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Storm troopers at Freshii

By Tara Tosh Kennedy – 

While most Westboro food businesses locked up and hunkered down to wait out the weekend power outage this September, Freshii manager Liisa Honkanen propped open her restaurant’s front door.

“At the end of the day, that’s what you need to do in your community,” she says, explaining her decision to keep the franchise location open in the wake of the six tornadoes that ravaged parts of Ottawa on September 21. “It’s important to just have a place for people to go.”

When the power first went out at 5:56 p.m. that Friday, Liisa and her staff stayed calm. She looked outside and saw the businesses across from her on Richmond Road near Churchill Avenue  – Gezellig, DavidsTea, and Heist Jewellery – still had power, so she wasn’t overly worried. She made the decision to close up for the evening, encouraging guests to linger as long as they needed. Half an hour later, she noticed across the street had also gone dark. It was not a hopeful sign.

Using the flashlight on her phone, Liisa took everything that was ready-made and went out to the street. At first, she thought she would load it into her car and bring it to her parents’ home, since they had no power and would probably be hungry. People were walking past in the darkness, and she encouraged them to take what they wanted – the juice and snacks were going to go bad anyway. One couple insisted on giving her $20 in return, half of which she passed on to an exhausted-looking young gas station employee a couple hours later when she finally found a place to fuel up and grab herself a sandwich.

Soon after she arrived home that night, Liisa’s fiancé Jonathan Rollin learned how he too would be helping the city recover: his employer, FirstOnSite Restoration, needed all hands on deck early Saturday morning to help clean-up efforts in Arlington Woods. When the storm hit, Jonathan was driving in Gatineau and decided to wait out the winds in a parking lot. He recorded the disturbing experience with his phone. The video shows a mess of debris swirling and darting menacingly through the air.

Echoing the thoughts of so many others over that weekend, Liisa notes the footage looks like something from a movie. “I’ll keep the volume turned off,” she says. “You don’t want to hear the words he was using.” Just a few feet away from Jonathan, a car was badly damaged and the businesses around the parking lot remained closed for days even after power was restored.

On Saturday morning, the couple went their separate ways: Liisa arrived at Freshii early to meet with the franchise location owner Karla Briones. Overnight, they had received their routine food delivery and Karla was determined to not let it go to waste. She put out a call to her friends on Facebook for the loan of generators and it wasn’t long before three generators and extra fuel were delivered, one coming from two hours away in Quebec. “One of the generators had been ordered three weeks before and arrived at the guy’s house the day before the storm,” Liisa says. “Still in the box, not even opened.”

By 2 p.m. Saturday, the generators were in place, the restaurant’s fridges were on, coffee was brewing, and the front door stood open. The menu was limited (they couldn’t offer hot food – it took too much power – but almost everything else was available). And even though the restaurant isn’t a coffee shop, they sold 77 cups in five hours, unheard of for a restaurant known for its healthy alternative to fast food. Entire families came in, says Liisa, with kids doing homework and parents working on laptops while they recharged their devices.

Liisa worked through the day and tried not to text her fiancé – she knew he was busy helping emergency crews locate massive tarps all over the city before bringing them into the shattered neighbourhood near Hunt Club Road. Jonathan and others spent hours attaching the tarps to the badly damaged houses, trying to protect the buildings as much as possible after they were torn apart by winds and the remnants of dozens of 150-year-old white pines that distinguish the upscale area.

Shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday night, the power was back on in the restaurant. Many of the houses in the neighbourhood weren’t so lucky, so Liisa returned to the restaurant Sunday and opened two hours early for local homeowners on the prowl for coffee and a place to plug in their phones.

“You don’t open to make money,” she says. “You open because you have power.”

Is there an individual or Kitchissippi-area business who did some great work during “tornado weekend?” Let us know in the comments below or use this form to contact us.

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