‘This is unbelievable’: Intense thunderstorm rolls through Ontario and Quebec, leaving five dead


Five people are dead after a severe thunderstorm with “almost hurricane force winds,” according to one meteorologist, materialized out of nowhere Saturday afternoon, downing hydro lines, cutting power and smashing up houses across Ontario and Quebec.

“Wow, this is unbelievable,” said Weather Network meteorologist Mark Robinson in a video dispatch during the storm. Robinson crouched behind his car to avoid debris flying toward him. “I cannot describe how strong these winds are,” he said. “It’s absolutely amazing.”

Daniel Liota, a meteorologist at Environment Canada’s storm prediction centre, told the Star that Saturday’s storm had wind speeds equivalent to a low-grade tornado. As a result, the agency sent out text message warnings urging Ontarians to seek immediate shelter. It was the first time this had ever been done for a storm in the province, he said.

“Meteorologists are tracking a very dangerous thunderstorm capable of producing destructive wind gusts and up to toonie-sized hail,” the alert said. The agency further warned of possible tornadoes, characterizing the storm as a “dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation.”

Tragically, that would be an accurate prediction. Peel Regional Police reported a woman in Brampton died Saturday after being struck by a tree during the storm.

The woman was in her 70s and out for a walk alone in the storm when parts of a large tree fell on her, Peel Police officer Heather Cannon told media at the scene.

“She was removed by first responders and transported to a local hospital, where she succumbed to her injuries,” said Cannon. “Who’s to know that this is something that’s going to happen? It’s just an absolute tragic, tragic accident.”

Near Cambridge, another person died and two were injured after a tree fell on a camping trailer at Pinehurst Lake Conservation Area in Ayr, Ont.

Police and emergency crews responded to the call shortly before 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Const. Conrad Vitalis of Brant County OPP said in a video on Twitter Saturday evening. All three individuals were transported to hospital, two with minor injuries and the other with “serious, life-threatening injuries.” They were pronounced dead by attending physicians.

Ottawa Police Services reported one person had died in the city’s west end. And in Gatineau, Que., police said a 51-year-old woman died after a boat capsized on the Ottawa River during the storm, as reported by Radio-Canada.

Pierre Poirier, Ottawa’s paramedic chief, said there have been several “critical injuries” across the city.

“We’ve been very busy,” he said.

Over 343,000 people were without power Saturday, according to Hydro One, whose outage map showed roughly 1,936 outages as of Saturday Evening.

“We’re continuing to respond to a number of scattered outages and downed wires across the city as a result of the storm this afternoon and often caused by fallen trees and limbs,” a spokesperson with Toronto Hydro said on Saturday.

The total number of Toronto Hydro outages were not known as of Saturday night due to technical issues with their outage map.

Tree branches lie on the road on Franklin Ave. in Toronto’s west end after a brief but intense storm rolled through the city on Saturday afternoon.

Joseph Muglia, director of Hydro Ottawa, said more than 179,000 across the city have lost power. “It’s still early in trying to try to establish what exactly we’re dealing with here. We’re probably dealing with a multi-day event,” he said.

Kim Ayotte, general manager of Ottawa’s Emergency and Protective Services, said he expects clean up from the storm to take several days.

“We must all be patient,” he said at a news conference Saturday. “Crews are working as fast as they can and as safely as they can.”

Premier Doug Ford said he was “very sad to learn about the tragic deaths of two people in Ontario as a result of the severe weather today,” in a tweet. “My thoughts go out to both of their families & friends and I offer condolences on behalf of all Ontarians.”

Mayor John Tory took a moment to thank “everyone responding to the impact of today’s severe weather,” including Toronto Hydro and Toronto Forestry, in a tweet Saturday evening.

Via Rail passengers tweeted about hours-long delays to their destinations, with one traveller, Blake Harris, reporting to the Star that his train from Windsor to Toronto was stuck on the tracks for two hours. He boarded his train at 1:40 p.m., but with the delays and a new travel plan that saw passengers take a bus from Chatham to London before boarding a new train to Toronto, his travel time nearly doubled.

“I said to the (Via Rail employee), ‘So, Toronto at 11?’ He said that would be the earliest,” Harris said.

Via Rail confirmed in an email Saturday night the storm brought down power lines and trees onto train tracks, causing delays.

“We have a full team working to ensure that all passengers who were on route when the storm hit get to safety, and ultimately to their final destinations,” Via Rail said in the email.

“We apologize for any inconvenience this unforeseen extreme weather incident may cause to our passengers.”

Via Rail added they have do not have an estimate when train lines would be cleared.

Air travel is being impacted by the storm, too.

The Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) told the Star their “lightning warning system” was activated at Pearson Airport, meaning lightning had struck within 8 kilometres of the airport. As a result, many “critical airport processes,” like unloading baggage and fuelling aircraft, can be delayed.

“As the airport recovers from this afternoon’s severe weather and maintains safety as our top priority during the current lightning event, planes at various points of origin (other airports) that are bound for Pearson may be delayed from taking off,” they said in a statement.

“For friends and family picking up someone at Pearson, we suggest checking their passenger’s flight status before leaving for the airport and using our free cellphone waiting lots to wait for the passenger to exit the terminal.”

The GTAA said customers can find information on arrivals, including cancellations and delays, at www.torontopearson.com/en/arrivals.

In London, a small aircraft flipped over during the storm, said Steve Faulkner, the operation manager at London International Airport.

“There was a parked aircraft that was tied down and secured and the winds basically were strong enough that they broke the straps and the airplane flipped over,” he said.

“We’re cleaning it up now. The airplane has been removed.”

At Royal York Station in Toronto, a subway train was rendered immobile after running over a tree downed by the storm. Police had to evacuate stranded passengers through the tunnels.

Several trees were flung into cars in the Riverdale area of Toronto with enough force to crack windshields.

In London, Ont., Nicole Fice tweeted a photo of her neighbour’s caved-in front porch after the storm hurtled trees into it.

A large tree was seen completely uprooted from beneath concrete in Cambridge.

One wildlife enthusiast on Twitter warned that, with so many trees strewn about by the storm, many squirrel and bird nests would be knocked out of place.

Images and videos were posted to Twitter as Environment Canada issued the severe thunderstorm warning for the city of Toronto and surrounding areas early Saturday afternoon.

The warning for Toronto was lifted at 1:38 p.m., just minutes after the short but intense storm rolled through the city.

The storm made it’s way through Quebec toward Maine later on Saturday, said Gerald Cheng, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, but a severe thunderstorm warning stayed in effect into late Saturday evening.

Toronto Hydro advised people who come across a downed power line to remain at least 10 metres away for their safety and report it by calling (416) 542-8000.

Hydro-Québec’s website showed about 375,000 customers were without electricity as of 6 p.m. Earlier Saturday, tornado warnings were issues for several regions in southern and central Quebec.

Share your storm photos with the Star here.

With files from Alessia Passafiume and The Canadian Press.

Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn


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