‘As Bad as It Gets’: Why What Hit Ottawa Was Worse Than 2018’s Ice Storm or Tornadoes

Four massive steel cell towers crumpled around Ottawa hint at the magnitude of the challenge crews face in the wake of Saturday’s massive storm as they work to restore power to tens of thousands of people.

Those Hydro One towers, or what’s left of them, also prove how ferocious the winds that plagued the region were — and how fragile the city’s power grid can be.

They are evidence of a weather event that Hydro Ottawa CEO Bryce Conrad said was worse than the ice storm of 1998 and the tornadoes that ripped through the area in 2018.

“That [towers] are meant to withstand ice loads and massive winds, and they collapsed like children’s toys,” he said.

Shared this photo on social media, Hydro Ottawa shows a toppled Hydro One cell tower at the Hunt Club Road exit of Highway 417. It is one of four towers that Hydro One said had collapsed from storms that hit the area on Saturday. (Hydro Ottawa/Twitter)

While the ice storm covered areas of eastern Ontario 24 years ago and also toppled towers, it was largely a nationwide event on the scene, Conrad explained, when asked why Saturday’s storm was worse.

The six tornadoes that slashed through the Ottawa-Gatineau region about four years ago wiped out the Merivale transmission station and damaged some poles, leaving Barrhaven and other places in the dark.

But Conrad said they knew it was just a matter of getting power back from the provincial grid to lighten the community again.

This storm was different.

“There is not a square inch of our service area that has not been adversely affected by this event,” said Conrad.

“This is as bad as it gets.”

An estimated 110,000 people are still waiting for the lights to come back on, officials said at a Monday afternoon news conference. That number was about 75,000 as of 7 a.m. Tuesday.

The strongest wind gust measured Saturday at Ottawa International Airport was 120 km/h. While storms don’t always hit the airport with full force, it’s the strongest gust recorded there since 1962.

A vehicle was seen between downed power lines and utility poles after a severe storm on Ottawa’s Merivale Road on Saturday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

All available workers and contractors have been working around the clock, said Joseph Muglia, the director of systems management and grid automation for Hydro Ottawa.

Reinforcements have been deployed from Kingston, Ontario, the Toronto area and New Brunswick.

They are focused on restoring power to critical institutions such as hospitals and the water treatment plant, before targeting large neighborhoods where they can get “the best bang for our buck,” Muglia said on Sunday.

Both the local and provincial network have suffered extensive damage, he added.

“This storm, however short, was very destructive.”

Hundreds of broken poles

Hydro Ottawa has provided estimates ranging from 160 to 200 broken piles, listing downed trees and damaged infrastructure, among other obstacles to getting power back on.

Conrad suggested it could go on for another two to four days, 24 hours a day, but even then there will be homes damaged so crews won’t risk re-energizing them.

Hydro One struggles with its own damage. Spokesperson Tiziana Baccega Rosa said on Tuesday there are about 1,400 broken poles in Ontario.

The huge cell towers that are now bent as if they were “made of paper” were part of the system that supplies power to Ottawa, she said, before being distributed through the local electrical grid.

“It’s like the highway, it’s like your 400 series,” explained Baccega Rosa. “It moves energy from where it’s generated to where it needs to go.”

While they’re not the only reason the power goes out, they’re an important piece of the puzzle, she said.

Baccega Rosa compared repairs to building with Lego bricks, explaining that fixing a power outage isn’t as simple as bringing a hydrotruck to your house.

Instead, it has to be done in sequence or the crews will work backwards.

“You have to lay the groundwork,” she said. “We need to fix the major lines first, to fix the minor lines, and then all the way to the ones you see on your street.”

Hydroelectric infrastructure and fallen trees line a street in Carleton Place, Ontario on Monday. Hydro One, which covers much of eastern Ontario outside of Ottawa, says it is also facing major challenges in getting people back to power. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Not a good answer

According to Conrad, as more fallen trees are removed in Ottawa, workers are discovering more and more damage.

Even if they are confident the feeder line is ready to be energized, they are “very careful” and will patrol the area again rather than risk someone dying or starting a fire, he said.

The extent of the damage has led some to suggest there must be a better way of doing things, but Conrad said buried lines at Trend-Arlington in Ottawa were also destroyed by the 2018 tornado.

And while it’s easy to pick wood posts, a sturdier, more expensive alternative also fell down Hawthorne Avenue during Saturday’s storm, he noted.

Hydro Ottawa crews are working Sunday to restore power in the Carlington neighborhood of Ottawa after a powerful storm swept through the region the day before. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

“We don’t really know what the hell happened to us,” Conrad said. “Whatever it was, it knocked down composite poles 65 feet tall.”

When asked what could prevent massive power outages in the future, he heaved a sigh.

“I’d like to tell you that I have a perfect plan so that this never happens again,” Conrad said. “I wish I had the right answer. I shouldn’t have to work.’

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