NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

A Killer Named Hazel

Survivors work in teams to salvage valuables from a destroyed house.

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.

The 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 them.

Hoping 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.

By morning, more than 80 people would be dead. It was Oct.15, 1954.

Hurricanes 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.

Even 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 serious harm.

The 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.

Above 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.

The 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.

At 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.

Although 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 waterlogged.

The 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 adventure.

By 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.

Many 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.

The 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. “Suddenly, 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.

By 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.

Hazel 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.

Further 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.

The 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.

Cholera 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 area.

For 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.

After 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 1980s.

As 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 emergency.

To prevent another Raymore Drive tragedy, the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was established. Under its mandate, further development was forbidden on land below Hazel’s high watermark. In addition, thousands of acres of the highest risk private land were expropriated and turned into parkland. Millions of additional dollars were spent on “hard” water containment measures like modern dams and flood channels.

Could 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.

On 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.

In 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.

Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.