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The Big One Hits Toronto
The Hurricane That Refused to Die

Recorded as the most erratic hurricane in history, Hurricane Hazel succeeded in astonishing meteorologists in Canada and the United State. On October 5, 1954 a system of thunderstorms off the east coast of Africa, near Grenada gave birth to what was predicted to be “the most dangerous storm of the year” by chief forecaster, Grady Norton.

The fierceness of the storm quickly became apparent as winds thrashing the sea, made the ocean appear as a continuing mass of whitecaps. Within a few hours, the storm was classified as a hurricane and given the name Hazel

On October 9, Hurricane Hazel took a deadly turn towards the Caribbean islands and crashed into Haiti on October 11 beginning its destruction on towns and crops, leaving hundreds dead. Haiti’s mountainous terrain weakened the storm as it passed over, but Hazel regained her strength over the warm Caribbean waters on her flight towards the Carolinas.

Hazel made landfall, bringing with her an 18 foot storm surge and continuing to wreck havoc all over the east coast. Hazel is the only category 4 hurricane (ranked on a scale from 1-5 based on wind speeds and destruction) recorded to have made it as far north as North Carolina, since the temperature of the water is usually not warm enough to sustain it.

Even though the hurricane was moving closer, Toronto residents were still not very concerned as weather reports had stated that most of it would break up as it passed over the Alleghney mountains lying below in West Virginia.

Indeed this was the case as Hurricane Hazel’s intensity weakened and dropped out of the classification of a hurricane, back into that of a storm. It then bumped into a low pressure system, picking up extra moisture on the edge of this system and blew across Lake Ontario with winds of 70 miles per hour.

On October 14 Hazel was crossing the lake and beginning to hammer Toronto and the surrounding cities with gales as high as 68 mph. Having been drenched in rain during the days preceding Hazel, soils were already saturated with water preventing any of Hazel’s downpour from being absorbed. Coupled with steep stream banks with little or no storage capacity, Toronto was about to experience one of its worst floods ever

Over 11 inches of rain fell within 48 hours on the watersheds of the Don River, Humber River, Etoicoke Creek and Mimico Creek, hitting Brampton the hardest. On October 15, 1954 at midnight, the had slackened but was soon to be followed by major flooding all across the city.

Nearly 90% of the rainfall left as runoff turning streams into fast-flowing, powerful rivers that washed out bridges, homes, streets and trailers.

In Weston, a full block of homes was swept away, killing 32 residents as the Humber River rose 6 metres. In Woodbridge, a flooded trailer park left 20 dead and severely flooded the rest of the village.

North of Toronto, sandbagging had to be abandoned as flood waters rose too quickly for these safety measures to be of any use. Over 3000 people had left their homes to flee to higher grounds, the unlucky were swept away into Lake Ontario. The Holland March, just north of Toronto became completely submerged and highways were impassible

Over 3 million tones of rain had fallen but the storm did not die out until is had reached the shores of Hudson’s Bay and headed through northern Quebec to the Atlantic on October 18.

Thousands of people were left homeless and the death toll has risen to 81. Among the dead are the brave policemen, firemen and citizens who gave their lives to help saves other.

Besides the drastic change in the Toronto landscape, the cost of the storm tallied $1 billion (in today’s currency), destroying 20 bridges and leaving 1868 families homeless.

In the wake of the storm, officials began to mobilize the need for watershed protection and flood control. The Conservation Authority has been acquiring floodplain property since 1957, clearing it of its residents and converting it into parks. Also, regulations that were put in place, gave more control to the Conservation Authority to restrict activities in areas prone to flooding.

Hurricane Hazel had managed to do the unthinkable. Thousands of people had watched it come closer and closer, but no one ever imagined that its path of destruction would reach as far north as it did.

For its savagery, Hurricane Hazel was honoured by having its name retired, joining those names such as Andrew, Donna, Mitch and Carla that will never be used again.

A Night of Terror

After days of rainy weather, Toronto residents seemed to be unaware that the rain pouring down on them was part of a huge storm and that danger was headed their way.

The heavy downpours of the remnants of Hurricane Hazel caused river levels to rise to inconceivable heights, filling backyards and basements with water.

