The harsh realities of climate change could make landfall in Durham

Archival photo of Toronto Daily Newspaper - October 16, 1954 Photo credit: Tracey Bowers-Lee

The water swelled hours before Hurricane Maria made landfall in Dominica in 2017. Waves were higher than coconut trees and washed away anything in their path, says Viviana Alfred, who lives on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

The violent winds carried howling screams of people trying to get out of the hurricane’s way. Maria brought heavy rain which beat down on homes and ripped galvanized roofs apart.

An overview of the damage Hurricane Maria caused to the island of Dominica.

“Water came pouring in, there were branches flying by and there were leaves in my hair,” says Viviana Alfred, who lives in the parish of St. George.

Water flooded homes turned roads into rivers and rivers into death traps. Floods carried houses into the ocean.

“It got even more scary when the glasses started breaking from inside the open cabinet,” says Alfred.

If you were to tell anyone something similar happened 60 years ago in Canada, they would not believe it.

On Oct. 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel hit Toronto pounding down with category four hurricane winds of 124 kilometres and poured 285 millimetres of rain into the area over a period of 48 hours. Bridges, streets, homes and people were washed away.

Archival photo of Toronto Daily Newspaper - October 16, 1954 Photo credit: Tracey Bowers-Lee

These were some of the headlines in the newspapers on Oct. 16, 1954:

  • Thousands were left homeless and 81 people were killed.
  • Children were left orphaned.
  • Hundreds of families were forced out of homes near the Humber River.
  • 50 families were rescued as flood overwhelmed trailers at Lakeview.
  • The cost of the destruction was estimated at $100 million.

Hazel changed Toronto’s landscape and is the reason watersheds are managed the way they are today. The Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority (CLOCA), was established under the province of Ontario in 1958 because of the damage to property caused by Hazel.

There is less green space and more concrete jungles and highways than when Hazel hit Ontario. Now there would be fewer places for the amount of water from this kind of storm to go.

Lucy Benham, water resources engineer at CLOCA, says it’s important to monitor weather forecasts to alert residents of potential flooding.

CLOCA looks at riverine systems for two reasons: to identify flood damage centres and to ensure development does not occur in floodplains.

This is important because, according to Environment Canada, hurricanes are becoming more frequent and there are ongoing studies on how climate change may be affecting hurricane activity.

Ginny Colling, former journalism professor and volunteer climate leader, says climate change affects hurricanes.

“Whether or not there are more hurricanes is up for debate,” says Colling after a recent presentation to Durham College students. “But they are getting more intense and stronger because of the warming of the oceans. That warming is energy, heat is energy so it’s basically putting those hurricanes on steroids.”

Colling says their intensity may contribute to the cause of hurricanes becoming more frequent.

“They are making their way up the coast more often and veering inland and staying on-land longer and moving in different directs,” says Colling, who did a three-day workshop with environmentalist Al Gore in 2017.

According to Colling, scientists say this is because the jet stream is becoming wavier and it’s disrupting things. When there was a more stable and smoother circuit of air above us, the jet stream moved things along but now because of climate change it has gotten more unstable. The jet stream has slowed down, changing weather patterns in places around the world.

Colling said Toronto is quite insulated and doesn’t see the effects of climate change as harshly as other areas. But she warns, “It is coming.”

On July 8, 2013, 126 mm of rain fell in Toronto within three hours, more than the all-time record held by Hurricane Hazel. On Aug. 7, 2018, there was 75 mm of rainfall in downtown areas. Both Highway 404 and Union Station were shut down due to flooding. In 2019, floods occurred in four provinces prompting a state of emergency. Locally, the Pickering waterfront was decimated by high water levels.

Colling warns Torontonians could see the effects of a hurricane like Maria or Hazel again. This is because the arctic is drawing cold air to some “strange places” and the equator is bringing warm air to other places.

“We don’t know who’s going to get hit with the hot spell or who’s going to get hit with the blizzards. If we let things warm up too much, it’s going to get bad for us here,” said Colling.

As bad as Hurricane Hazel or Hurricane Maria were, people weren’t prepared for the destruction and devastation of either.

For Alfred, even though Dominica is familiar with hurricanes, the country hadn’t experienced one like it since Hurricane David in 1979.

“It was traumatizing and devastating, but we did not give up. The wind was like an army of men ripping down the house and the doors. Sheet-rock peeled off, we put a mattress over our heads nine of us – four adults and five children.”

Alfred says they were scared and curled in a corner of one small room just waiting for it to be over.

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When the rain ceased, Alfred and her family ran to their rooms to get clothes and any food or drink they could find.

“There was nothing left. People didn’t just lose their homes, the floods took lives and people haven’t been recovered. It was dreadful,” says Alfred. “I looked out at our neighbour’s house. It was gone. They were in it.”

The disheartening question to consider: could Canadians and their houses survive another hurricane like Hazel?

The crisis and the consequences are enough of a sign to have all Canadians prepare.