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Anecdotes: Ontario

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She was no Lady... Hurricane Hazel

by Wallace Rombough

In the year 1850, a destructive flood forced the little village of Weston from the valley on the west bank of the Humber River, at the present site of St. Philip's bridge, to the safer high ground on the east side. History was about to repeat itself and prove the wisdom of this move. Friday, October 15, 1954, began as just another rainy day. It had been an October no different from others in the past with fall flowers in bloom and the grass still green. But it had also been wetter with more rain than usual.

I had always visualized a hurricane as a storm with palm trees bending almost to the ground, waves lashing the seashore and torrents of rain, but the reality was a day with high winds, the ditches along the roadside were full, drains were backing up and shingles had blown off some roofs. I worked at the Weston Police Department that day and left for home shortly after 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

I had spent most of my life within a few minutes walk of the Humber River -- my brothers and I had built huts, trapped, hunted and canoed the river for years. That evening I drove up to see my parents on Maple Bush Avenue, just north of Weston, and decided to walk down to the "flats" to see what the river was doing. The "flats" was a floodplain at the end of Maple Bush Avenue but about fifty feet lower. There were about fifteen houses, most built before the depression of the thirties; few, if any, had basements and some were used as summer cottages in the early years. I had seen the Humber River flood this area several times during my lifetime, usually in the spring when the ice broke up. I walked over to the river and it was close to the top of its banks, but the rain had lessened and the river appeared to have reached its crest. I thought that the water level would drop and the river return to its normal flow, and so I returned to my home shortly after 10 p.m. and went to bed thinking the worst was over -- How wrong I was! I had not realized what nearly ten inches of rain, spread over the Humber River watershed, could do.

On Saturday, October 16th, about 2 a.m. there was a knock on our door and I answered it to be met by Lew Everist [now deceased], at that time a constable with the Weston Police, who informed me that the Humber River had overflowed its banks, the houses were being washed away and people drowning. At first, I thought he had taken leave of his senses but he soon convinced me that this was a real disaster. I dressed in warm clothing, including a pair of rubber hip boots that I used when trapping muskrats along the Humber River, and headed for the Weston Police Station.

The main street of Weston was a scene of great activity -- I seem to remember that electric power was off and Coleman and kerosene lamps were being used to provide light in the station. To complicate matters further, Chief Webster was involved in the investigation of a fatal motor vehicle accident which had occurred earlier in the evening.

In company with another of our police officers, I visited several areas to see what could be done. Weston itself was in no great danger because most of the town was fifty to seventy-five feet above the water level of the normal bed of the river, except the arena, swimming pool and sewage disposal plant.

At the Lawrence Avenue bridge, which had the approach washed out on the Weston side, I spoke with a radio man recording the sounds of the flood and resulting disaster. I believe it was Jerry Lester of radio station CKEY. All traffic was cut off between Weston and Etobicoke. Later we drove north on Weston Road to where the Albion Road crosses the Humber River. The river was washing over the bridge and a group of people were standing at the eastern approach. CBC television had set up large lights to illuminate the scene. We were told that people were up in the trees and we could see a small boat, hullside up, lodged in the trees two people on it. Apparently, the boat had capsized while its occupants were trying to reach the people stranded up in the trees. Another boat, about a sixteen footer with a twenty-five horsepower engine, was drawn up to our side of the river and there was a discussion as to how to rescue the stranded.

I knew the river and the only way to reach the people on the western side was to first go down the river and then proceed upstream without making a sharp turn which would probably capsize the boat. I went aboard with the boat's owner, Squadron Leader Cliff, a member of the R.C.A.F. Reserve, stationed at Downsview. Someone handed me a life jacket which might have been the type used on the Titanic -- the old square cut style stuffed with cork.

We moved out into the river which was cold and about the colour of coffee with cream. Although it was a pitch black night, the CBC television lights illuminated the scene. After going downstream, we gradually turned into the current and got into the trees where we found a man and woman clinging to separate trees. As we approached, the woman panicked and jumped into the water just before we reached her. She went under but popped up like a cork and I was able to grab her by the hair and pull her into the boat. The man remained calm and was able to step into the boat without getting wet. Apparently, they were marooned when their car was swept off Albion Road. We took them to the eastern shore and returned to the western shore to attempt the rescue of the two men on the upturned boat. As we were working our way up between the trees, the propeller struck something and sheared a pin. I grabbed a tree to stop us from floating down the river and Squadron Leader Cliff, ever calm and cool, pulled up the motor and, with the aid of a flashlight, we were able to put in a new pin he had in his tool box.

We finally worked our way up river by pulling on the trees and were able to rescue the two young men from their overturned boat, which we had to leave behind for the time being. We then decided to check the western shore further where we met (if I remember correctly) Albert Bunn and Dave Mullett of the North York Police Force.

As it was still dark and we were unable to search further, we were invited into Martindale Lodge, a small family restaurant beside the river at Albion Road. I can still remember how welcome the toasted tomato and bacon sandwiches were with the accompanying rye and ginger ale.

Towards daybreak we embarked in Squadron Leader Cliff's boat and started searching farther north on the west side of the river. There were several summer cottages along the river bank at the edge of the Summerlea Golf Course (now named Humber Valley) and, as they were used as year round homes, we decided to check them out. We found a family that had been forced into the attic of one of these and had kicked the boards from the side of the house in order to escape. It was easy to draw the boat up to the attic and rescue them. I remember checking a small barn or shed, semi-afloat near the cottage. Inside was a horse quietly treading water. We felt it best to leave the horse alone as it seemed in no danger of drowning and the barn was not going to be swept into the main stream.

By this time it was broad daylight and we decided to head for home and some much needed sleep, as there seemed little more to be done.

