When the weather man says "Expect twenty feet of snow, ten inches of hail and whoa folks, below 104 degrees celsius ... bundle up, it's a chilly one today", I wouldn't blink an eye.
If the weather forecaster ever said, “There is a hurricane heading for Toronto”, I would have dismissed him faster than I do when I check out the window for smoke when the fire alarm sounds off. There is never smoke when the alarm goes off and hurricanes do not come to Toronto.
I'm O.K with admitting when I am wrong.
Let me introduce you to Hazel, Hurricane Hazel
She was born in the early days of October 1954 just off the coast of the warm waters of South America. She travelled extensively and grew quickly as she aged - by the fifth of October she was cruising past Grenada. Sometime between the fifth and sixth she moved into her next life stage ... a hurricane with winds up to one hundred and ten kilometres per hour.
During the tumult days of October sixth through the ninth she grew even bigger and stronger as she sailed practically vertical to the shores of Venezuela at a comfortable speed of sixteen kilometres an hour with her winds up to a hundred and sixty kilometres an hour. Following the warmth of the waters she moved towards Jamaica and its beautiful beaches.
She was entering her teen 'years', full of mischief and unpredictability and as all female entities do, she changed her mind and turned sharply for Haiti. She was making it hard to predict where she planned on going and proved very good at keeping her 'personal' information to herself.
She found herself weakened after traversing the high peaks of Haiti on October eleventh and retreated to the waters once more to rejuvenate from her land adventures. Drifting over the oceans she found herself leaving the Caribbean and heading towards the eastern coasts of United States.
She was quite relaxed and gave the impression that she was still weak and rejuvenating - but fickle Hazel was well rested, so much so that her winds had whipped up to a two hundred and twenty kilometres an hour and her forwards speed went from a quiet twenty-seven kilometres an hour to a rushed forty-eight kilometres an hour. She entered the United States near the South and North Carolina border on October the fifteenth.
She was really getting around. What an adventurous girl Hazel was.
Her visit to the United States seemed to have gotten her even more excited and she moved towards Canada with a rapid speed of seventy-seven kilometres an hour, the cold front she encountered did not hinder her in the least.
She was in Toronto, Ontario by that night and dropped all the extra moisture she picked up when she went through the cold front. Blowing wind at over one hundred fifty kilometres an hour, leaving as much as eight inches of rain after travelling almost a thousand kilometres over land she finally expired on the eighteenth of October 1954 - out in the oceans that birthed her.
Her short existence was the deadliest and costliest of all the hurricanes that came a visiting during the 1954 Atlantic hurricane season. Killed upwards of twelve hundred people and left a shocking amount of damage behind everywhere she visited.
Importance of Preparations
With the exception to Haiti and Haitians, the rest of us all had a very good idea who Hazel was coming to visit. And had plenty of opportunity to prepare, despite her indecisive path making with a steady trail of twists and turns.
When Hazel approached Jamaica warnings were sent out to small water craft on October eighth advising caution, two days later they were advising staying in port. When Hazel suddenly changed direction and made for Haiti, due to the poor state of communications in Haiti, there was no way of getting the information about Hazel to them in time for the people to be warned, they would have needed much more than one day. So Haiti was literally taken by surprise at Hazels arrival, as they would have believed the storm to be heading to Jamaica.
The United States, even in this era, was on top of hurricanes, having experienced a number of them in the past - including the property damage and lives it is capable of costing. As soon as Hazel approached Jamaica, Florida was already issuing warnings and the hurricane hunters were sent out. Expected to both lose power and make land in Georgia, it was soon changed to a warning for the Carolina but with the addendum that it would stay off land. Hours later evacuation warnings were sent out for those along the coast.
The United States was using air craft known as Hurricane Hunters. Their official name is 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, Hurricane Hunters is the nickname they are more commonly by. A flying unit of the United States Air Force they are the one and only unit of their nature in the Department of Defence. Flying into tropical storms, whether Atlantic, Caribbean Central Pacific or Gulf of Mexico to measure specific weather data used in predictions and for the labelling of category.
Canada's reaction was almost paradoxical in the statements that it was an event that should not have surprised us yet was the best kept secret in town ... are both accurate and hold more than a grain of truth.
The problem was not the inability of the meteorologists to predict the storm, it was the unflappable souls who called Toronto home. They had never experienced a storm and those who had experienced a storm also knew or believed that Toronto did not get hit by hurricanes, the Maritime were the only provinces to get hurricanes, the interior and the west coast did not get hit. So even if the weather men were screaming of impending doom by water Torontonians would not have believed nor listened to them. Much like the Miramichi Fire before it hit Newcastle.
