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Uxbridge families balancing storm cleanup, school closures days after destruction

UXBRIDGE, Ont. — Jeffery Bolingbroke and Brittany Risebrough had been living in their new home for just two months before the roof was torn off. The Uxbridge, Ont.
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A utility worker assesses a transmission tower as they work to sever it from its base to remove it, after it was damaged in Saturday’s major storm in Ottawa, on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

UXBRIDGE, Ont. — Jeffery Bolingbroke and Brittany Risebrough had been living in their new home for just two months before the roof was torn off. 

The Uxbridge, Ont., couple recalled sitting on their front deck and barely making it inside for cover as their porch collapsed and trees flew through the window during a vicious storm that tore across Ontario over the weekend. 

Days later, the family is picking up the pieces while staying in an Airbnb, juggling meetings with insurance providers, the operation of their landscaping business and trying to ensure Risebrough's 12-year-old daughter has some semblance of stability.

"It’s so much on them," Bolingbroke said Wednesday of the impact of the storm's fallout on children. 

"Just through a pandemic ... then we just get settled in a new place, and then this happens. We're just trying to keep spirits up. That's all."

Risebrough said the pair are focused on being strong after the initial shock of the disaster, and they’re holding out hope that repairs to their home take place quickly so they can return to normal. 

"Being here is super important to us, so hopefully it goes quickly," she said.

Environment Canada said a tornado touched down in Uxbridge during Saturday's storm, which felled trees, downed power lines and caused extensive property damage in certain areas. At least 10 people were killed across the province. 

Risebrough's daughter returned to school in Uxbridge on Wednesday but another school in the community remained closed, as did two others in Durham Region. 

Sam McFarlane, who lives down the street from the shuttered Uxbridge Public School, said her family was told debris on the school property posed a safety hazard to students. 

Speaking from her front porch, which hosted a half dozen yard bags full of storm debris, McFarlane said she was working from home using Wi-Fi from a generator while her kids, who are in junior kindergarten and Grade 2, played with puzzles and read books to pass the time. 

A few days at home is manageable for her family, she said, but she'd like her kids to return to the classroom as quickly as possible given the impact of earlier pandemic-related shutdowns, which saw Ontario schools closed most recently for several weeks in January.

"We've missed a lot of school already," she said. "I'd like to get them back in so they can at least get as much learning as they possibly can for this year."

Trees that had fallen in the doorway and across the grounds of Uxbridge Public School were just being cleared away by early afternoon, as the neighbourhood buzzed with the sound of backup generators powering residents' refrigerators and other essentials.

Robert Cross of Cross Brothers Tree Services said it would probably take a few days to get through required cleanups for the Durham District School Board. 

Standing outside Uxbridge Public School as his team cleared debris, he noted that most schools weren’t badly hit but the widespread storm damage has stretched resources thin.

"It’s going to keep us busy for a while," he said. 

Even as parents in Uxbridge dealt with power outages and child-care hurdles, many in the town expressed concern for neighbours who saw worse damage. 

Ashley Moule was out walking her 11-month-old son with friend Jessica Empringham on Wednesday – a regular activity the two mothers said they'd been engaging in to pass the time since the storm hit.

Moule’s power was still out, cell service has been spotty and her daycare was shut on Tuesday due to the power outage, but she said she felt grateful her home was unscathed.

"It’s been difficult, definitely, but no serious damage to our house, so I can’t really complain,” she said. 

Empringham added that it's been heartening to see the community rally and help each other rebuild.

"It’s kind of nice to see the progress, to see how many people are working together to push through," she said. 

Bolingbroke also said the community's response to the storm had been one silver lining of the crisis.

"Definitely at first, there was just this overwhelming feeling of where do you start. Then as soon as the first chainsaw started up, the entire community came out," he said. 

"There were 50 people out, clearing lines and clearing trees and coming together for each other. That was probably the bright side of things that came out of it."

Environment Canada said a derecho – a rare widespread windstorm associated with a line of thunderstorms – developed near Sarnia, Ont., on Saturday and moved northeastward across the province. 

Three communities, including Uxbridge, declared states of emergency to respond to the storm and more than 150,000 customers across Ontario were still without power on Wednesday morning.

In Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson said Wednesday afternoon that 55,000 customers remained without power in the city. 

Bryce Conrad, president of Ottawa Hydro, said more than 250 additional hydro workers are either in Ottawa already or arriving Thursday to help rebuild more than half of the city's power grid that was destroyed or damaged.

"This is by far the most devastating weather event we have experienced to date," he said, adding he expects the vast majority of customers to be back on the grid by Friday evening.

Jason Pollard, section manager of forestry at the City of Ottawa, told The Canadian Press in an interview that the city has received 2,400 calls from homeowners about downed trees since Saturday, and each call the forestry officials attend generally includes multiple trees. He said it's too soon to determine how many trees came down, but it is in the thousands.

- with files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022. 

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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