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 1:00 a.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 backyard 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 where 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 horsepower would be needed. Five more minutes went by and again an announcement that now it had to be boats of 50 horsepower.

"The last request was for boats having 100 horsepower 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 possessions 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.

"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 firetruck, 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 abated, 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.

"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 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."

Hazel's Rage
  • 300 million tons of water fell during the storm

  • traveling at a maximum of 155 mph

  • 81 deaths in Ontario

  • 4000 families left homeless

  • rating of 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale

  • 800 troops brought in to help with clean up

  • estimated cost $1 030 000 000

flood damage

 

Marsh Turns Into Lake,
House Turns Into Boat

 

The Holland Marsh became a lake in the flood and one house became a life raft for an entire family.

The De Peuter family spent the night stranded in their house as it floated around the marsh. The house was flooded up to the windows of the first floor, so the parents, 13 children and one cat fled to the second floor, where they remained all night as the house floated for two miles around the marsh. Three of the children became sea sick as the house 'bobbed like a cork'.

Hydro remained connected to the house for the first 15 minutes."The amazing part was all the lights in the house stayed on, because we were moving towards the hydro lines, and they were slackening."

"The house just took off like a boat, a real Noah's Ark. From 11:30 p.m. till 6:30 a.m. we floated aimlessly through the marsh, bumping into houses, greenhouses, barns, hydro poles, everything.

"The area over by the Holland River had a faster current and somehow our house got caught in that current and started spinning like a top, faster and faster, and rocking to and fro. We all—all 15 of us—would run from one side of the house to the other when it tilted, trying to balance it out. One of my younger brothers, Bastian, actually got violently seasick."

"Until then, we had been too busy to really worry and then one of the younger ones asked if we were all going to die. My mother said that only one person knew that, the Lord, and we all knelt down and prayed—the Lord's Prayer.

"And we did get out of the current and finally come to rest against a service road near the 400, where a complete field of carrots had floated up to the surface and helped hold us in place. We were two and half miles away from where we started, with lots of side trips that had often taken us near our original place.

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400 Highway north of Toronto

"At that time, there were still cars going along the 400 and we shouted and waved to attract their attention. I even fired off a .22, but with the noise of the wind and the water, it couldn't be heard.

"Then we waved bed sheets, and motorists saw us, and soon an amphibious truck from Camp Borden came along. One man got out, tied a rope around his waist, and plunged in to swim towards our house. We were about 250 feet away, and the water was pretty wild and cold, but he made it. We knocked a window out downstairs and pulled him in.

"Then another man came along the rope in a canoe, which kept tipping, but he told us we'd be okay with the extra weight of two people in the canoe. So we made it out to the truck in seven trips, and were taken into Bradford, where we stayed in the Bradford Town Hall.

"We never found out the name of the man who swam out with the rope to rescue us. Then one day, my brother was in Barrie, in Jack Oates' paint store, and he got talking about the wet weather and how it wasn't as bad as Hurricane Hazel, and one thing led to another and they found out that he, Jack Oates, was the man who had saved us."

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Hurricane Hazel Survivors
The Life of Brave Firemen
Put Out By Water

Five firefighters from the Kingsway-Lambton Fire Station were killed when they went to rescue people stranded in a car by floodwaters on the Humber.

The fire truck the men were driving became stuck on a flooded street and overturned, tossing the men into the water. Five of the nine men on board died: Angus Small, Dave Palmateer, Frank Mercer, Tiny Clarence Collins and Roy Oliver. Marsh Palmateer, Jack Philips, Jim Britton and Bill Bell survived and related the sequence of events that killed their comrades.

monument

The third call of the night sent them to Humber Boulevard, located parallel to the river between Dundas and Bloor streets.

"There was supposed to be two people trapped on the roof of a car down the Humber Road. Eight of us got on the truck and drove down there” reports Jim Britton years after the tragic event.

When they began down the street, the pavement was dry, however, it soon rose to above the wheels. Frank Mercer had missed the truck, so he was following in his car.

"We couldn't find the car or any people in trouble, so we started to turn around” says Britton.

When the men in the truck decided to turn back, the car had stalled and the fire truck could not move it.

