Hurricane Hazel

Hurricane Hazel by Betty Kennedy was published in 1979, twenty-five years after the natural disaster that killed 81 people in Toronto. Since Kennedy is a respected broadcaster and journalist, her history read well, with building anticipation and suspense, but without sensationalism. I read it to myself using her voice, as I wanted to imagine listening to her reading it as if she were actually on the radio. (I sometimes read using the author’s voice in my mind, especially with the works of William S. Burroughs, whose works read better if I imagine his distinctive voice reading aloud to me.)

Kennedy documented the hurricane from its origins in the Caribbean, where it devastated Haiti, through the US and across Lake Ontario to Toronto. It had already rained for several days prior to the hurricane, and people were sick of the constant wet. They were unprepared for the worst that was still to come. Early warnings weren’t heeded or even believed, and many were asleep by the time of the worst flooding:

“This was different. This was the unknown, the unfamiliar, the totally unexpected crisis. Hurricanes belonged in the tropics. Because the Toronto area had no remembered history of such onslaughts by nature, none was ever expected.”

The most riveting chapter was entitled The Street That Disappeared, about the destruction of Raymore Drive. It is at this location where the Humber River takes a sharp angular bend. The overwhelming rainfall flushed the water over the riverbank and into the path of the houses along the west riverside. Kennedy told stories about survivors clinging to trees and rooftops all night. Tragic stories dominated, as 35 people from this street lost their lives, including the saddest story of all where nine members out of a household of ten perished.

Kennedy used personal testimonials told by the victims themselves for the greatest impact. Rivers of mud flowed through houses in one door and out the other and the residents were powerless to stop it. As water levels continued to rise, people who did not or could not leave their homes kept climbing higher and higher, eventually having no choice but to break through the roof from the attic to save themselves from drowning. After the storm had passed, rescuers, believing that they had found a doll in the water, pulled out the corpse of a baby. People clung to their vehicles after being washed out of them, only to be found dead, tangled up in the undercarriage. Since so much devastation ravaged one small neighbourhood, residents discovered the bodies of their neighbours and, most tragic of all, their family members among the wreckage.

In spite of the devastation some people still managed to find the courage to laugh:

“When Greta Ritchie called Molly in hospital to ask if there was anything she could do to help her, Molly said she had only one request: ‘Please tell your mother to leave her house at home next time she comes to call. It made a hell of a hole in the side of ours.'”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel floodplains were expropriated and residents relocated, to prevent another Raymore tragedy. Flood control plans were developed and individual municipalities consolidated warning and rescue.

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