a group of volunteers who've been out collecting precious items strewn across Ottawa-Gatineau following the devastating tornado strikes, the photos are back in the family's hands.

"I feel really good," Cain said Sunday. "Because someone decided to take care of them, and decided not to throw them out."

Jessica Woods and her family are grateful for the work of volunteers in Dunrobin, who have been searching the area for photos and other valuables strewn about the countryside by the tornado . 0:32

'We lost everything'

Cain was at her grandma's house when the tornado hit, but her parents and two brothers were at home.

As parts of their house collapsed on them, Jessica Woods and her husband sheltered the kids with their bodies. 

Volunteers found Kalie Cain's baby and early childhood photos in fields, swamps, and bushes. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

"I thought we were going to die … it was so fast," said Woods, Cain's mom. 

"We lost everything. We had just gotten married in January. All of our gift cards, all of our wedding cards were all gone. ... We just spent $40,000 on renovations."

Moved 4 times

Since losing the home, the family has moved four times, but plans to return to Dunrobin as soon as they can.

Volunteers have since recovered their documents, chairs, pieces of their roof, and even their bathtub. 

One person made a photo album for Cain with all the photos they found, and the family's been given a free photo shoot so they can replace any others.

"It's been amazing. It always makes me cry. They found my grandpa's wedding photo, which no one else has a copy of that one," said Woods. "It makes a heart warm."

After volunteers find items, they're brought to community update meetings put on by the West Carleton Disaster Relief Association. (Leah Hansen/CBC)
Jessica Woods' home was completely destroyed by the tornado that touched down in Dunrobin in September. (Submitted by Jessica Woods)

Dozens of volunteers

About 50 to 60 people have been involved in the search for lost items. It's not a walk in the park — they trek through bushy, swampy areas and often get wet. 

"The stress levels for people are really, really high right now," said Ruth Sirman, who's been organizing the volunteers and briefing them on how to stay safe.

"The look on people's faces when we are able to actually find, you know, a photo of their grandfather, maybe the only picture they have now ... it's something that people are actually really appreciative of."

Roughly 50 to 60 volunteers have been out searching for keepsakes and personal items that were blown away by September's tornadoes. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

The volunteers have learned where to go by following the damage and paying attention to drone footage and media coverage. 

The group brings any items they've found to community update meetings hosted by the West Carleton Disaster Relief Association.

Sirman said the reaction when they're able reunite tornado victims with their keepsakes makes the hard work worth it.

"It's watching a little girl who looks at a photo in a box and goes 'That's me!' and gets all excited," she said.

Ruth Sirman organizes the volunteers, and says looking for lost items is both cathartic and a way to give back to the affected communities. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Time is getting short for the volunteers, however, as the days get shorter and leaves and snow start to cover the ground.

They plan to keep going as long as they can, and they ask people to email if they find items or if they're looking for something specific.

About the Author

Krystalle Ramlakhan is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I., Winnipeg and Iqaluit.