Tuesday, July 9, 2013

It’s Not a Good Idea to build on a Floodplain

It’s coming up to 7:00 am the morning of the 9th of July which will become more significant in a bit so just run with this for a short time. I have long since given up battling with the thoughts that are going through my head—really heavy rainstorm in Toronto yesterday, Hurricanes Hazel and Katrina, Calgary, riding bicycles in and around Toronto in my youth, crazy weather and Google Maps.

It always fascinates me how a story just seems to write itself and all of those pieces are tightly connected. It all started with the picture above of an event that you would likely only see but once in your lifetime. Highway 427 is a busy thoroughfare on the western limits of Toronto and it usually drains very quickly but not when you get a torrential downpour. I got the picture when it appeared on my Facebook page when a friend and former co-worker at a golf course that was just miles north of this scene posted the pic on her page. I asked when that was and she remarked with a tone you could easily detect as “really concerned” that it was happening now which was after 4:00 pm when that highway would normally be jammed with commuters.

It turns out that well over 4 inches of rain fell over the space of about six hours and the only other time that something this large took place near Toronto was back in October of 1954 in the form of Hurricane Hazel. It isn’t the right season for hurricanes coming from the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean. If it were winter time Toronto would have been dealing with a snowfall of around 4 feet in that short time. But it is early July and the storm came with little or no warning.

I grew up in Toronto and have since moved to London, Ontario which is about 100 miles southwest of the city of Toronto and it only rained lightly here today. London is in the middle of farm country and has low lying rivers all over the place. Its major one happens to be called the Thames River just like its namesake in the UK. 
If you look at Toronto you will also see that it has a pattern based on farm plots but they are mostly populated with houses and industrial areas. Farmers usually set up farms on flat land and avoid areas that are quite hilly.

The grid pattern of Toronto roads is really quite clear in Google Maps and stands out even better when you set it to Satellite mode which is the picture taken below sometimes in 2013 but it wouldn’t necessarily be up to date so I am not sure what day we are looking at here for these shots.

You can clearly see that the grid pattern is quite consistent with the exception of a few old Indian trails until you get to the two major river valleys—Don Valley in the east and the Humber Valley in the west (two areas that saw a lot of major flooding yesterday). The 3 red butterflies are of significance because these will all denote areas of interest for the current storm and Hurricane Hazel. The first one on the far left is roughly the location of the picture taken from my friends Facebook page.

There is no better way to get the sense of a city’s topography than by hopping on a bicycle and just ploughing forward and dealing with whatever shows up in front of your handlebars. You quickly learn where the steep hills are and try to avoid the ones you have to climb but get great pleasure in screaming down the other side (because you actually do scream out with joy when you descend down a hill on a bicycle as a child, even as an adult, too) and you crank up the gears on the flats. So I have an intimate knowledge of the topography that presents itself around the river valleys because they also have a lot of nice trails and bike paths that you use nowadays.

Back in the day, we did a lot of cycling on Sunday since traffic was a lot lighter since just about every store was closed then. Sunday was a working man’s holiday but a special day for a child. We would often strap our fishing rods to the crossbar of our bikes with masking tape (duct tape would be too hard to remove) and take the 17 mile adventure (it wasn’t a journey) from Dufferin and Eglinton to our favourite fishing spot under the QEW bridge on the Credit River just north of Port Credit. You learned to take the shortest and flattest route.

Google maps will give you the best route for a car and take major highways (a lot of them weren’t built yet) and today’s route would be 25 miles along the major highways mostly. Google maps also has the same option for bicycles and it picked a route that we quickly passed up for too many hills but also because part of the route didn’t exist back then which is an area just south of the second red butterfly which brings us to Hurricane Hazel. If you follow Eglinton Avenue to Jane St that valley was nothing but farmland back then and the roads didn’t exist. It is all mostly parkland or golf course land because it is right at the bottom of the Humber valley.

So we took a route that took us closer to Babypoint which is a ritzy part of Toronto that has a lot of those oversized ego boxes and if you zoom in on Google Maps you will see the swimming pools in those extra big back yards. I read a story about Babypoint and Hurricane Hazel and how the local residents would call the area Babbypoint because there were supposedly a large number of baby deaths that occurred as the result of drownings due to the effect of Hurricane Hazel.

