The Ontario Derecho: When a Disaster Brings Out Kindness

Cars trapped when a sugar maple snaps and falls on them in Saturday’s Derecho, Peterborough, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It’s Wednesday and parts of the city still have no power since Saturday’s storm swept through like a ferocious lion. We got our power yesterday. We’d relied on our kind neighbours, who had a barbecue, to cook up some suppers. The power has come back in stages depending on where lines were brought down by trees or the violent wind microbursts.

A string of power poles and lines downed by the violent winds of the derecho along Highway 29 near Lakefield, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Environment Canada calls Saturday’s storm a derecho: a long line of very active and violent thunderstorms or microbursts that include winds of at least 93 km/h with focused gusts of 121 km/h or greater. According to Environment Canada Senior Climatologist David Phillips, the storm spanned about 1,000 kilometers from Michigan to Maine as it went across Ontario and Quebec. Derechos typically contain numerous downburst clusters (families of downburst clusters) that, in turn, have smaller downbursts, and smaller microbursts. These tight, often cyclic tornado-like bursts within larger linear downbursts are what likely created the random devastation seen in Peterborough, where one tree was entirely uprooted and the tree beside it left untouched.

Birch uprooted on Auburn Street, Peterborough (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A true ‘herald archetype’, environmental disasters incite change, often through disorder. In doing so, they can bring out the best in us. The true mettle of a person is often revealed during such times, through the emergence of compassion and kindness.   

I live just off the Rotary Trail in Peterborough, facing a mixed riparian forest of mostly black walnut and locust trees, with some silver maple, willow, Manitoba maple, oak and ash. The trail is well used every day by cyclists and walkers. The tornado-force winds and deluge rains singled out a few trees on the forest edge and flung them across the trail. A quick inspection shortly after the storm revealed that several trees formed obstacles to those using the trail: a silver maple just in front of my good friend Merridy’s place; an old half-dead elm; and a large Manitoba maple whose upper canopy had gotten tangled in the telephone wires.

Various damaged and uprooted trees in Peterborough, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)

When Merridy and I decided to attempt clearing the Rotary Trail of strewn maple limbs and branches, we weren’t there more than five minutes when a cyclist stopped and without a word helped us; he grabbed large tree limbs and hoisted them aside like Superman then got on his bike and took off without a word—like Spiderman. After more dragging of tree limbs and my deft hand at the tree clippers and the broom, we cleared the trail for walkers and cyclists. 

Before (left) and after (right) we cleared the Rotary Trail of downed silver maple from the derecho (photos by Nina Munteanu)

And then there was Charlie … a fashion-savvy quasi hipster-hippy who came cycling in with his chainsaw and hand saw on his back; he’d been all over the trail clearing tree debris just because he could. Charlie set to work on the huge Manitoba maple that had fallen across the trail and was leaning heavily on the telephone wire. Charlie proceeded to climb the tree and saw branches here and there to lighten the limb on the wire before cutting it. Two of us ladies became his cleanup crew, hauling big tree sections off the path as he downed them. By the time he got to the main tree limb on the wire, a group of cheerleaders had formed to watch. We all clapped when the big branch came off the line. One elder lady on two walking canes hobbled out from her home and handed Charlie a Bobcaygeon Petes Lager as thanks.

Charlie sawing off branches from Manitoba maple tangled on telephone wire (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Charlie saws the remaining tree trunk to clear the trail (photo by Nina Munteanu)

At first it was just me and Charlie. Watching him set up, I’d asked him if he was from the city and in the same breath knew he wasn’t—we both knew they were very busy getting the city’s power back on and freeing streets and getting trees off the roofs of houses; it would be a long time before they came to the Rotary Trail and other parks to clear. He responded, “well, that depends… are you a lawyer?” I laughed. We both recognized that Charlie was a rogue Good Samaritan, using less than regular protocol (no safety harness or equipment [except for goggles] and climbing shoes). When I said no, he relaxed and we introduced ourselves and exchanged stories about the storm, then got to work. I was soon joined by Susan, and together we became Charlie’s support team, hauling limbs and branches out of the tangle then rolling large tree bole sections to the side. Eventually several more walkers and nearby residents came to support the work and watch. Within an hour, the entire tree was off the path and off the wire. I felt a wonderful sense of community as people gathered exchanged names and stories about the storm. And it all started with one person’s kindness. Thanks, Charlie!

Before (left) and after (right) Charlie and his gang cleared the way (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find that we really find our humanity and sense of kindness when a disaster strikes… one of the ‘good’ things about them.

Derecho damage to trees in the forest in Peterborough area, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.