Philips said, "We didn't realize there was any danger on the river road. The road was just a little bit damp near the falls, but there was quite a bit of water on the road a mile south of Dundas Street. We didn't know if we could get through to Bloor Street, so we decided to back down there.

"Frank Mercer followed us down in his own car, but when we tried to back up, we couldn't get clear of his car. All of a sudden, the water started to rise fast. The current became so strong that we were unable to turn the truck's wheels.

We decided then and there we were just going to have to wait it out. We didn't think we had anything to worry about—the river was at its peak—but it was just starting, just starting."

The truck seemed more stable than the car carrying the extra man, so the men on the truck decided to pull Mercer to the truck through the water.

Palmateer said, "I threw the rope in and he (Mercer) grabbed it. I told him to jump out and we would pull him to safety, but he seemed afraid. The water was getting near the top of the car, so I had to pull. Mercer came out of the auto all right, but must have let go of the rope. He was washed away. We couldn't grab him."

"Then this wall of water came from nowhere. We didn't see it; we couldn't even hear it. It picked the fireman's car up and smashed it into the truck. Then it drove into a tree. “

"We kept the motor running as long as we could radio for help. In the darkness, we could just see and hear the chief and others on the bank trying to help us.

"When the water hit the hose, it took off like a snake. Without the hose, the truck had no weight. We began to float, and then we tipped. I dove out as far as I could. My windbreaker had tight cuffs and filled with air, acting like a life preserver. Somehow or other, the truck's lights stayed on. I could see it tumbling over and over as it went down the river. I couldn't swim, couldn't kick or do anything in that current" Says Jim Britton.

"The short time we were there, the river rose five feet. I was born right here and I have never seen the river like it.

"At one time, we could have walked away from the truck, but we didn't think we were in any danger," Philips said.

During the clean up after the flood, the truck was discovered a distance from where it was lost, and was very badly damaged.

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Firetruck found after flood

Bryan Mitchell was a volunteer fireman during Hurricane Hazel. He eventually became the chief of Etobicoke Fire Services. Mitchell hung the axe from the lost fire truck on his office wall. Commenting on the lost firemen he said, "We'd all grown up around here and we knew the river. The boys got out and went to sit on top of the truck. They figured they'd just wait it out.

"It was so hard to believe that they were all gone. I'd been with them just a few hours earlier. This was like a small town back then. We all grew up together, ran fires together."

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Bridge washed out by floodwaters
Swept Away

Diana Radley and her brother Bobby were swept away from their mother as the boat they were being rescued in was overturned. Myers, the boat operator, said of the tragedy,

"I received the flood call at my house about midnight. Boats were being prepared to remove people along eight streets in the northern section of town. There was a slight wind and it was real dark as I reached the evacuation centre. My 7.5-horsepower outboard motor was put on one boat and I started my part of the rescue operations.

"We had gathered in about six families when I was instructed with another, a local fireman, to go to the Radley house and take out Mrs. Dorothy Radley, an expectant mother, and her children. There was Terry, 14, Sharon, 12, Dianna, eight, John, seven, and Bobby, four.

"I got the boat in close to the Radley veranda. The water was above the windows and the Radley family was sitting on furniture floating around the living room. Mr. Radley and the fireman placed the children and Mrs. Radley in the boat. They stayed behind. The boat wouldn't hold any more persons. I pointed the flashlight through the darkness and steered the boat out into the current.

"We had hardly gone 40 feet when the boat crashed into an underwater object, it might have been a fence post. The object ripped off the propeller and the engine stopped. Suddenly, there was a rushing of water, and the boat was picked up, twisted around in a circle and smashed against a big tree.

"The boat overturned and we plunged into the water up to our waists. There was a terrific current. I managed to get all of the children and Mrs. Radley on the overturned boat. I shouted for help and several firemen threw a life line. It fell short and drifted downstream. Then they formed together and started to wade out to us.

"The boat shifted and Dianna and Bobby plunged screaming into the water. I couldn't find them in the darkness. We managed to get Mrs. Radley and the other children into another rescue boat and to dry land. They have only found Dianna.

flood damage
Many residents were left without homes