by Stan Scislowski
past September,Torontonians were told to expect the worst
when Hurricane Isobel moved in from the Atlantic Ocean. The
resulting damage was minimal compared to the night nearly
50 years earlier when Hurricane Hazel roared through their
October 15, 1954 Hurricane Hazel destroyed much of Haiti and
turned towards New York and Pennsylvania. The storm blew across
the Great Lakes with winds of 70 miles an hour. In Southern
Ontario, it produced high winds and incredibly strong rain.
Over the course of that day and night, Toronto received a
record amount of rain: eight inches or one hundred eighty
millimeters fell in some areas over twenty-four hours. This
rainfall, added to the already sodden ground, caused the some
of the most severe flooding recorded in Canadian history.
Floods caused by Hurricane Hazel
swept many houses away – Toronto, 1954
much of the floodplain areas had been drained and developed,
the flood damage was high, estimated at $25 million ($150 million
in 2003 dollars). Over 20 bridges were destroyed or damaged
beyond repair, 81 lives lost, and 1,868 families left
of the houses on Raymore Drive, on the Etobicoke side of the
river just south of Lawrence Avenue, were washed into the
Humber River, killing 32 residents in a less than one
hour. The entire five-man pumper crew from the Lambton-Kingsway
fire department died when their vehicle was swept into the
raging river; one of the bodies was never recovered. In fact,
the water in the river moved so swiftly that some bodies were
eventually found on the other side of Lake Ontario on the
shores of New York state.
at Bloor Street, Dundas Street, Old Mill, and Albion Road
on the Humber River were badly damaged, while the bridge at
Lawrence Avenue in Weston was washed out. All the flats were
inundated, and roads and buildings were damaged.
the north of Toronto, over 3,000 people abandoned their
homes in the Holland Marsh area as the floodwaters engulfed
the farmland. The water levels rose so quickly that sandbagging
efforts failed, dykes overflowed, and residents were instructed
to seek higher ground.
of those who lost their lives were swept away by the raging
waters of the Humber River and its tributaries, creek-like
under normal conditions – but on this night, conditions
were far from normal.
people can still clearly recall their personal experiences
of Hurricane Hazel as if it was yesterday. Winnie McLean,
a former Legion Branch president asked me quite a few years
ago to write about what happened to her and her family when
Hurricane Hazel swept in from the south.
Night to Remember
and Winnie McLean, their 4-month-old daughter Sue, and 14-month-old
son Calvin were living in a rented two-bedroom house in Islington,
where the usually placid and meandering Black Creek ran past
the back end of their property. Here’s Winnie’s
account about what happened on that Godforsaken night when
whole families were swept away to their deaths in the muddy,
are two things that sneak up on you, one is old age and the
other is a huge flood. In this case it was the latter. Nelson
and I were sitting in our living room watching TV when suddenly
the screen went blank. I went outside to see if the aerial
had blown off the roof, but when I stepped out the door, there
was a calmness, a stillness in the air much like after a storm.
As we couldn't watch our favourite programs on TV, and since
the storm appeared to be over, we retired for the night, unaware
of the terrible events that were soon to unfold.
were awakened at 1a.m. by loud banging on our window and someone
shouting: ‘Get out!, Get out!’ We went out to
take a look at what was going on and were surprised to see
water in the front and back yard running fast and deep, and
people yelling, ‘Get out, there's a flood!’
quickly threw winter suits and a blanket on our babies. I
managed to get into only a slip and skirt, while Nelson got
his hip-boots on and a jacket over his pajamas. We stuffed
blankets into the bath to keep the water out; this all took
place in less than five minutes. I didn't have time to rescue
any valuable items, but managed to grab the babies' bottle-sterilizer,
but then discovered there were no bottles in it.
slipped out the back door and stepped into waist deep water
where two burly firemen took our babies, tied ropes around
our waists, steered us to another rope that enabled us to
climb up the muddy embankment to safety.
there we were we could see the two-storey Scarlett Road Hotel,
with the floodwater running through the upper windows and
out through the back. The most pathetic and heart-rending
sight we saw were the cars floating by with people clinging
desperately on top crying out for help.
people were halfway up hydro poles waiting to be rescued,
but before long the surging waters claimed them.
On that night of terror and death, a radio news announcer,
in a casual voice, mentioned that there was flooding on Toronto's
west side, and that people who owned a motorboat could assist
in the rescue operation.
minutes later came another announcement that only boats of
20 H.P. would be needed. Five more minutes went by and again
an announcement that now it had to be boats of 50 H.P. The
last request was for boats having 100 H.P. motors, the only
size that could navigate the seething, tumbling, fast-flowing
water. The requests for help from boat owners, I have to say
in hindsight, today seems rather comical.
new steel bridge over Black Creek, a block from our house,
stopped several houses from being carried out into Lake Ontario.
It was so sad to look into their upper rooms and see all the
possesions destined to be lost forever. Roofs were gone and
there were big holes in buildings’ sides. The houses
had floated down from Raymore Drive where so many had drowned.
To the north of Toronto, over
3,000 people abandoned their homes in the Holland
Marsh area as the floodwaters engulfed the farmland.
street was a circular one, with all new houses on it, and
those homes that formed a circle in the centre became an island,
trapping the families on the rooftops. Those who tried to
swim to safety never made it.
far from the hotel, a hook and ladder fire-truck with a full
complement of five volunteer firemen was swallowed up by the
raging waters. It wasn't until 35 years later that the truck
was found at the bottom of Lake Ontario, some four or five
miles from where it went under.
power of the floodwater was so great, the pressure it exerted
forced many furnaces right up through the roofs of the houses.
After the flood waters abatted, and we were able to come back
to where we lived, we were stunned at what our eyes took in.
Where Nelson had parked his truck on the road, the water had
eroded the gravel base and the soil underneath – our
truck was sitting some 20 feet down in a great pit. What saved
it from being carried away like so many other vehicles was
the weight of steel loaded into the back.
Flooding destroyed a trailer camp
in Woodbridge; 20 people died.
stands out in my memory along with all the other horrible
things we witnessed was the silt or clay that covered and
penetrated everything. It was in the motor, the brakes, and
much later I even found it in the joints in whatever furniture
we could still use.
behind the hotel was the Islington Golf Course. When the all
the little pools of water drained away two days later, a brother-in-law,
who was a Toronto fireman, was one of many volunteers who
walked around the Golf Course with shovels in hand, digging
in the silt for bodies.
tried many times to decide which is worse being caught in
a flood or in a fire. I suppose it all depends on whichever
event one has the misfortune of being a victim.”
October 3, 1979, The Metropolitan Toronto and Region
Conservation Authority held a 25th Anniversary Seminar commemorating
Hurricane Hazel; over 200 people attended.
1957, the Conservation Authority has undertaken a comprehensive
program of resource management on the watersheds under its
jurisdiction, including flood control. It has acquired floodplain
property, which has been cleared of residences and converted
to parkland. In addition, the use of floodplain regulations
enables the Conservation Authority to control activities in
areas susceptible to flooding.
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