Cleaning up after May 21, 2022’s storm in Ontario and Quebec

Tree damage to a gravestone in the Ottawa Jewish Cemetery on Bank Street after the storm Saturday May 20, 2022. (Brent Taylor photo)

The cost of a massive storm that struck Ontario and Quebec on Saturday is still being calculated among the provinces’ Jewish communities.

Ottawa’s Jewish cemetery, on Bank Street, sustained damage to dozens of gravestones because of downed trees. A couple in Toronto who had just moved into their new home now have a tree on the roof, and no chimney. Thousands of people in Ontario and Quebec are still struggling without electricity, including large areas of Ottawa, sections of Toronto and York Region and the Laurentians.

Ottawa’s Jewish Federation opened the Soloway Jewish Community Centre on May 22 for people who wanted to take showers, or needed to recharge their phones and computers.

In an email, the Federation announced the SJCC was providing bathroom access between 12 p.m. and 5 p.m.

“We hope everyone is safe and that your homes are without damage after yesterday’s intense storm that battered Ottawa and the surrounding areas,” the email said.

Even Israel’s mission in Ottawa was also impacted: several diplomats have been without power at their Ottawa homes since Saturday, according to spokesman Eli Lipshitz.

Several synagogues and schools are without power, as of Monday evening, according to Andrea Freedman, the president of the Ottawa Jewish Federation:

Torah Day School of Ottawa, Kehillat Beth Israel congregation, Machzikei Hadas synagogue, Temple Israel.

(Ed. note: Machzikei Hadas was still without power Thursday, according to Ian Sherman, of The Jewish Federation of Ottawa.)

In Toronto, the head of UJA Federation, Adam Minsky, told The CJN he had not heard of any community agencies facing a power outage.

“If there is a need, we are prepared to mobilize the necessary resources,” Minsky said in a text message.

On Sunday, workers were at the site of Associated Hebrew Schools in Toronto assessing the storm damage, mainly to the tents and chairs near the play structure at the south end of the parking lot.

Saint-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec: ‘incredibly, incredibly lucky’

In Ste.-Agathe-des Monts, north of Montreal, Sandy Wolofsky and her parents consider themselves “incredibly, incredibly lucky.” The storm hit their country house and knocked out power on Saturday, as trees fell on the Hydro wires and also crashed into a shed.

However across the street from their home, a tree fell onto their neighbours’ car and another neighbour’s house was destroyed.

Wolofsky and her parents, aged 89, and 91, have been living up north full time since the pandemic hit, in the Laurentian community about 90 minutes north of Montreal. They have been down to their city home in Cote-Saint-Luc only a couple of times since March of 2020.

But after two days of using candles for light, and cool evening temperatures inside the cottage, Wolofsky’s mother wants to leave and go down to Montreal.

“My dad sees it as an adventure,” she added, with a smile.

Wolofsky made her way Sunday to the Damien-Hetu municipal sports centre in the community, which has opened for stranded residents to charge their cellphones, take showers, and stay warm.

There has been enough drinking water until now, but the Wolofskys were recently informed by Saint-Agathe that the municipal water system has suffered a breakdown after the storm. Residents are being urged to ration their drinking water, as it is expected to run out, or be sporadically available.

Shed damaged by fallen tree at Sandy Wolofsky’s family country house in Ste.-Agathe-des-Monts, north of Montreal. (Facebook photo used with permission).

‘Many downed lines’

The storm brought “hurricane-force” winds, according to Alectra Utilities, the hydro company responsible for electricity in areas north and west of Toronto, where the wild weather hit at about 1 p.m. on Saturday. The agency tweeted Sunday it had 120,000 customers without power, but as of midday Sunday, repair crews had restored power to all but 24,000 homes and businesses.

“We understand this isn’t easy. We were hit with hurricane force winds (120 km/h) that broke many poles across our service areas. We have many downed lines due to fallen tree limbs and debris. All available crews are working to restore power,” the agency said in a Tweet.

Alectra handles power for Aurora, Vaughan, Markham, Richmond Hill, Brampton, Mississauga and Hamilton.

Promenade Mall
Tree damage near the Promenade Mall in Thornhill on Sunday May 22, 2022. (Ellin Bessner photo)

Thornhill without power

In Vaughan, Ont., power was knocked out in Thornhill Woods. A piece of the roof of a condominium under construction toppled onto Bathurst Street near Atkinson on Saturday.

The nearby Walmart Thornhill Supercentre at 700 Centre Street, in the heart of the area’s Jewish community, remained closed all day Sunday, while staff hooked up generators. A steady stream of unsuspecting customers turned up Sunday hoping to find supplies, only to be greeted by staff at the door informing them the store was still closed. They expect to reopen Monday.

