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Lessons from Hurricane Hazel will never be forgotten (21 photos)

The 1954 storm took our community by surprise, and had devastating impact, Newmarket's History Hound, Richard MacLeod, recall in this week's Remember This

Perhaps one of the defining historical moments of my generation was the arrival of Hurricane Hazel in Newmarket and the subsequent effects of this event on our town and region. I will confine myself to York Region and the resulting devastation, what happened, how it happened and what changes resulted.

Floods were a regular occurrence in our area, but this was the big one, as historians like to say.

The people of Newmarket awoke on Friday, Oct. 15, 1954 to the following weather report on the front page of the Toronto Star: Overcast with rain today and tonight. Mostly cloudy Saturday with a few showers. It might rain; maybe a little windy. They never expected a generational storm such as Hurricane Hazel would hit with such force.

By early morning, we began to feel the effects of Hurricane Hazel, which had hit land in the Carolinas as more than one inch of rain fell during the morning commute, snarling traffic and flooding some roads.

Weather forecasters on the radio predicted the hurricane to the south would bring a ‘rough storm‘ to the area as it blew itself out . They did caution that rain would continue to hit the area throughout the afternoon and evening hours and that winds of 30 mph were possible.

Still, people went about their normal routines, never expecting what was to come. The rain, as expected, resumed in the afternoon, resulting in more traffic snarls in the evening rush hour. The underpasses and low-lying areas began to pool with water but by 7 p.m., the traffic had cleared, and everyone thought the worst was over.

By 9 p.m, as the heavy rains continued to come down, Highway 11 became flooded in several places between Toronto and Bradford. It would ultimately be blocked by a 20-foot-wide washout just north of Thornhill. The hollow at St. John’s Sideroad was filled with meters of water, stranding people on both sides of the divide.

Where Highway 400 crossed the Holland Marsh, the waters began to flood across the roadway, submerging it and it was eventually blocked by a 40-foot canyon near the Bradford exit. Some 350 people were marooned at the gas station near the Cookstown exit at Highway 89 when another breach in the 400 appeared to the north.

At 9:30 p.m., the Public Weather Office in Toronto issued a revised weather report, still not unduly alarmed by the approaching storm, it would seem.

Hurricane Hazel, which moved in on the North Carolina coast that morning, continued to move northward and to accelerate during the day, and by 9 p.m. it was centred between Buffalo and Rochester.

We were told that the intensity of the storm had decreased to the point where it should no longer be classed as a hurricane. The weakened storm would continue northward, passing just east of Toronto before midnight. 

The main rainfall associated with it should end shortly thereafter with occasional light rain occurring throughout the night. Winds will increase slightly to 45 to 50 mph until midnight, then slowly decrease through the remainder of the night. (Globe and Mail, Oct. 16, 1954)

But they had not predicted that the storm would stall over Lake Ontario, drawing more moisture and intensity from the lake or that it would sit over Toronto instead of passing through.

Those of you who lived through the event will remember that after a night of terror for much of Toronto and area, the Saturday issues of the Toronto newspapers were filled with stories of the hurricane and all the resulting floods. 

The Star coverage alone was the first page and 10 more inside. Everyone wanted to know what had happened to their families, neighbours and friends, but reports were spotty with news just beginning to become available.

The initial reports on Saturday estimated the death toll at about 30, although the count was expected to rise. Reports from Woodbridge spoke of between 11 to 19 deaths, five Etobicoke firemen who were swept away into the Humber River, five people confirmed drowned in Weston and at least that many had drowned in the Holland Marsh.

By Monday, the total loss resulting from the hurricane was becoming clearer.  The Star listed the following tragic statistics for our area:  Woodbridge - six dead and 700 homeless, The Holland Marsh - 3,000 homeless and 7,000 acres flooded and $10 million in damages, Beeton - five  dead. 

There were at that point 78 known dead with 15 others missing and presumed drowned. The damages from Hurricane Hazel were expected to be in the tens of millions of dollars once everything had been tallied.

The final official numbers were 81 people dead, 4,000 people left homeless and a total of 300 million tons of water having fallen during the storm.

The Holland Marsh was particularly devastated by the storm. The waters that flooded Highway 400 and Highway 11 surged into the Holland Marsh submerging the entire 7,000-acre area and by Saturday morning, there were pictures of hundreds of people stranded on the roofs of their houses. 

Residents in the northeast sector of the marsh were able to escape to Bradford but the southwest end was particularly hard hit in the area bounded by the Holland River and Schomberg Creek. Rescue efforts were slow as volunteers had to wait for boats and all the roads into the marsh were blocked with water.

The harvest had been complete when the fields were flooded but much of the produce was still in bags or crates waiting to be shipped and were now lying under the flood waters and rotting. Over 500,000 bags of onions and nearly as many crates of celery and other vegetables broke loose in the flood waters, battering those trying to escape and dashing apart the houses, breaking them from their foundations.

In all, over 500 homes were flooded as residents fled to nearby Bradford or Schomberg after a night of terror, fearing that they had lost everything. A massive effort called the ‘Mop-up’ got underway almost immediately to begin pumping the water from the area and, on the Sunday following the storm, some 80,000 gallons a minute were cleared from the eastern section and pumps from all over Ontario were being rushed to the region to aid the effort. 

By the time all was said and done, about six to eight billion gallons of water would be pumped from the marsh in the eastern section over the course of 24 days. The 2000-acre area of the Marsh to the West of Highway 400 was also cleared, allowing farmers to begin planting their 1955 crops.

Woodbridge was the first community on the Humber to be hit with the floodwaters from Hazel.  Amazingly, the river in this community is normally 65 feet wide, but during the flood it extended to 350 feet (107 metres) at its narrowest point.  

