On the anniversary of Hurricane Hazel, a walk along the Humber highlighted the storm's lingering effects.
To those living along the Humber River, the heavy rainfall predicted for October 15, 1954, wasn’t cause for alarm. It had been a rainy month, so what difference would another storm make? But Hurricane Hazel‘s impact was anything but normal. As the storm dumped more than seven inches of rain on Metropolitan Toronto, the Humber rose until it crested at a height of 21 feet. The strong currents of the swollen river, combined with driving rain and heavy wind, destroyed homes that were foolishly built near its banks. When the debris was cleared, the toll was high: $100 million in damage, streets permanently washed away, and 81 people dead.
As journalist Betty Kennedy once observed, “Hazel was not one story. It was a thousand stories to be told in the mosaic of hundreds of events and incidents over a broad Ontario landscape.” Some of those stories came to light on a guided walk along a section of the Humber on Sunday organized by urban forest advocacy group LEAF. Approximately 30 people observed the lingering impact of the storm on its 57th anniversary with the guidance of LEAF’s Amanda Gomm, Gaspar Horvath of the Black Creek Conservation Project of Toronto, and Madeleine McDowell of the Humber Heritage Committee.
The walk began below the Old Mill Bridge, which survived the storm, though its approaches were washed away. The river was dotted with fishermen hoping to catch an Atlantic salmon or two. Among the groups that reintroduced that species to the Humber earlier this year is the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), an organization that is one of the storm’s greatest legacies. The death and destruction caused when homes recently built along the banks of the Humber were swept away during the hurricane caused local officials to rethink any development along the region’s ravines and waterways. The result was the protection of areas we now enjoy as parks and trails and the consolidation of several small conservation bodies into the TRCA.
Trees that survived Hurricane Hazel later ran into other catastrophes. Horvath brought the group to an open mound where a 200-year-old elm tree, which McDowell demonstrated three people could hug the base of, once stood. Though the tree withstood the force of the hurricane, it fell victim to the Dutch Elm disease that attacked the region during the 1960s. Several stops along the route showed the reforestation efforts of the past half-century, including Manitoba Maples that can sprout anywhere and a skinny Northern Red Oak that has persevered in regenerating its trunk each year despite being buried under ice and snow in winter.
McDowell stopped near the site where five Etobicoke firemen lost their lives during the storm to point out how high the water rose. After a day filled with calls about flooded basements that were referred to the local works department, a truck was dispatched to assist a car stalled by the river. The eight-man crew was followed by another fireman, whose car was smashed into the fire truck by the rising water. As the road washed out and the water continued to rise, three of the firemen clung to the truck and tried to throw ropes out to their colleagues in a failed attempt to rescue them. The truck was found days later downstream by the Old Mill Bridge—though its radio was still functional, the ladders had torn off and the engine hood was crushed in. A quarter of a century later, a fossil hunt uncovered one of the firemen’s axes. Later on in the walk, McDowell pointed out a stone retaining wall built under Baby Point to help control the flow of the river in case of future Hazel-like storms.
As the journey neared its end, the group entered the woods near the entrance of Magwood Park to look at the remnant of a recently cut oak tree whose rings were visible. Horvath had examined the rings and noticed those that grew within a few years of the hurricane were narrower than normal. Though he couldn’t conclusively prove the tree’s growth struggles during that period were due to the effects of the storm, the timing is too close to rule out the possibility.
Seeing the long-range effects of a catastrophic storm on the landscape during the walk made us ponder what might happen if a storm on the scale of Hurricane Hazel struck modern Toronto. While efforts to curb development along sensitive areas and control the flow of waterways would prevent a repeat of some of the damage wrought in 1954, we suspect we’d see local media dominated by images of sinking roads, collapsed bridges, and cars washing off the Don Valley Parkway.
Additional material from Hurricane Hazel by Betty Kennedy (Toronto: Macmillan, 1979).