One couple came in search of bottled water, as their North York condo had been without water since the storm hit. They couldn’t flush their toilets or use their stove, and their air conditioning was not working.

But it was the stockpile of kosher chicken from Costco, spoiling away in the couple’s refrigerator, that is most upsetting to the woman, who asked that her name not be used.

“I have thousands of dollars of frozen chicken that is thawing. So I know it’s a first-world problem, but it’s pretty irritating,” she said on Sunday.

Walmart Thornhill
The storm knocked power out to the Walmart Thornhill Supercentre and it remained closed for the entire next day. (Ellin Bessner photo)

The psychotherapist was at work on Saturday when the storm hit, and her husband was working from their home near Yonge and Sheppard. They don’t understand why it’s taking the Toronto electricity company so long to get to their condominium.

“His mom lives not so far down the street from us, and they resolved it very quickly. So I don’t know what’s going on with Hydro One, that they’re slacking?” she wondered.

(Ed. note: the power was restored by late Sunday night.)

‘A sign of good luck’

New homeowners Sarah and Mathew moved into their midtown Toronto home on Friday, May 13. But the bad luck would come a week later, as Saturday’s storm sent a backyard tree crashing down onto their roof. Part of the broken tree knocked off their chimney and sent that into their neighbour’s yard, leaving a hole near their skylight. The rest of the tree is perched on power lines, although their home still has electricity.

“Honestly, we’ve had a series of bad-luck incidents over the last two months. So this is just an icing on top of everything,” she told The CJN on Sunday.

After a week living in their new home, Sarah Kula and Mathew Mendelsohn now have a toppled tree on their roof in midtown Toronto. (Submitted photo)

The technology analyst considers herself lucky, because she was out for a walk in the nearby Cedarvale ravine when she received the alert notification from Environment Canada on her phone. She quickly headed for shelter in an Aroma coffee shop, where she waited for the worst of the storm to pass.

Meanwhile, Mendelsohn, an engineer, was working in the basement of their home when he heard a big noise and came up to discover the tree had fallen. The couple fears more damage will happen before emergency crews arrive to lift it off the power lines. She could not get through to speak to a live agent at Toronto’s 3-1-1 call centre until 1 o’clock Sunday morning.

What makes the situation even more frustrating for them is that the previous owners had received a notice from the City of Toronto that the tree was dead and was scheduled to be removed. The municipality owns the tree. The notice is dated February 8, 2022.

Now, the couple is worried the City won’t take responsibility for leaving the tree there for another three months, despite documentation it sent clearly telling the previous owners the Manitoba maple was decaying in the stem and the city was coming to remove it.

Despite the unexpected shock of the storm, the couple received some welcome well-wishes from their neighbour, whose house the rest of their tree is sitting on. Their neighbours, who are Israeli, told them this is a sign of good luck.

After meeting online during COVID, and then struggling to be able to find their first affordable home in the skyrocketing real estate market, Sara and her partner were able to smile on Sunday while showing this reporter the extent of the damage to the home they’ve lived in for just a week.

“If anything, we learned that we’re pretty resilient together, but we are hoping that we get some good news coming soon,” she said.

Ottawa Jewish cemetery closed

“It was shocking. It’s shocking. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

That was the reaction when Brent Taylor went to Bank Street’s Jewish cemetery in Ottawa to assess the “significant damage” caused by Saturday’s storm. Taylor is co-chair of the Jewish Memorial Gardens, which operates two cemeteries, including one in Osgoode, Ont.

He estimates that “dozens” of tombstones have been damaged or toppled at the Bank Street site, and uprooted trees have literally flattened parts of the newly renovated fencing around the historic burial ground.

Hundred-year-old trees splintered in the south end, where most of the damage is, according to Taylor. It’s mostly in the first three sections, where the Ottawa Jewish community’s earliest members are buried.

Storm damage at Ottawa’s main Jewish cemetery on Bank Street on Sunday May 21, 2022. (Brent Taylor photo)

However, Taylor found damage in other sections, including Section 10, near the front entrance, and also at the northern end.

“The scope of the damage is quite amazing,” Taylor said, adding that some of the large trees broke through the gate and were lying across the road. “The City crews just didn’t get to it yet and it could be days before they get to it.”

It appears the storm also affected the grave of one the most prominent founding families of Ottawa’s Jewish community, the Bilskys. Taylor wasn’t sure whether there was damage, but that will become clearer when work crews inspect the site.

Although one funeral did take place Sunday, the cemetery has now been closed to visitors for the next few days as a precaution. Officials are worried about further safety problems from trees that may have been damaged but have not yet fallen to the ground.

The Osgoode site did suffer minor damage, but is remaining open.

tombstone toppled Ottawa
Storm damage to the Ottawa Jewish cemetery on Bank Street after Saturday’s violent weather May 21, 2022. (Brent Taylor photo)