Never before and not yet again has such a storm battered southern Ontario. Dozens of people were killed, many more left homeless from Hurricane Hazel’s gales and floods
“Water coursed through creeks where they had never before existed,” said Environment Canada’s website, “derailed trains and washed out roads. Rampaging rivers tore houses from their foundations, picked up cars and mobile homes, and wrecked boats.” Since the ground was already soaked from previous rains, the heavy downpour and rising water had nowhere to go but into floods.
Could that be a description of the damage from one of the many storms that hit the American coastal south or tropical islands every year? Guess again. This massive storm was Hurricane Hazel, hitting Toronto and area on October 15, 1954. The Dominion Weather Office was tracking the storm, following it as it blew over Pennsylvania and New York, then set its sights on a path for central Ontario. Unfamiliar with hurricanes in the well-populated area of Canada, the local utility company expected only power outages from the wind and rain.
Category 4 storm before making landfall
Before making landfall, the hurricane winds reached Category 4 stage, about 250 kilometres an hour. By the time the storm reached Ontario in the early evening, the winds had diminished to just over 100 kilometres per hour, but its effect was still catastrophic. A deluge of rain accompanied the wind, pouring down 285 millimetres of water in a few short hours, noted the Hurricane Hazel site.. Rivers rose not by centimetres but by metres; local estimates placed the rivers rising approximately 6 to 8 metres.
Situated in a lower area, Humber River Valley suffered the most dramatic damage. Thirty-five people were killed when the storm water rushed in. Floodwaters took the lives of five members of the rescue team as the firemen attempted to pull out people trapped in their overturned car. Deep water flooded homes and businesses; cars and trailers floated downstream into Lake Ontario. Bridges and roads were ripped apart. By the end of the storm, 81 people were dead, 4,000 were homeless. In today’s dollars, about $1 billion in damage was done. Fifteen militia teams, eight army reserve units and a supply of equipment – bulldozers, pike poles and boats – were sent to help police with rescue efforts.
A home bobbed in deep water with occupants clinging to the roof
One incident involved a house bobbing on a newly-formed deep waterway with its occupants clinging to the roof. Police were dispatched to rescue the family but could not find the home. “Tell him to move about 600 yards south,” said the police officer as mentioned by Environment Canada, “that’s probably the one I saw floating past a few minutes ago. They’ll be about 600 yards south by now.” It was not all quiet, though. Screams of the terrified could be heard over the roaring storm.
Immediately after the hurricane subsided, relief and restructuring efforts began. Fundraising, food and clothing drives were held. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross brought immediate relief, setting up temporary shelter for the many displaced citizens. Over the long term, low-lying flood plains were no longer considered suitable for housing construction. Park areas were developed and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was formed to oversee “the prioritization of flood control and flood warnings.”
While the most severe distress was in the Toronto vicinity, Hurricane Hazel’s far-reaching effects of heavy winds and rain were felt throughout the south and eastern sections of the province of Ontario. It also produced weather disturbances that extended as far north as James Bay, causing blustering wind and snowstorms.
Read more about Hurricane Hazel
This article was first published on Suite101.com in 2007. Copyright Susanna McLeod