It’s just another urban myth. If you look at the blow up I did on the area and follow the Humber River from its mouth on Lake Ontario, you will see that the river more or less goes due north until you come to the Old Mill and it does a sharp left hand turn and then does a graceful sweeping curve back to the right. A fur trader by the name of James Baby (pronounced Babby) was canoeing up that river in the early 1800’s and I bet you his crew got a little tired of paddling and set ashore . When they checked the likely heavily forested area out further they probably noted the number of salmon swimming in the river and the abundance of wildlife that would make for great hunting. In those days, you didn’t head on down to the local supermarket for your supply of grub. You hunted and fished to survive. So James probably fell in love with the place because he is considered to be the first resident of the area and so, like just about everywhere else in the world, it got its name after the founder. Never trust everything you read on the Internet. Poke around some more and find out the real story.

The real damage that took place during Hurricane Hazel took place further north up by the area that I marked in the other zoomed in shot much closer to Highway 401 which was two lanes (I think) back then. C’mon man I was about to turn 6 years old which explains why I don’t have recollections of the storm even though we lived within 5 miles of the devastation. My mom was keeping us safe like all good mothers do. (No I can’t ask her but I hope she is reading this on the Internet in heaven. She passed away 10 years ago at the age of 93).

If you look at the river where it flows from left to right (west to east) and then does a big sweeping circle to the right you will see a park called Raymore Park and across the river another one called Lions Park. It appears that the area that is now Raymore Park was the one that received the greatest devastation due to the storm and was never allowed to be rezoned for housing again. The details of Hurricane Hazel are extremely well documented in the link named Raymore Park. Having lived in an apartment just less than a mile north of this site, I get a better sense of what it must have been like but still can’t imagine water reaching a height of 25 feet in the Humber River at the Bloor Viaduct which is much further south.  

Despite all of this, rescuers still found a way to save so many lives. The deaths that happened around Raymore were largely preventable according to rescue officials and complacency was listed as the major reason for the deaths. They just wouldn’t believe that Nature had that kind of power. If you didn’t have at least a 15 horsepower motor (which was huge in those days) your boat would be swept away with you in it. I just can’t imagine what it would have been like.

The homes of the times were largely cottage style one floor buildings that you will still see in many parts of Toronto so they were no match for the powers of a raging river. The Don and the Humber look like serene and harmless bodies of water at normal times because they are slow moving and usually dark brown because the clay that makes up much of Toronto’s underliying groundwork is that brown gooey sticky stuff when it gets wet. Good for farming but not so good as building foundations when it gets really wet.

Yesterday’s storm in Toronto registered around 4 inches of rain where Hurricane Hazel was really not much larger at 4.8 inches but it packed a much larger punch. All of this just reminded me of the recent flooding in Calgary which is on a major floodplain. I lived in Calgary for three years and rode my bicycle there regularly. It is a city that is blessed with a wonderful network of bike paths that hug the many river valleys and Calgary is mostly on flat prairie lands with the exception of the west and parts of the north end of the city.

And New Orleans is built on reclaimed land which made Katrina extra devastating because there was virtually nothing in its way to deflect or absorb its force. So it all begs the question, why do we insist on building on floodplains and I think the answer lies in all the James Baby’s in our history.

You don’t drag a canoe up a large hill to build your first settlement. You drag it out of the water, build your first camp, put your canoe back into the water to go fishing and hunting and then you drag it back to the campsite to sleep for the night. As James’ friends and family arrive at the site, only then do you start to build a settlement and right on the water’s edge.

Freak storms come along once or twice a century and only known Hurricane alleys like Florida and the gulf coast states are in regular jeopardy. Settlers don’t plan for the worst. They are optimists by their very nature. They plan to survive at their new location and deal with anything that comes along.

Sometimes it is more than one can deal with as many certainly found out during Hurricane Hazel and Katrina. Thankfully, the storms of Calgary and Toronto resulted in mostly property damage that can be recovered over time. Loss of life is a whole different kettle of fish.

The Baby’s of our history only did what was right for them at the time. Our mistake is we didn’t move the settlement up the hill to higher ground when we got the wheels in place to do so. It’s hard to imagine a pretty setting like a river bank can be so destructive but Hazel and Katrina sure demonstrated that potential.

Stay dry and stay safe.

8:37 and all I have left is to paste in the pictures and post it to my blog. Thanks for reading this.

8:47 and it is posted and proofed. Hope I didn't miss anything.

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