Published in Legion magazine
Killer Named Hazel
By Steve Pitt
About half an hour before midnight, Marion Sherman was awakened by a strange noise coming from the Humber, a docile river which ran a few hundred yards from their farmhouse near Toronto. She asked her husband, Cliff, to take a look out their bedroom window. Reluctantly, Cliff climbed out of bed and looked. To his amazement, he saw an eight-foot wall of water coming straight at the house. Within seconds, the home was engulfed in ice-cold river water.
Shermans attempted to escape out their back door only to find their house surrounded
by chest-deep water. Forced back inside, Cliff climbed on an upright piano and
bashed a hole in the ceiling. One by one, every member of the household, including
two young teenagers, a two-year-old child and a 70-year-old man and Marion-who
was six-months pregnant-climbed into the tiny crawlspace. Within minutes, the
water had pushed the piano against the living room ceiling, just inches below
to see something encouraging, Cliff punched a hole through the front gable. Instead,
he watched his father-in-law's small barn float by. Its sole occupant, a tethered
horse, neighed frantically as it struggled to keep its head above water. In the
darkness all around him, he could hear neighbours screaming for help.
morning, more than 80 people would be dead. It was Oct.15, 1954.
are born over warm salt water. Toronto, the capital of Ontario, is 500 kilometres
from the ocean and 194 metres above sea level. It's little wonder, that when Hurricane
Hazel first grabbed world attention on Oct. 8, 1954 by causing more than 400 deaths
in the Carribean, the residents of southern Ontario felt perfectly safe.
on Oct. 14, as Hazel slammed into the North Carolina coast and began rushing north
towards Canada, southern Ontario residents were complacent. Hurricanes traditionally
moved north where they quickly withered into mere rainstorms indistinguishable
from a typical Canadian weather system. But as meteorologists predicted that some
remnant of Hazel would pass over southern Ontario, few feared Hazel could do any
morning edition of the Toronto Daily Star on Oct. 15 called for scattered showers.
That was nothing new because it had been raining for most of the week. The Toronto
Telegram, the Star's arch rival, also predicted rain early that day, but tried
to be more upbeat. One of its inner sections featured a front page article suggesting
places where motorists should drive in the country to enjoy the fall colours.
The front page of the Telegram that evening, however, included a much bolder headline:
Hurricane Hazel Nearing Toronto.
all else, Oct. 15 was a Friday and a payday. Hurricane Hazel was quickly forgotten
as people geared up for the weekend. The Boy Scouts were polishing apples for
their annual Apple Day fund raising drive. Teenagers were looking forward to school
dances and movies.
weather forecast proved to be accurate. Rain fell early Friday morning, but unlike
previous mornings, this morning's precipitation fell like a waterfall. Winds began
gusting up to 112 kilometres per hour. Shingles began flying off roofs and large
trees and hydro lines began crashing to the ground.
Malton, the international airport just northwest of Toronto, meteorologists were
becoming very concerned. Overnight, another massive weather front had muscled
its way into the picture. It was a block of frigid air that had rolled down from
the Arctic and collided with Hazel right over Toronto. With Hazel on an unstoppable
northbound course, the effect was like a huge sponge being continuously squeezed
out over one spot. W.E. Turnbull, officer in charge of the Toronto weather office,
began alerting politicians, police and media that in a matter of hours, five inches
of rain or more would fall in and around Toronto.
regular radio reports began warning of the new status of Hazel, people went about
their daily activities-or tried to as best they could. By noon, many roads in
southern Ontario had become shallow lakes. Motorists navigated by following fence
lines and telephone poles. In urban areas, car accidents became too numerous to
count as drivers discovered that their brakes and clutches became useless when
after-work rush hour in Toronto was chaos. Cars cruised warily up flooded streets,
their bow wakes slapping against pedestrians who were slogging along sidewalks
ankle-deep in water. Umbrellas and hats flew through the air and cross-town buses
were taking three hours to make a run that usually took less than 45 minutes.
Still, most people were treating Hazel as an exciting, but relatively harmless
10:30 p.m., the wind and rain seemed to be subsiding as the centre of the storm
passed over the city. What no one yet realized was that in some areas, the bulk
of Hazel's 120 billion litres of rain had actually landed northwest of the city
where it bounced off ground already sodden by a week of rain. Unable to be absorbed
into the soil, millions of tons of water began moving south towards Lake Ontario.
Field puddles trickled into ditches that poured into swollen creeks that fed into
the short, steep rivers that formed the southern Ontario watershed.
of the valleys had been opened up to housing developments. In the village of Norval,
a mill dam caused the Credit River to flood the entire village centre. This caused
tens of thousands of dollars in property damage, but fortunately no lives were
lost. The same could not be said for the town of Woodbridge on the Humber River.
When an earthen dam collapsed there, a million tons of water slammed into a trailer
park directly south of the foundations. Trailers full of sleeping people were
swept away and at least seven died.
water released at Woodbridge continued rolling downstream, gathering speed as
dozens of small creeks funnelled yet more water to the already swollen river.
This caused the water crest the Sherman family encountered eight kilometres south
of the dam. About
five kilometres south of the Shermans, the Etobicoke district fire chief, Bryan
Mitchell, and dozens of rescue workers were trying to save people on a small residential
street called Raymore Drive where more than a dozen homes were stranded in mid-river.
