Hurricane Hazel

On Saturday, October 16, 2004, the Ontario Heritage Foundation unveiled a provincial plaque to mark the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Hazel. The bilingual text reads as follows:


    On October 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel hit southern Ontario with 110 km/h winds and over 200 mm of rain. Many rivers, including the Humber, Don and Rouge overflowed flooding communities in much of southern Ontario. The storm killed 81 people, left 1868 families homeless, and caused extensive property damage. International and local donations to a flood relief fund assisted victims, and all three levels of government shared the expenses of paying for property damage and removing houses located in floodplains. Hurricane Hazel's legacy was the development of a sophisticated weather warning system for the province, measures to conserve the watersheds of major rivers, and a continually evolving system of flood warning and control.


    Le 15 octobre 1954, l'ouragan Hazel s'est abattu sur le Sud de l'Ontario, accompagné de vents de 110 km/h et de plus de 200 mm de pluie. Plusieurs localités de cette région ont été inondées par les nombreuses rivières qui la sillonent y compris les rivières Humber, Don et Rouge. L'ouragan a tué 81 personnes, laissé 1 868 familles sans abri et causé d'importants dégâts matériels. Des dons internationaux et locaux à un fonds de secours ont permis d'aider les victimes d'inondations, et les trois paliers de gouvernement ont partagé le coût des dégâts matériels et d'enlever les maisons situées dans les plaines d'inondation. À la suite de cet ouragan, on a conçu un système élaboré d'avertissement météorologique pour la province, pris des mesures pour conserver les bassins hydrographiques des principales rivières, et adopté un système d'annonce et de contrôle de crue, en évolution constante.

Historical background

There was little warning about Hurricane Hazel — one of the worst storms in Canada's history — partly because no warning systems were in place as they are today, but also because tropical storms normally veered east over the Atlantic Ocean, and decreased their fury as they travelled over the 49th parallel separating Canada from the United States.1 Canadians paid little attention to tropical storms, and this complacency was reflected in the press. Leading up to the storm, leading Toronto newspapers reported on the approaching Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and the nearly 6,000 workers on strike at Ford Windsor. In the countryside near Breslau, the Forty-first International Plowing Match began on October 13, and one disgruntled reporter covering the event wrote, "This morning there was rain and there was mud. Deep, sloppy mud." By the morning of the 15th, the plowing match was cancelled as the ground was too soggy from the continuing rain "for fair competition."2

Before the hurricane hit Toronto, newspaper weather reports focused on weather patterns from the west heading over the Great Lakes, and only brief mention was made of a fierce tropical storm front in the Carolinas. On October 5, Hurricane Hazel was about 80.5 km east of the island of Granada, its highest winds already near 160 km/h. This Caribbean storm crossed the island of Haiti, leaving an estimated 1,000 people dead, its winds increasing to 240 km/h as it picked up speed travelling at about 48 km/h, moved through the Bahamas leaving six dead. In the late morning of October 14, it hit the Carolinas, completely destroyed the town of Garden City, South Carolina, passed over Raleigh, North Carolina on the 15th, continued through Virginia and up the American eastern seaboard taking the lives of 95 people and causing an estimated $1.5 billion in damage. As it crossed into Canada, its winds decreased and by October 16th, the United States Weather Bureau had removed it from the hurricane category. But it was still a devastating storm, particularly for central Canada, which had never experienced anything like it.3

