Aerial shot of Raymore Drive in Toronto following Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The flooding swept houses off their foundations and killed dozens. Aerial shot of Raymore Drive in Toronto following Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The flooding swept houses off their foundations and killed dozens. Toronto Telegram / York University Archives
Monday’s torrential downpour over the City of Toronto ended up breaking some historic records. In about two hours, we saw more rainfall than we’re supposed to receive for the entire month of July, and more than Toronto has ever seen in one day.

Major highways and roads soon overflowed, basements were washed out, city sewers backed up, cars were carried away in flash floods, subway stations became submerged for days, and there were even pictures of snakes on a flooded GO Train.

Yet, while Samuel L. Jackson was nowhere to be found for a highly anticipated sequel, Torontonians unanimously agree that this week’s weather is surely one to remember. Although Monday's 126 millimetres of rain currently tops Toronto’s almanac, where does the Great Toronto Flood of 2013 rank among the city’s past natural disasters?

It seems that Toronto’s cityscape itself has been shaped by bouts of severe weather over the centuries, beginning in the 1850s with the destruction of what early Torontonians referred to as “The Peninsula.”

Sediments carried down the Don River over thousands of years had created a long, sandy peninsula jutting out into Lake Ontario. Natives considered the long sandy beaches as a great recreation area, and it wasn’t soon afterward that Toronto’s early citizens began using it for the same purpose. Hotel owner John Quinn purchased the Peninsula Hotel in 1853 near its east end to profit from the popular tourist destination. Yet, several storms in the years that followed would severely damage his hotel, as well as The Peninsula itself.

On the morning of April 14, 1858, when Quinn’s family was preparing a large party for the workers who had rebuilt the hotel, a severe storm hit the city and washed away the entire eastern end of The Peninsula. By the next day, a five-foot deep channel had formed next to the (once again) ruined hotel. Within a month, the channel became big enough for ships to pass through it. The Peninsula, permanently separated from the mainland, became known as today’s Toronto Islands.

As the city began to bury many of its tributaries to make way for rapid industrialization, more pressure was put on existing waterways such as the Humber and the Don, the latter of which was even straightened from it’s natural path in the 1890s. While we saw the Don jump its urban banks and flood the Don Valley Parkway on Monday, it certainly wasn’t the first time Toronto’s rivers have experienced major flooding.

On October 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel famously struck Toronto, resulting in an unexpectedly high death toll. Earlier that week Hazel had been a Category 4 storm, inflicting massive damage on Haiti and resulting in over a thousand deaths. By the time it reached Toronto, Hazel was downgraded to a tropical storm, but its combination with a cold front over Lake Ontario proved to be deadly.

Meteorologists weren’t the best at the time, and predicted the storm to largely miss the city, so no special preparations were made. The effects of Hurricane Hazel ended up being disastrous, particularly in Toronto’s west end, which was impacted most by the flooding. The storm overwhelmed Toronto’s infrastructure. Floods severely damaged or destroyed about 50 bridges. Harvested crops in Holland Marsh north of the city were completely washed away leading to economic ruin for many farmers.

Even worse was the loss of life. As the Humber River quickly overflowed and made its way through Toronto, several low-lying residential areas were caught straight in its floodplain. Thirty-five people died on Raymore Drive in the city’s Weston neighbourhood alone. Fourteen houses on the street were simply uprooted and swept downstream by the Humber. Many of the victims bodies were never recovered. Since then, building residences in Toronto ravines or the floodplains of either river has been banned.

The deadly effects of Hazel led to its name being retired from use for future hurricanes. The storm also flooded hearts with generosity. Millions of dollars in donations came from all over the world, including the City of Hamilton, the Ford Motor Company, and even Pope Pius XII. Eight hundred military troops were called in as well to help with cleanup.

The military has been called into help a storm-ridden Toronto only once since Hurricane Hazel. While the city averages about 120cm of snow each winter, Toronto had received that in under two weeks in January, 1999, and well over half a metre was still piled on the ground. Mayor Mel Lastman famously called in four hundred troops from CFB Petawawa on January 13 to shovel major highways and roads, just so the city didn’t completely come to a halt.

So while we may have groaned about power outages from the storm, let’s keep in mind that more rain fell on Monday than during Hurricane Hazel, Toronto’s previous rainfall record holder. Yet while Hazel led to 81 deaths in Ontario, and made over 4000 people homeless, nobody lost their lives in our most recent flood. Toronto has largely learned from its mistakes, and history clearly shows us how this storm could’ve been much, much worse.

With files from Jamie Bradburn and the CBC Digital Archives.

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  • Subtitle: How Monday's weather stacked up against the storms of Toronto's past
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