Take tornadoes seriously, says Sask.-raised man shocked by devastation in Ottawa-Gatineau

Gabriel Whiteduck had seen dust devils and serious storms when he was growing up in Saskatchewan, but nothing that prepared him for the devastation he witnessed after a tornado hit Gatineau, Que. on Friday.

Gabriel Whiteduck says Mont-Bleu buildings opened up like 'toy houses'

A cellphone video captures a roof blowing off a building in Gatineau, near Mont-Bleu. (David Brousseau/YouTube)

Gabriel Whiteduck had seen dust devils and serious storms when he was growing up in Saskatchewan, but nothing that prepared him for the devastation he witnessed after a tornado hit Gatineau, Que. on Friday.

"People were in despair and crying," said Whiteduck.

"The roofs were torn off, like we saw whole apartment buildings opened up like toy houses … where the whole entire building was ripped open.

"There was cars just like piled into trees and trees ripped out of the ground and people were just like running around looking for loved ones."

Whiteduck lives about one kilometre from the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood, where one of two tornadoes left a trail of flattened buildings and debris in Ontario and Quebec on Friday.

Families separated

Whiteduck wasn't alarmed when an emergency alert siren rang out from his cellphone that afternoon.

He had been getting similar alerts about severe thunderstorms all summer, so he kept going about his day at home.

That was until the power went out. When he checked Facebook he saw video footage of fallen trees in the Mont-Bleu area — one neighbourhood over from his own

He and his partner jumped in their truck and went to see how bad the damage was.

A damaged automobile is shown in front of damaged homes in Gatineau, Que., on Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018. Houses and Apartment buildings had roofs torn off and windows blown out and automobiles were damaged after a tornado caused extensive damage on Friday to a Gatineau neighbourhood forcing hundreds of families to evacuate their homes. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"As we got in it was more and more damage," said Whiteduck.

"We witnessed a firefighter break into the house — he had found a family with their kids stuck inside the house.

"He had rescued a young boy I believe. And then he went back in and there was a young child, like a newborn baby with like a sister, an older sister."

2 tornadoes touch down

Environment Canada said Saturday there were two tornadoes.

The one that hit Dunrobin, a rural Ottawa community about 36 kilometres west of the city's downtown, was likely an EF-3, meaning it had wind speeds of up to 265 km/h. It then crossed east over the Ottawa River and into Gatineau's Mont-Bleu neighbourhood.

A second tornado was classified as an EF-2, with wind speeds of up to 220 km/h, and affected the neighbourhood of Arlington Woods in Ottawa.

When Whiteduck arrived at the scene, he started livestreaming what he was seeing from his cellphone, a video that has since been viewed more than 45,000 times.
A car rests under debris on Boulevard de la Cité-des-Jeunes in Gatineau. (Toni Choueiri/CBC)

As he was leaving, he came across an elderly couple who had stuffed their essential clothes and medicines in one bag. They also had their pet cat in a carrier.

He said the woman had poor vision and limited mobility.

"She was in shock, you know, like the whole roof of her building was ripped off," said Whiteduck.

Whiteduck held the woman's hand as she navigated her way through the debris to a city bus waiting to transport displaced residents away from the scene.

He said it was a "blessing" that nobody was hurt as the tornado hurled flying debris around the neighbourhood.

Hundreds displaced

On Saturday he went to deliver a spare mattress to the emergency shelter set up for people left homeless by the tornado.

He said it seemed like a "scramble" for the workers trying to accommodate those affected by the storm.

Whiteduck believes that for many people in the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood, the hardship is just beginning.

"They're going to tear down those buildings," said Whiteduck.

"They're already in a low-income neighborhood. You know, I doubt they have insurance, like they don't have money saved up."

Whiteduck feels emotional about what he saw in Mont-Bleu on Friday, adding that he plans to take any future emergency alerts more seriously than in the past.

I encourage everyone to have a plan ... and be prepared to help others as well and work together.- Gabriel Whiteduck, Gatineau, Que.
It took about 17 hours before his power came back on, but some 70,000 Hydro Ottawa customers were still without electricity on Sunday morning.
Gabriel Whiteduck, who is from Saskatchewan, was in the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood of Gatineau within an hour after a tornado destroyed apartment buildings and displaced hundreds of residents. (Gabriel Whiteduck/Facebook)

Whiteduck said the tornadoes are a reminder not to become too reliant on power and other services in urban areas.

As an Algonquin Cree man who previously lived in Saskatchewan, Whiteduck said his family worked collaboratively to be self-reliant by hunting and hauling water.

"Everybody relied on each other. But with electricity, one person can live alone," said Whiteduck.

"The downside of it is that you don't have control over it. Those luxuries can be taken away from you in an instant."

Although people living in cities in The Prairies may be more accustomed to tornadoes, Whiteduck thinks they too are likely unprepared for the kind of damage he saw on Friday.

Even to cope with having tens of thousands of people without power would put immense strain on those cities, he said. 

"I encourage everyone to have a plan, you know, and be prepared to help others as well and work together."