On October 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel struck southern Ontario in the afternoon after colliding with a western cold front. It pounded Toronto with 110 km/h winds and more than 200 mm of rain in less than 24 hours, following days of rain that had already saturated the ground and filled the city's waterways. By the time it was over, the storm had dumped 181.6 billion litres of rain on the city.4 The flows in the Humber River were four times greater than normal. The Rouge River rose 4.26 m, washing out part of a Canadian Pacific Railway line to Peterborough and 11 bridges in Markham. The hurricane destroyed or damaged over 20 bridges in Toronto.5 The spots hardest hit were southern Ontario river communities such as Bradford, Holland Marsh, Woodbridge, Thornhill, Weston, Etobicoke and sections of Toronto located on the Don and Humber rivers.6 Communities such as Bridgeport near Kitchener, the towns of Grand Valley and Orangeville in Dufferin County, and Meaford — a shoreline community on Georgian Bay — also experienced extensive flooding as creeks and rivers overflowed. Other communities — including Markham, Unionville, Bolton and Kleinburg — were also damaged. In Barrie, police barricaded four downtown streets as floodwaters 915 cm wide and 30.5 cm deep "swirled down them." Brampton was spared somewhat by a channel diversion on the Etobicoke Creek, and the Fanshawe Dam saved London from the worst of the floods. Nevertheless, 40 highways and main roads were submerged, passenger trains were derailed, telephone and hydro lines were forced down, families were forced onto the roofs of their houses to wait to be rescued, cars sank and boats were cast adrift.7

In Toronto, the storm hit at rush hour, forcing people to park cars and take the newly completed subway, except at King Street where the subway entrance was flooded. Problems were caused by traffic tie-ups at intersections where wires were down. All available police responded to distress calls. The swelling waters rushed down Yonge Street, flooded homes in the neighbourhoods of Black Creek and Weston Road Hill where dozens of homes had to be evacuated. Traffic underpasses were drenched on Spadina Avenue, Dovercourt and Avenue roads, Dupont, Christie and Bathurst streets. By 7:15 p.m., Lakeshore Boulevard flooded in places and Parkside Drive, Ossington Avenue and Mount Pleasant Road were inundated.8

The damage from the storm was extensive, with 81 people dead, many more injured, 1,868 families left homeless and damages estimated at over $180 million. The Humber River rose 6 m, sweeping away 14 homes on Raymore Drive on the west side of the river just south of Lawrence Avenue and killing 32 residents in one hour. In areas where floodplains had been drained and developed for housing, the damage to homes was disastrous. On October 22, the army was sent into the Humber Valley with hand equipment, bulldozers and flamethrowers to burn out the debris left by the flood, as 800 militia continued to search for 16 missing persons.9

The short-term effects of the hurricane were profound, as persons directly affected slowly put their lives back together again, repairing homes and businesses and mourning relatives lost in the storm. They were assisted by the outpouring of kindness and generosity from fellow citizens and with payments from the Ontario Hurricane Relief Fund, hurriedly set up by Metropolitan Toronto Council on October 17, 1954. The fund also paid out $1,270,500 to repair damages to Toronto's infrastructure (bridges, roads, sewers, waterworks and cleanup) caused by Hurricane Hazel. Through the Flood Homes and Buildings Assistance Board set up by the Ontario government on November 4, 1954, all three levels of government shared the compensation expenses paid to owners of flood-damaged or -destroyed buildings across southern Ontario.

The storm's effects remain in people's memories as "testimonials to the awesome destructive forces" of Hurricane Hazel, which now ranks as one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in North America in the 20th century.10 To avoid a recurrence of such a catastrophe, Toronto's Metro Council and other municipalities — including King Township and Woodbridge, where six persons lost their lives — expropriated and cleared 530 properties (349 in Metropolitan Toronto and 181 outside the city) on floodplains at an estimated cost of $2.2 million. In Long Branch, for example, the owners of the 184 destroyed houses were paid $817,000 compensation by the province, and the land from the three flooded streets — 42nd, 43rd and Island Road — was converted to 35 acres of parkland.11

Many lessons were learned from Hurricane Hazel. The Province of Ontario established a flood forecasting and warning system, managed by representatives from all three levels of government, which monitors watershed conditions. Flood control facilities were studied, upgraded or constructed so that the courses of seven waterways — the Don, Rouge and Humber rivers and Duffin’s, Etobicoke, Mimico and Highland creeks — were changed. Dams, three lakes and several reservoirs were built to control water levels and monitor the flow of rivers and streams.

As a result of Hurricane Hazel, homes on low-lying lands were cleared and green belts were established in watershed areas, which became part of a broad system of Toronto and area parks.12 Conservation authorities throughout southern Ontario were either newly formed or given greater support to manage these parks in areas potentially hazardous for floods.

