OTTAWA — A tornado ripped through the Ottawa area Friday afternoon, damaging homes and vehicles and sending several people to hospital as severe thunderstorms and high wind gusts also pounded southern Ontario.
The Ottawa Hospital said in a tweet late Friday night that it was treating six people with storm related injuries, including two who were in critical condition, one with serious injuries, and the others listed as either stable or in fair condition.
Extensive damage to houses was reported by residents in Ottawa and in nearby Dunrobin. In Gatineau, Que., cars were overturned on Highway 50, said Environment Canada, which confirmed a tornado had touched down in the region.
Chris Angeconeb, his wife and their two sons went outside after getting a weather alert on their phones and saw a wall of rain and cloud coming toward their neighbourhood in Dunrobin.
Angeconeb, 52, said the clouds started to revolve in the sky and then it got eerily calm. One of his sons, who is a volunteer firefighter, said it looked like a tornado was coming.
From the basement where they took shelter under the stairs, they could hear objects hitting the house.
"You could hear things ripping. The wind was just amazingly strong," said Angeconeb. "It was intimidating and scary."
After a few minutes, the noise subsided and when they went upstairs, there was debris everywhere.
"It was devastation," he said.
"The house across the road — their garage was gone. Our good neighbour's house — their house looked completely destroyed. And his neighbour, two doors down, their house was gone. The top level was gone and it was just the basement left.
"The man who lives there was asking for help because his sister had been hurt."
Angeconeb said his house was in relatively good shape, but the southwest side was damaged. The roof was ripped off in that corner and pieces of lumber were lodged in the wall.
"We were freaked out by it all. There is a little bit of shock on the part of everybody in our house, but otherwise we are OK."
The family is going to spend the night with friends in a nearby community after firefighters asked them to leave the area over concerns about natural gas.
"I don't think they are going to let us in there until a structural engineer goes in there and has a look and makes sure everything is safe," he said, adding that first responders should be commended for getting to the neighbourhood quickly.
"We had a really fast response from the Ottawa fire service. It really helped a lot that they were there to make sure we were OK."
The City of Ottawa has set up a reception centre for anyone seeking help in Dunrobin at the West Carleton Secondary School. The Red Cross is providing services on site, such as reception, information and family reunification.
Deborah James, the Red Cross's lead on the initiative, said that by late Friday night only one individual had indicated they would be staying the night at the school. However, she said the school would remain open all night for anyone who needed a place to stay.
James said a number of people had registered, but had likely found other places to stay.
She also said she had received a few inquiries from families or individuals looking for loved ones.
Gusty winds continued to blow through Dunrobin which was left in pitch darkness due to power outages.
Police said a main intersection was also closed because of downed powerlines on the road.
"It got pretty dark pretty quickly after this all happened — the morning will tell us a lot more about what's happened here," said James.
Peter Kimbell, a meteorologist with the national weather agency, said a line of thunderstorms running from west of Ottawa and into Gatineau were expected to continue into Friday night.
Fire trucks lined streets in Gatineau, where debris and downed trees covered roads. Massive billboards were also overturned near the Sabourin arena.
The city issued a statement Friday announcing the opening of a mobile command post and an emergency measures centre. Municipal authorities also carried out evacuations in collaboration with the Red Cross and the campus of Cegep de l'Outaouais was converted into a disaster centre.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged residents of both cities to "stay safe, follow the instructions of first responders and check in with people who might need extra help."
"We're monitoring the situation and thinking of everyone affected," he said on Twitter.
The city of Ottawa said there were two areas of suspected tornado damage, Dunrobin and Nepean.
Greg Fergus, the Liberal MP for Hull-Aylmer, said the densely populated Mont-Bleu area suffered a "significant amount of damage."
The roofs were torn off a school and several apartment buildings, he said, estimating about 1,500 people have been displaced.
Ottawa resident Glenn Johnson said he and his partner were in their kitchen just after 5:30 p.m. when the storm blew out their windows.
"We were trying to get down in the basement ... and glass started flying," said Johnson, who lives in Nepean. "My partner got her foot cut and I got hit with flying glass as we were trying to get the dogs and cat and everything down in the basement."
He said the roof of his neighbour's house was torn off and the second storey of another house was gone by the time the intense system passed.
"You can't even get down the street because there are so many giant trees that had been taken down," Johnson said. "My backyard just looks like a junk yard right now."
He said he has gone door to door to check on neighbours and wasn't aware of any injuries in his area.
"There had been kids in the park right behind our place up until about 15 minutes before this happened and there was a big tree that went down in the park where the kids' playground is," Johnson said. "It could have been much, much worse."
More than 85,000 power outages
Ottawa Hydro said there were more than 85,000 power outages in the city because of the storm.
The Greater Toronto Area saw thunderstorms and wind gusts of up to 80 kilometres per hour, also leaving thousands without power.
Hydro Toronto said on Twitter that more than 5,000 customers were without power and restoration efforts were expected to last into Saturday.
"We have all available crews out in the field," Toronto Hydro said. "They're working in dangerous conditions and, at times, are not able to start repairs until the wind weakens."
Alectra Utilities, which covers most of the GTA, said more than 6,000 residents were without power.