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Hurricane Hazel

by Stan Scislowski

This 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 city.

On 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

As 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 homeless.

All 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.

Bridges 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.

To 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.

Most 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.

Many 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.

A Night to Remember

Nelson 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, raging waters:

“There 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.

We 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!’

We 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.

We 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.

From 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.

Other 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.

Five 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.

A 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.

Our 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.

Not 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.

The 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.

What 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.

Directly 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.

I've 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.”

On October 3, 1979, The Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority held a 25th Anniversary Seminar commemorating Hurricane Hazel; over 200 people attended.

Since 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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