Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The 60th Anniversary of Hurricane Hazel in Toronto

It is another chilly, raw morning in Montreal and the St. Lawrence Valley. The current temperature is 7C (45F) but with a gusty northeast wind over 40km/h it feels much colder. A developing Nor'Easter, yes it is that time of year again, will push Atlantic moisture into southern Quebec on Thursday. It will be a very windy, rainy and raw day with the high around 8C (47F). No sunshine is expected before Sunday.

This past October 18 was the 60th anniversary of the arrival of Hurricane Hazel in southern Ontario. Hazel developed in what was already a very busy hurricane season that summer/fall of 1954. 1954 was the first season that forecasters at the National Hurricane Center were using names to identify storms. The "H" storm formed in the open waters of the eastern Atlantic 50 miles east of Grenada on October 5 and began a two week journey into the Carolinas and eventually Ontario. The storm made landfall as a powerful category 4 hurricane along the North and South Carolina border with a devastating storm surge and 150mph winds. Hazel would kill 92 in the US as well as over 1000 in Haiti. But it was the unexpected ferocity with which she arrived in southern Ontario around midnight on October 18 that captured Canadians' attention from coast to coast. October 1954 was very wet in and around the GTA, and as they say in meteorology, timing is everything. And so it was with Hazel. Within 12 hours, the storm morphed from a tropical system to a rather intense post-tropical cyclone. Hazel arrived on already soaked ground with a deep intensifying atmospheric trough colliding with the storm. The result was torrents of rain along and around the Humber and Don River watersheds. The Highland Creek, Credit River, Humber, Don, Etobicoke and 16 mile creek would all overflow their banks by midnight on October 18. The forecast for Hazel put an emphasis on the wind, when in reality most of the strong gusts occurred across eastern Ontario and western Quebec. Instead heavy rain fell on the western GTA with 183mm at Toronto City, 127mm at Islington, 107mm in 12 hours at Malton (now Pearson Airport). An incredible 214mm fell in Snelgrove and Brampton including 90mm from 9pm to midnight on October 17, 1954. The result was absolutely catastrophic with a torrent of water racing down the Don and Humber Rivers washing away everything in sight, houses, cars, people. The Humber River from Brampton down to Lake Ontario rose over 10 feet in hours and flowed at an astonishing 1416 cubic metres per second. Hard hit Raymore Drive along the Humber River was washed away with 31 lives lost and over 40% of the street destroyed.

Swift and deadly flash flooding took 31 lives on Raymore Drive alone during Hazel in 1954. (Toronto Star)
The tragedy changed both the way we look at tropical systems in Canada and more importantly for the GTA, the way rivers and stream are monitored and how closely we build residential areas to them. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was established shortly after Hazel to help monitor that. Additionally the Dominion Weather Office, (predecessor to Environment Canada) took criticism for how the forecast was handled. In reality Fred Turnball, Head of the Dominion Weather Office at Macton, had predicted that morning  the rain from Hazel could very likely be the heaviest on record for Toronto. He was right, his message was just not delivered properly to the public. Even at that, it might not have made any difference for those who were sleeping in the wee hours of October 18, 1954 when the water came rushing through with such speed and ferocity. In the end 81 people would die as a result of Hazel in Canada, including 5 firefighters from Etobicoke whose rig was washed away by the Humber River. Nearly 1900 were left homeless, and damages would exceed 125 million. You can read about the firefighters and other personal accounts at this link HAZEL. Photo

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