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After last summer’s tornado, Jacqueline Muccio found herself sweeping the same section of her deck over and over, unable to fathom the mangled trees blanketing her yard in Madoc, Ont.
“I didn’t know where to begin,” Muccio said.
The tornado had shredded a path through the woods where her family used to take walks, uprooting massive century-old trees and scattering them around the property like a gigantic game of pick-up sticks. The twister came within a few hundred metres of their house, perched atop a small hill. Close enough for them to feel its freight train-like roar, to pelt the entire building with mud and leaves and to bend the trees in the yard until they touched the ground and snapped.
Nearly a year after the July 24 tornado, the forest on Muccio’s property is still covered with heaps of trunks splayed in every direction and craters from uprooted trees. The family cleaned up what they could on their own and stretched their budget to get help with some of it. But nearly snapped trees hanging precariously over most of the property mean it’s too dangerous for untrained people to deal with. The quote they got for professional help was $115,000. Insurance covered a tiny portion, and their single-income family can’t come up with the rest of the money alone.
So for now, they’re waiting, hoping someone can help them before it’s too late. If lightning were ever to strike the property — which it does all the time, since it’s atop a hill — all that fallen, dried-out wood could quickly catch fire and become a tinderbox, spreading flames beyond their property lines. The area doesn’t have a history of huge wildfires like regions further north, but still, every storm leaves the family on edge.
“We need help. We can’t do this,” Muccio said. “I don’t know many people who can come up with $115,000.”
Muccio’s family is one of many in eastern Ontario that feel forgotten since storms barrelled through their towns last summer. Tucked in the rolling hills and sprawling fields between Peterborough and Ottawa, the communities along the Highway 7 corridor are neither a major tourist destination nor close to a big city. Outsiders might not even remember a tornado tore through, let alone have any idea people are still struggling.
In March, the Ontario government gave $5.5 million to 22 communities coping with cleanup from both the tornado and another severe storm, called a derecho, that swept along Highway 7 a few months earlier, in May 2022.
Of that $5.5 million, Madoc received $889,964.62. If any of it had gone to private individuals, which it hasn’t, about half of that would be eaten up by just Muccio and her immediate neighbours. But so far, it’s been used to clean up public land.
Together, the storms flattened thousands more hectares of forests in eastern Ontario. The tornado alone scored a 55-kilometre path through not just Madoc, but also the communities of Tweed, Limerick and the Township of Marmora and Lake. At some points the twister was more than 1.4 kilometres wide.
Marmora and Lake Mayor Jan O’Neill said the money her township received is enough to reimburse the municipality for cleanup on public property. Although they’re grateful for it, they’d like to see some help for private landowners too. “They didn’t receive any provincial funding to help with the cleanup,” she said.
The provincial government didn’t respond to questions from The Narwhal about whether it would consider setting aside more money for cleanup from the storms. Neither did the federal government.
The relationship between tornadoes and climate change is complicated. Climate change meddles in many ways with weather conditions like moisture and temperature, which affect whether tornadoes can form.
Scientific work to understand all these factors and track how they may be affecting storms is still in its infancy, said David Sills, the executive director of the Northern Tornadoes Project at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.
Take heat domes, a weather event that happens — and is happening more frequently these days — when hot air gets trapped in place by the atmosphere. Heat domes lead to warmer temperatures, and since hot air can contribute to tornadoes, you might think this would increase tornado risk. But heat domes also contribute to wildfires that release smoke, which cuts the amount of sunlight that hits the ground, limiting how much the surface can actually heat up. And heat domes can contribute to droughts — which is important because moisture can fuel thunderstorms where tornadoes are likely to form.
It’s clear things are changing, but it’s difficult for scientists to pin down how or why, and what that might mean for tornadoes in the future. The changes vary even from region to region.
“Probably in the next 10 years we’ll know a lot more about this,” Sills said, adding that research on how climate change affects hurricanes, droughts and heat waves is further ahead than on tornadoes.
So far, early evidence indicates tornadoes may become less common in the Prairies and more common in eastern Ontario and southern Quebec. Scientists don’t know why, exactly. But more tornadoes can create a cascading set of problems and potential disasters.
