Egan: Without power, hardened by catastrophe, Ottawa lights a way forward

“In trying to reconstruct more robust infrastructure, we’ve possibly evolved into more resilient people.”

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Perhaps unhappily, Ottawa is getting good at responding to catastrophe.

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All that practice may be paying off: the ice storm of 1998, the great blackout of 2003, the floods of 2017, the tornado of 2018, the floods of 2019, the pandemic of 2020, the great right of 2022.

In trying to reconstruct more robust infrastructure, we’ve possibly evolved into more resilient people.

Certainly that was my impression Monday as I toured around town, stopping at three of nine “emergency” centers, none of which was hosting a panicky populace.

Jennifer Donaldson lives in Tanglewood and was at the Howard Darwin Centennial Arena on Monday morning, shortly after it opened at 10, with her mother Gail.

What is resilient? Saturday afternoon she heard an ungodly rumble outside, saw trees flying by her window and Monday morning, at a hydro-less home, she cooked bacon and eggs on the barbecue.

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“It was awesome.”

Like a few dozen other powerless west-enders, they came to the arena to power up their electronic devices and were waiting on the electron re-up on a bench in the warm sun. She and her husband are doing their best to keep the freezer cold and cooking things before they spoil.

“Mostly, it’s just the boredom factor,” she said. “My library book is on my phone, so I miss that.”

Gail lives on the third floor of a nearly highrise and was concerned about the lack of an elevator for any elderly, vulnerable residents on the upper levels. But she too looked on the bright side.

“If I were in the Ukraine,” she began. “I’m not going to complain and I really believe the hydro people are doing the very best they can. I’m getting very tired of hearing people complain. Boredom is a good problem to have.”

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The city just seemed to roll with it Monday. The area around Dow’s Lake was packed, Preston Street was busy, the patios on Wellington Street were popping and Sandy Hill was full of spandex and short pants. Inasmuch as the storm was inherently destructive, the timing could have been worse: it was a long weekend, the weather was warm (good thing this wasn’t January) and many had an extra day to clean up or make fall-back plans for food and necessities.

Across from Howard Darwin, Lyle and Yvonne McLean were in the front yard, with the hatch up on the SUV. It looked for a minute like a little tailgate party.

Lyle was making coffee on a camp stove and the barbecue was at the ready to fire up lunch. Luckily, relatives were able to take their frozen items to a home with power and Lyle had gassed up both the car and the propane.

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“When it hit, it was absolutely miraculous that people didn’t die,” said Lyle, referring to the chaotic scene on Merivale Saturday afternoon, with live wires lying willy-nilly near the traffic.

(Absolutely, even two days later, the sight of multiple toppling or broken hydro polls on Merivale was a sight to behold. One neighborhood man expressed some surprise, however, that little repair work appears to have started, with no hydro crews in sight. )

At the Bernard Grandmaître Arena in Vanier, about a dozen people were recharging — literally and otherwise — over the noon-hour at tables on the arena pad.

Eugene Schertzberg, 57, had his phone plugged in, plus a laptop computer and a headlamp. He was digging into a fruit plate and thought he might wait around for the 1 pm food delivery. “I may as well carb up if I can.”

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(The arena has been a respite center during the pandemic, but has expanded its hours to 10 am to 10 pm during the storm aftermath.)

He said he was delighted to get an email from the city, alerting him the emergency center was open. “It’s really fortunate they are providing all this.”

He said he was casually tracking the storm on Saturday and thought it might miss us. But no. “I’ve never seen anything like that. It was unbelievable. It was like a rolling thunder that didn’t want to end and I swear the lightning was right outside my window.”

He was happy to have found company at the arena, as he’s been living in “a one-candle apartment” with pitch-black hallways.

Hydro Ottawa, meanwhile, is asking for patience. “The level of damage to our distribution system is simply beyond comprehension,” it said in an ominous, morning tweet.

Without power, still powerful. Ottawa seems to be moving forward, lighting its own way, informed by its own past.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email

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