Had this storm been called anything but a hurricane it would have been taken more seriously. It was a hurricae when it hit Toronto, but became an extratropical or subtropical storm due to the chilly Canada weather. This means it was one heck of a wicked thunderstorm with some mean winds, but no longer a hurricane (even though it had some of the strength of one).
The Storm Hits Canada
Many meteorologists on both sides of the border in Canada and the United States believed the storm would dissipate over the Alleghenies, however a low-pressure system re-energized the storm. By 4:30 in the afternoon on October the 15th rain fell heavily on Toronto as well as the surrounding areas, with Brampton receiving the most amount of rain at just over eight inches.
Low lying areas in the city began to collect water, but by seven that evening most vehicles were off the road it would seem. A lull in the weather tricked many into believing it was over but the storm had yet to truly hit. And when it did finally hit, Hazel was not polite about it.
The heavy winds wrecked havoc with power lines, the water came in sheets and flooded the rivers and streams incredibly quickly. The flood plains turned into small lakes. Passenger trains were knocked off their tracks by both wind and water.
The reports of deaths started coming in just before midnight, a car and all occupants were swept into the Humber River, more than thirty reported on Raymore Drive when the Humber swept through the street ripping houses from their foundations and carrying them and all occupants downriver.
The Toronto Star quoted volunteer firefighter Bryan Mitchell:
"I felt so helpless, but there was nothing I could do, nothing anybody could do. The water was so deep, up to our chins, and all the firemen were weighed down by clothing and boats and equipment."
A bridge on the Humber, called the Lawrence Avenue Bridge was swept away. Toronto's infrastructure was not designed to fight off vast volumes of water - ice and snow yes, water no - over fifty bridges, many roads, railways and buildings were either smashed or washed away.
Despite the difficulties, many lives were saved because of the quick action of police, fire personnel and citizens. In Weston, off-duty police officer Jim Crawford and Herb Jones, a contractor, boarded a 25-horsepower boat and headed out into the river. They worked all night and by daybreak had saved 50 lives.
The citizens of Haiti suffered the worst damages in cost of lives with upwards of one thousand dead, but their country suffered economic losses for years due to Hazel. She destroyed about forty percent of the coffee trees found in Haiti and the cacao crops faired worse at fifty percent destroyed. The hurricane
Hazel killed ninety five people in the United States but caused considerable damages to land and property. When it made landfall in North Carolina, it travelled north along the coast to Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. The final damage tally was three hundred and eight million dollars, in 1954 currency, well over a billion or two today.
When Hazel landed in North Carolina she brought with her an eighteen foot storm surge. In many coastal areas they were either wiped out or close to being wiped out. In Long beach North Carolina only five of three hundred and fifty seven building were standing. The Weather Bureau in Raleigh, NC stated that due to Hazel
"all traces of civilization on the immediate waterfront between the state line and Cape Fear were practically annihilated."
Many areas in Canada affected by Hazel flooded. Not only do we have the largest percentage of fresh water within our borders, we also had just two weeks of rain and the ground was completely saturated, a drizzle would have made puddles. When Hazel dropped upwards of eight inches on Toronto and the surrounding areas, it literally had nowhere to go.
Homes near streams and rivers such as the Don or the Humber found their homes being washed away. Those homes that stood their ground were inundated with water. Many areas after the storm were deemed flood plains and were turned into parkland for the community to use. Allan Anderson, a reporter, reported:
"marsh was just like one vast lake. All you could see in the distance sticking out of the water was the steeple of the Springdale Christian Reformed Church".
By the end, there was eighty-one people dead and over one hundred and thirty-five million Canadian dollars in damages, which today is just over a billion dollars.
The Aftermath of the Storm
Toronto called in fifteen militia groups and eight army reserves – a total of eight hundred men - to help
The people of Toronto who were not completely devastated by the storm gave freely what they had, to the point the relief agencies begged no more, their warehouses were over flowing. The Hurricane Relief Fund was set up and received donations from not only across Canada, but world-wide including individuals and businesses.
The lands that were heavily flooded and considered residential (or commercial) were expropriated and turned into parklands. Policies were put in place to prevent future building in these areas. Even today,
Toronto developed a keen interest in hurricanes, heavy rains and floods after Hurricane Hazel and created agencies by merging many existing ones into the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to manage floodplains.
Toronto still has not been hit by a hurricane since Hazel ... and judging from that fact that many Canadians don't even know about Hazel in 1954 - tells me it might be a repeat of history.