Trees took the brunt of the damage when the tornado hit eastern Ontario last summer, with winds peaking at 190 kilometres per hour. Aside from the initial damage and remaining debris, the destruction left buildings in the region with very little to shield them from future storms that blow through.
“The structures are more vulnerable to the wind now,” Sills said. “And obviously, people in the area think they’re more vulnerable to fire as well with all of the kindling lying around.”
Flooding, too, is a worry. The Municipality of Tweed used part of the money it received from the provincial government to clear fallen trees from clogged rivers, piles of which are still visible by the side of the highway. Like Madoc, Tweed doesn’t have the resources to offer much help to private landowners. Madoc has a population of just over 2,200, while Tweed has about 6,000: the property tax base is just too tiny for the municipalities to ever build enough of a reserve to deal with disasters of this scope.
“There’s no national program where provinces and the feds work together to try and alleviate some of the burden that is placed on residents when these kinds of events happen,” Tweed Mayor Don DeGenova told The Narwhal.
“Every time I talk about this, I get very, very upset because it’s not fair to these people. It’s not fair at all.”
At Littlebrook Farm in Madoc, Shane Mumby is frustrated too. The farm is a multigenerational effort, with a sugar bush on part of the property and kilometres of trails elsewhere for sleigh and carriage rides, part of the family’s livelihood. He’d just cleared the trees felled by the derecho off those trails last summer when the tornado struck.
The home he lives in with his family sits at the front of the property, behind a hill and hundreds of hectares of forest. The tornado touched down and lifted off a few times on that tract, barely missing the sugar bush and tearing the woods apart until they were completely unrecognizable. Hemlock trees, normally tough to chop down, were left twisted like rubber. A year later, kilometres of trails are impassable, blocked by debris.
“I was actually the one that found it,” Mumby said, pushing through damaged branches on what used to be a path. “I thought, ‘I’ll go check my trails,’ and I came into this. We’ve all been in tears … This is our life. I’ve been on this property for 25 years. I’ve hiked it all with my daughter in my arms, most times. We’ve camped out here, we’ve done everything out here.”
The tornado bounced off the hill, which saved their home. But the same hill attracts lightning — it’s already been hit a few times this year, and every time Mumby worries about the risk of wildfire.
“The hill saved us,” he said. “But at the same time it’s our detriment.”
It would take $200,000 to clear the trails enough for Mumby to offer the full carriage rides they once did, and he’s watched bookings drop. Clearing the fire risk for the entire property would cost $800,000. Mumby also operates a sawmill, which could be helpful, except the downed wood on the property is far too shredded to be of use to anyone. Like Muccio’s property, the fallen trees are too unstable and dangerous for the family to tackle on their own.
“If it wasn’t a risk of forest fire, over four or five years I could probably build some trails through here again on my own,” Mumby said. “But even me working in here with a chainsaw is a risk of a forest fire. That’s because it’s a gas engine.”
Mumby doesn’t like the government, and he doesn’t like public speaking. But now he spends hours emailing and calling all levels of government, hoping someone, anyone, will step up. They mostly don’t reply, except for Madoc Mayor Loyde Blackburn, who Mumby said has backed him up as much as he can.
“Why are we nobody?” Mumby said. “I find because we’re rural Ontario, we’re not Toronto, we’re not Ottawa, nobody knows we’re even here.”
“Sometimes rural Ontario, we have to fight a lot harder,” Blackburn told The Narwhal. “We’re human beings like everyone else.”
O’Neill, the Marmora and Lake mayor, worries about what might happen if the tree-jammed rivers near the township flood, or if a wildfire is sparked before anyone heeds the region’s calls for help. The former township of Lake, on the northern end of her municipality, is where most of the debris from last summer’s storms is still sitting around. It’s also far enough away from Marmora itself that the municipality contracts out emergency services there to a different municipality, which might make things complicated if disaster were to strike.
“We’re kind of expecting the worst,” she said.
— With files from Denise Balkissoon
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