Saturday was a calm day, the sun came out and the river started to recede. Many people had slept through the night and were surprised by the news of the disaster.

On Sunday morning I met Squadron Leader Cliff at the Downsview Air Force base and, after receiving brief instruction as to what to do if we had to bail out, we took off in a Harvard Trainer with the intention of looking for bodies and other signs of the disaster along the Humber River. We flew along the Humber River and its tributaries and over the Holland Marsh, which was inundated when the floodwaters came over the dykes and flooded the farm land. Ontario Hydro later brought in large pumps to drain the flooded market gardens. Our search was to little avail and we later returned to the air base.

Later that day I was in Ward's Funeral Home and saw some of the victims of the flood being washed with a hose to remove the sand and mud. It was a pitiful sight!

I don't know how today's society would handle a disaster of this magnitude in Metropolitan Toronto, but as far as I am aware there was little, if any, looting. It seemed to bring out the best in humanity. the R.C.M.P., R.C.A.F., Boy Scouts, Salvation Army, Red Cross, ham radio operators, Police and Fire Departments, and many ordinary citizens, gave their time, money, even homes and clothing, to aid those devastated by the flood.

After these events I never met Squadron Leader Cliff again, nor did I ever learn the names of the people we rescued, except a young man by the name of Williamson whom I had known previously.

Most of these people would now be past middle age and thirty-five years is a long time in a lifetime. The memories of Hurricane Hazel are still in my mind, but this is the first time I have committed them to paper.

May the "Lady" never return!

This article was published in News and View, the official publication of The Metropolitan Toronto Police Association. Reprinted by permission of the author, Wallace Rombough; former member of the Weston Police Department.

Copyright © 1989 The Metropolitan Toronto Police Association

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Rampaging Humber Claims Entire Block – My Particular Recollection of Hurricane Hazel

by Kenneth G. Gibbs, L.Th., Director of the Anglican Social Services/Centre 454, Diocese of Ottawa

My particular recollection of Hurricane Hazel was on Friday, October 15, 1954, when I was delivering furniture for a large department store (Eaton's) in the west end of Toronto.

I knew there were reports of a hurricane because at each home where I delivered furniture the residents were alarmed that deliveries were being made and told me so! My delivery route took me back and forth on Bloor and Dundas Streets over such rivers and creeks as the Humber, Mimico and Etobicoke. At one particular home I carried a large mattress to be delivered and thought I would be lifted off the ground by the terrific force of the now mounting wind. The next home -- it was in the Kingsway area of Toronto – the delivery could not be made because the driveway of this home at the sidewalk was completely washed away. It left the resident's car on the remaining ten-foot portion of the driveway in front of his garage. This was somewhat farther south of Raymore Drive.

It was now becoming clear that I would be stranded on the west side of not only the Mimico Creek but the Humber River as well. At the old town of Islington I decided to telephone home to say I would be late. As I made the call I saw the creek at Islington Avenue and Dundas Street overflow into a used car lot and lift the automobiles like little blocks of wood and send them crashing into each other. The bridge there was about to be closed by the police. Eventually, I crossed the old Humber Bridge by the famous Old Mill Restaurant, and the police were there ready to close this bridge also for fear that the entrances would soon be washed out. I was to learn later that a fire truck and its crew near this point were completely washed away. The debris piling up at all of these bridges was tremendous. It included furniture, wooden boxes and even garages, and all manner of flotsam or driftwood. At the rear of Baby Point Road near Humbercrest Boulevard, dead cows and even refrigerators (ice boxes) were reportedly caught up in the trees in the lower area of the Humber River. It wasn't till later that day when I realized the seriousness of this storm and the danger involved. There was loss of life during this storm and I thank God many others were spared.

My younger brother, Glen, just in his teens, was called by his high school cadet group the following Sunday to assist in searching for bodies carried down through the Humber Valley. The search was conducted mainly at the golf course at Scarlett Road above Dundas Street. The Humber River ran through the centre of this golf course. Glen could not continue in his work that Sunday because he was so overcome with grief at the sight of loss of life. Nature is truly "red in tooth and claw."

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Harrow Storm Damage Costs Millions

Essex County lies within the most southerly portion of Ontario and borders on Lake Erie. Shoreline areas along the lake are mainly sandy bluffs prone to severe gullying due to erosion. The county is very flat and soils are predominantly clay loam.

Prior to July 19, 1989, the county was experiencing a period of low precipitation and above-normal temperatures. Between July 19 and 20, a total rainfall of 264 millimetres was recorded at the Harrow Agricultural Research Station. Other local observations during the same period indicate that up to 450 millimetres of rain fell over a small area. The rainfall was attributed to an intense thunderstorm which was centred over Colchester South. The storm tracked from Lake Erie to the south and appeared to be stationary over Harrow for most of its duration. All rainfall amounts recorded at the Harrow station for over one-hour duration exceeded the estimated 1 in 100-year rainfall for that location.

Due to the magnitude, intensity and extent of the rainfall event, widespread flooding was experienced throughout most of Essex County. However, the impact of this very intense rainfall was significantly reduced because of the storm centre location and the flat topography of the area. Many large agricultural areas were poorly drained, and some fields remained flooded for several days.

Colchester South and Harrow were declared disaster areas by municipal officials, and residents were evacuated from the areas of extreme flooding and erosion. Subsequently, the provincial government also declared these flood damage centres as disaster areas.

A few injuries were reported but no deaths were attributed to the flood. The Essex Region Conservation Authority conducted a Flood Damage Survey after which it compiled preliminary damage estimates at $44 to $55 million (in 1998 dollars), primarily to infrastructure, buildings and contents, and crops.

Adapted from Flood News and Views, March 1990

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