Unfortunately, the houses were just beyond the reach of the rescue equipment.
we heard a noise coming down the valley," remembers Mitchell. "It sounded
like a jet engine. No one knew what it was but I ordered everyone to get away
from the riverbank. We retreated back a few yards to where the land was higher."
What they had
heard was a small bridge just north of Raymore collapsing under the crushing weight
of the flood. Just as the last rescue worker reached high ground, a wall of water
Mitchell estimates at nearly six metres high came roaring down the valley. Those
on the shore watched in horror as, one by one, Raymore's houses were wrenched
from their foundations and sent spinning down the Humber River. In a matter of
seconds, at least 36 people, many of them infants and children, were gone.
dawn on the 16th, blue skies suddenly appeared again over southern Ontario. The
Sherman family was alive, but separated. One tiny rescue boat had arrived around
3 a.m. and taken Marion and the children to safety. Cliff and the other adults
watched the rescue boat disappear into the darkness and then waited in vain for
it to return. Around 4 a.m., another boat appeared. In a few short minutes, Cliff
found himself on land again, but with no idea where Marion and the children were.
It turned out that Marion was safe but on the opposite side of the river. With
all the bridges and phone lines out in the area, it would take Cliff three days
to find her.
was gone, but $25 million worth of destruction was left behind. Holland Marsh,
a large market garden community north of Toronto, now resembled an inland sea
with hundreds of people stranded in their homes, some bizarrely surrounded by
millions of floating onions that had lifted off the nearby fields.
south, communities like Pine Grove, Woodbridge and Humber Summit were completely
cut off from outside help. Etobicoke suffered the greatest loss of life as water
passing at 1,350 cubic metres per second raised the water level six metres in
one hour. Besides Raymore Drive, five volunteer firemen had been killed when their
truck was rolled by a wave crest in the Humber. A trailer park at the mouth of
the river was also devastated with some of the trailers being washed far out into
Lake Ontario. The
army was already on its way. Even while Hazel was still pounding Toronto, convoys
began leaving military bases at Borden, Trenton and Petawawa with supplies and
personnel. By dawn, the military was also sending people out from Downsview in
North York to assist police and firefighters. Whaler boats from HMCS York, a naval
reserve station in downtown Toronto, were soon patrolling the Humber in the hope
of finding survivors.
official Canadian death count for Hurricane Hazel stands at 81, but that number
could easily be higher because authorities have never been able to determine exactly
who was living in all the trailers and houses that were swept away. Some bodies
were found more than a week later near the American side of the lake. Other victims
were buried under flood debris. And of the five volunteer firefighters who perished
in Etobicoke, two were found buried in silt, two more were discovered in tree
branches. A fifth body has yet to be recovered.
and typhoid posed a great threat to public safety because thousands of homes were
flooded with river silt and backed up sewer water. Drinking water, ironically,
was in short supply because Hazel had mixed septic systems and manure piles into
local wells. With power lines down, boiling water was often impossible and tanker
trucks found themselves blocked by downed bridges. For several days, the only
safe drinking water in some areas had to be delivered by boat or packed in on
foot. Inoculations were mandatory for anyone living in or visiting a disaster
the next two weeks, firefighters, police officers, militia soldiers and even the
Boy Scouts worked around the clock directing traffic, searching for bodies and
keeping sightseers and looters out of the worst hit areas. Using bulldozers and
flamethrowers, the military gathered up and destroyed millions of tons of debris
that was rotting under the warm October sun. Other crews used steel rods to probe
the silt for bodies.
the initial cleanup, military personnel remained in Toronto for another two months.
Army engineers were kept busy dynamiting condemned bridges or erecting temporary
Bailey bridges in their place. Some of these structures remained in service into
the worst natural disaster to ever hit Ontario, Hazel left an indelible mark on
both the political and physical landscape of the province. Before Hazel, the Toronto
region was served by 13 separate police forces-some still riding bicycles and
relying on pay phones to communicate with their superiors. In 1955, these departments
were amalgamated into one modern force and the Metro Toronto Police Auxiliary
was created to add hundreds of trained volunteers to police ranks in times of
a hurricane similar to Hazel occur again? Well, meteorologists know that hurricanes
are not strangers to Central Canada. Environment Canada has determined that tropical
storms with a Hazel-like potential visit Ontario every 11.1 years. On the positive
side, Ontario today enjoys state-of-the-art emergency response infrastructure
and a huge park system that is designed to serve as a natural flood control ditch.
the negative side, there are 10 times as many people living in southern Ontario
as there were in 1954. They are concentrated along the Great Lakes shoreline in
the highest risk areas. This problem is compounded by the fact that since 1995,
a pro-development Ontario provincial government has allowed thousands of acres
of new subdivisions and highways to spread across rural land that traditionally
absorbs hurricane flood water.
terms of destructive power, Hazel ranked only 16th for storms of the 20th century.
Hurricane Hugo, a much larger storm, came very close to Toronto in 1989, but fortunately
it did not run into a cold front.
One of the myths about Hurricane Hazel is that the Malton meteorologists failed to warn the public. The hard evidence proves otherwise. The front page of the Oct. 15 Toronto Telegram included that bold headline. There are also radio recordings in the CBC archives that reveal that people were being warned about heavy rains and flooding. The problem was that most people didn't know what five-inches of rain could do if it fell all at once. As a result, Hazel caught hundreds of thousands of people by surprise and more than 80 people paid for it with their lives.
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