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Cleanup begins following tornado in Barrie, Ont.; Premier Ford pledges support


BARRIE, Ont. — Residents whose homes were badly damaged or destroyed in a twister that tore through a southern Ontario city got a closer look at the wreckage Friday as they ventured back to retrieve key possessions, while the premier vowed to support the recovery efforts.

Premier Doug Ford toured the south Barrie neighbourhood where the tornado touched down and pledged to "step up" if insurance companies didn't cover the costs of repairs. 

"It's a shock, it's shocking, it's heartbreaking," Ford said as he stood on a street littered with debris, with several homes cordoned off.

"These people, within minutes, literally, their lives changed. But we're going to get them back on their feet."

Ford expressed relief, however, that no one had been killed in the disaster, calling it a "miracle."

Uprooted trees, toppled fences, pieces of building insulation and roofing materials remained strewn on lawns and streets in the area where the tornado cut its path Thursday afternoon. Several people were injured as a result of the twister.

For some residents, the brief return home to fetch medication, prized possessions or pets highlighted the extent of the damage and its fallout, Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman said.

"That's one of the real difficult things about this morning, is folks finding that their lives are gone, their possessions are gone or heavily damaged by the storm," he said in a video statement Friday morning. "But the cleanup efforts are beginning."

Tyler Musgrove, his brother Jacob and their roommate Kelly Trinh were surveying what remained of their backyard Friday morning.

What used to be their shed was reduced to a wooden foundation and a pile of debris, and there was nothing left of their gazebo.

"This is the first time I'm seeing the damage," said Trinh, who had to stay with her boyfriend overnight because access to the home was blocked by the time she arrived Thursday evening.

"It does not feel real," she said.

Inside, the damage is "not that bad," Jacob Musgrove said. His window was broken by a two-by-four, which he's considering keeping as a memento, he said.

Tyler Musgrove said he and his brother were the only ones home when the tornado hit. He recalled running out to close the door to the shed, which had been left open, and suddenly seeing "stuff flying" all around him. 

"The shed behind me started to break apart, it flew up and around me. Then I ran inside as fast as I could," he said.

He had to get stitches on his arm after getting cut up by glass and wood shrapnel, he said. His arm was bandaged up Friday morning.

The mayor said that 10 people were taken to hospital after the tornado, and all but two had been released as of Friday afternoon. He said none suffered life-threatening injuries. 

More than 100 people had been displaced, Lehman said, but the number could grow because some people went to stay with family and may not have reported their situation to the city yet.

Environment Canada has given the tornado a preliminary rating of EF-2, meaning it had maximum wind speeds of 210 kilometres per hour. The damage path was about five kilometres long and up to 100 metres wide, the weather office said.

Roughly 20 homes are considered uninhabitable, with two or three completely destroyed, fire Chief Cory Mainprize said.

Crews were expected to start making some repairs Friday, including patching up roofs that weren't too badly damaged.  

Lehman, the mayor, said the community has already started coming together to support those who lost the most to the tornado. 

He noted it's a familiar scene to many long-time Barrie residents. A tornado killed eight people and injured more than a hundred others in the city in 1985. Hundreds of homes in the Allendale neighbourhood were destroyed. 

"The scenes today are reminiscent of it," Lehman said. "I lived in that neighborhood as a boy. I mean, it's shocking, you know, you never expected to see it again."

Thursday's tornado brought back memories for 70-year-old Judy Arksey, too. 

"It was like deja-vu," she said. "I got one look at the sky and I knew what was coming."

She was in her daughter's car in a driveway when the tornado ripped down the street. Her two grandkids — aged six and 16 — were with them. 

"I remember the horses being lifted up out of the racetrack during the other tornado, and I thought, here goes our car with my grandkids in it," Arksey said. 

As soon as she saw the sky, she said, she told them to look down so they wouldn't see what was coming. Luckily, she said, the car stayed on the ground despite taking a beating in the strong wind, and she and her family escaped injury.

She said the community has come together in the wake of Thursday's destruction, just like it did 36 years ago. Arksey spent two weeks volunteering after the 1985 tornado, she said, helping out however she could at the church. 

"I'm too old to do that this time," she said.

Barrie police thanked everyone who made donations to support those affected by the tornado, but said they can't accept any more at this time.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 16, 2021.

Nicole Thompson in Barrie and Paola Loriggio in Toronto, The Canadian Press

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