Lieut. John P. Connor, commander of the Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps, described his experience in Woodbridge: "Once in Woodbridge, we were placed under command of the fire department and were assigned street detail. Our purpose was to walk alongside the whalers and check houses for stranded inhabitants. The water was fast-moving and chest-deep, and it took a dozen people to guide the craft through the current. One learned very quickly to keep a good grasp of the boat, as unseen culverts caused more than one temporary disappearance of the crew."

Sadly, nine people died and several hundred more were left homeless.

In Newmarket, on Friday, Oct. 16, 1954, Hurricane Hazel generated flash floods in the watersheds surrounding the town with bridges and roads destroyed, the downtown area and residential areas engulfed and automobiles, trees, and other structures caught in the strong current.

Many will remember that the bridges at Water Street, Timothy Street and Queen Street were washed out, being pushed as far as Davis Drive during the flood that resulted. A huge gap was formed at Fairy Lake dam and those living in low lying areas were evacuated by boat to higher land.

We began to learn more about the hurricane over the next few months. Apparently the first indication of a tropical cyclone forming came on Oct. 5, 1954 about 50 miles east of the island of Grenada in the Windward Islands.  

Hazel moved westward over the Caribbean Sea through Oct. 8 before sharply turning.  By Oct. 9, Hazel had intensified into a powerful Category 4 storm with maximum winds of 135 mph. Between Oct. 9 and 12 Hurricane Hazel moved northward and then north-northeastward crossing western Haiti on Oct. 11 leaving a death toll estimated to be between 400 and 1,000. As a result of the passage over Haiti, the maximum winds diminished to 100 mph, but after clearing Haiti, Hazel was once again over warm tropical waters and began to strengthen.

The damage assessment from Hazel began the following morning. Citizens throughout the County collectively helped with the relief effort. The Salvation Army received so many donations of clothes, footwear, blankets, food, and money that its storage facilities were overfilled, and they also provided volunteers. 

The Boy Scouts patrolled for looters and also donated 454 kg (1,001 lb.) pounds of supplies. The Red Cross provided supplies and shelter to 300 residents of Holland Marsh who had evacuated to Bradford. Nurses gave typhoid shots in Woodbridge, and Toronto provided them with water. Heavy machinery such as bulldozers, shovel loaders, and trucks was made available to assist in the cleanup.

Governments made major financial contributions to the relief effort. It was estimated that with the contributions of men and equipment, the total value of donations was $500,000 (about $4.1 million today), a popular alternative to financial donations. The federal government donated $1 million (about $8.1 million today), which matched the provincial donation. 

The Hurricane Relief Fund was established to receive contributions from the citizens of the province and elsewhere. Large corporations such as the Catholic Church, the Ford Motor Company, Laura Secord Candy Shops, British American Oil Company, and United Church of Canada all pitched in. A contingency reserve was established in the event of unresolved claims, and the other half being used up through administration expenses

Insurance companies set up offices in Toronto, Woodbridge and Newmarket to handle the claims in the wake of Hazel. Due to previous flooding, many found out that damage because of flooding was not covered. However, in some cases, if wind broke a window during the storm, partial reimbursement could be obtained for water damage, by the logic that some water would enter the dwelling through the window.

So, what were the lasting effects of the event? The devastating impact of Hurricane Hazel was a mobilizing force in bringing a regional approach to flood control and water management locally. We saw a more coordinated approach between the various conservation authorities, local municipalities, and the province. Today these organizations play a significant role in the protection of life and property from natural hazards, such as flooding.

After Hazel, the provincial government amended the Conservation Authorities Act to enable an authority to acquire lands for recreation and conservation purposes and to regulate that land for the safety of the community. The establishment of the South Lake Conservation Area and the creation of Fairy Lake Park can be attributed to this change.

Forests and wetlands are now protected, and more trees are being planted, helping to store runoff thus reducing flooding.

The Flood Control Works Program was purposed with constructing as many structures as was necessary to control flooding. The works consisted of dams, reservoirs, channel improvements and other infrastructure.  We moved toward the control of future development and inappropriate land use activities in flood-hazard areas.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority moved to create, through the merger of smaller, regional conservation authorities, a unit to manage the area's floodplains and rivers. Flood control in Ontario and Canada wide became a more important issue. 

Land in heavily flooded areas was expropriated, and policies were instituted to prevent home construction and other development projects in ravines or on floodplains. Most of this expropriated land was turned into parkland. This expropriation proved controversial, especially over the financial compensation given to landowners. The restrictions imposed remain today.

Some Quick Facts:

  • Oct. 15to 16, 1954 – date it happened.
  • 110 km/hr (68 mph) – winds generated.
  • 285 millimetres (11.23 inches) of rain in 48 hours in our area.
  • $100 million (about $1 billion today): estimated cost of destruction.
  • 300 million tons of water that fell during the storm.
  • 155:  Hazel's maximum speed (mph) in the Caribbean.
  • 81 people in Ontario lost their lives from the flooding.
  • 4,000 families left homeless in southern Ontario from the flood (1,868 in Toronto alone).
  • 32 houses on Raymore Drive on the Humber River that were washed away by floods, never to be re-built.
  • 4:  magnitude of Hazel at the maximum rating prior to landfall on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale.

Sources: Hurricane Hazel: Disaster Relief, Politics, and Society in Canada, 1954-55; Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue ; Hurricane Hazel by Betty Kennedy, 1979; p. 79-80; Hurricane Hazel was Toronto’s perfect storm by Vjosa Isai a Toronto Star Staff Reporter; The Social Historian Website - Hurricane Hazel; US National Weather Service (; Journal of Canadian Studies – Article December 2006; Newmarket – The Heart of York Region by Robert Terence Carter; Hurricane Hazel: Disaster Relief, Politics, and Society in Canada, 1954-55, The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella.