No matter what you’ve been told, strictly speaking, hurricanes don’t happen in Ontario. The fuel that keeps them going is warm ocean water and once landfall is made, they soon become extra-tropical storms and usually fizzle out with a bit of wind and rain – that is if they can actually make it all the way up here. Why then, sixty years later do we talk about Hurricane Hazel and its devastating effects on our neighbourhood?
Early in October 1954, a group of clouds that had formed off the coast of Africa began rotating and became a tropical storm. In the days before satellite monitoring of weather systems, there was a great deal less certainty about the path and nature of hurricanes during the June to November storm season. Back then, tropical storms and hurricanes were only detected once they came close to a populated area. This particular tropical storm was spotted in the Caribbean and being the eighth of that year, was by convention, given a girl’s name beginning with H; Hazel. She quickly strengthened into a powerful hurricane and sweeping through Haiti, Hazel took the lives of several hundred people. Then, dragged north-west by an upper level low pressure area sitting in the Mississippi Valley, Hazel made landfall in North Carolina on October 14th as a category 4 (out of 5) hurricane. Hazel was then expected to fizzle out and become a rain event but picked up energy from the low pressure area and set its sights on Ontario.
Again, before satellite tracking and computer projections, weather forecasting was something of an art. Although there was some warning about the approaching storm, Ontarians were unprepared for what was to come. Ominously, there had been considerable rainfall in the previous two weeks leaving the ground saturated.
On its way to Ontario, Hazel was re-classified as an extra-tropical storm. Even though its winds had weakened, it still carried a vast amount of water. Once over Brampton, Hazel combined forces with the Mississippi Valley system forming a new storm that stalled and unloaded its rain onto the already saturated ground. As night fell, the rain continued, putting pressure on the two major watersheds in the region, the Don and the Humber. It is estimated that a volume of water the size of Lake Simcoe fell on the Humber River watershed alone – and only one escape route – the Humber River valley.
As the evening progressed, flash flooding inundated low-lying homes along the Humber. Occasional ice-jams had caused flooding in the past but this was different. The water’s rise was rapid and relentless. By the time people realized that their lives were in danger, it was too late. In Weston, five people perished. On Raymore Drive, just across the river from Weston, a suspension footbridge blocked and diverted a torrent of water into the lower homes on that street and 35 people lost their lives. In one instance, in response to the rising water, a family moved possessions from one house to another only to lose their lives when both homes were inundated. A nearly complete list of fatalities is here.
In the aftermath of Hazel, the forerunner of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was formed and given the power to clear floodplain homes creating Toronto’s famous park and ravine system. Today, along with many Toronto communities, Weston is blessed with beautiful parkland and sports facilities along the Humber. Raymore Drive now ends at Tilden Crescent but the depressions of the former homes’ basements are still faintly visible in Raymore Park. Native trees and other rain absorbing vegetation are being planted and plans are afoot to remove concrete channels and replace them with natural riverbeds. Even though there is more paving today than in 1954, the disconnecting of downspouts from sewer systems, floodwater holding tanks and the encouragement of green roofs and driveways are techniques that will allow water to be absorbed into the ground rather than quickly drained into the river.
Most days, as in the past, the Humber flows gently through our parks and ravines. Even though 60 years have passed and measures have been taken to remove people from the path of danger, occasionally, as on July 8, 2013, we are reminded that no matter how well prepared we are, nature often has the last word.