In 1954, the Albion Hills Conservation Area was established on a 446-hectare parcel of land on the Humber River floodplain under the management of the newly formed Humber River Conservation Authority, which three years later became part of the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. The Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority purchased about 32,000 acres in flood hazard areas.13 Lands acquired in the Rouge Valley formed the major part of Rouge Park. Raymore Park on the Humber River was dedicated to the memory of victims of Hurricane Hazel. Conservation authorities oversaw fish and wildlife management and reforested the lands to prevent soil erosion. With a booming urban population and a growing demand for public recreation areas and facilities, the conservation areas were used for swimming, hiking, biking, camping and other activities, and educational nature programs for students and the public were developed. Hurricane Hazel was a "most potent force in making the Ontario public aware of the need for conservation."14

The Globe and Mail, on October 18, 1954, commented, "we were lamentably unprepared for the onslaught of the waters and have paid heavily in lives and property for that failure." It concluded, "Let us most of all learn the danger of leaving nature uncontrolled." Hurricane Hazel resulted in flood controls and "changed thinking about conservation in south-central Ontario."15 It spurred the rapid development of new infrastructure to control rivers and watersheds in southern Ontario, thereby protecting public health and property.

The Ontario Heritage Foundation gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Laurel MacDowell in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Foundation, 2004

1 “Forecasting and Warning,” Conservation Ontario, 30 April 2004.

2 Globe and Mail, 11-15 Oct. 1954.

3 “Hurricane Hazel Touches Dufferin County,” 1, Dufferin Severe Weather Site, 30 April 2004; Globe and Mail, 16 Oct. 1954, 1.

4 “The Wrath of Hurricane Hazel — Disasters and Tragedies — CBC Archives,” 1, CBC Television News, 6 Dec. 1954.

5 “The Wrath of Hurricane Hazel — Disasters and Tragedies — CBC Archives,” 1, CBC Television News, 6 Dec. 1954.

6 Globe and Mail, 18 Oct. 1954, 4.

7 RG1-458, acc. no. 28338, box 32, file Hurricane floods — Humber. The total cost of Hurrivane Hazel damage to Ontario Hydro facilities in five regions was $422,332 not including losses of municipal hydro systems.

8 Globe and Mail, 16 Oct. 1954, 1-3.

9 Globe and Mail, 22 Oct. 1954.

10 “Hurricane Hazel Touches Dufferin County,” 2.

11 Appendix A, Report No. 26 of the Executive Committee, Metropolitan Toronto Council Minutes 1954; Annual Report of the Commissioner of Finance for Metropolitan Toronto, 1954, Toronto Archives; Toronto Star, 30 Oct., 2 Nov., and 26 Nov. 1954, in RG19-59, box VK31, file 13:04; Report, The Flood Homes and Buildings Assistance Board, 7 Nov. 1955, 11, RG2, box 66, file Hurricane Hazel, Ontario Archives.

12 Globe and Mail, 16 Dec. 1954, in RG19-59, boz VK31, file 13:04.

13 “The Wrath of Hurricane Hazel — Disasters and Tragedies — CBC Archives,” 4, CBC Television News, 14 Oct. 1979; A.E.K. Brunnell to A.L.S. Nash , 20 Oct. 1954, discussed a special meeting that would be held that week to begin “to weld independent River Authorities in the Toronto area into a Regional Conservation Authority to present the united front in plans again future floods.” RG19-59, box VK31, file 13:04 Hurricane Hazel.

14 Nancy Early, “Hurricanes to Hiking,” 1-2; Rough Duffin Highland Petticoat Conservation Report, 1956, Dep’t. of Planning and Development, Toronto Archives; Globe and Mail, 30 Dec. 1954, in RG19-59, box VK 31, file 13:04.

15 Globe and Mail, 30 Dec. 1954, 8 in RG 19-59, box VK31, file 13:04, Hurricane Hazel, Ontario Archives.