The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
[Note: This is the conclusion of a three-part article on Hurricane Hazel, probably the biggest storm to ever hit Wellington, which passed through the county on Oct. 15, 1954.]
In the wake of the major drenching and winds brought by Hurricane Hazel on Friday, Oct. 15, the clouds continued to be heavy, and rain continued sporadically into Saturday and Sunday. The sun finally poked through the clouds on Sunday afternoon for brief periods.
During the days after the big storm, residents cleaned up fallen branches and assessed damage to buildings and roofs. On Sunday, thousands of people motored to the International Plowing Match site near Breslau, where the storm and seas of mud had brought the big event to a premature close.
What drew the crowds, though, were the reports of damage to the tents and pavilions in the tented city. The site was a sickening mess for cleanup crews, and the traffic created a major traffic jam on Highway 7.
During that weekend several stories of near-disaster circulated through Wellington. One example was that of Carl Dyer of Fergus. He was returning home on Friday evening from Toronto, where he was employed by de Havilland Aircraft, at the height of the storm. At the bridge over the west branch of the Humber he was stopped by stalled traffic ahead. Rapidly rising water soon covered the floor of his car, and soon reached the seat. As he climbed onto the back of the seat to keep dry, the rushing water swept his car off the highway. He managed to roll down a window and make good his escape, and was saved from certain death only by grasping a tree until rescuers came to his assistance five hours later. His motor car was a total wreck.
A similar experience befell Art Chapman, son-in-law of Charles Greenley of Harriston. His car plunged into a washout on Highway 7 near Thistletown. Chapman escaped doom only through his skills as a strong swimmer: he swam about a quarter mile in freezing water, then grabbed a fence and pulled himself to solid ground.
By Oct. 18, everyone realized that Wellington had escaped relatively lightly, compared to areas to the east, and particularly the Humber Valley. In most of the communities across the county, volunteers quickly organized campaigns to raise money for flood relief. As was and is so often the case, those in the north of the county were at the lead of the campaign. Harriston’s Oddfellows lodge, and in particular, its women’s auxiliary, seem to have been the first off the mark. By Monday morning, Oct. 18, they had gathered 31 boxes of clothing for victims in the Toronto area. Walter Grosz of Harriston Motors loaned a pickup truck, and Bill Gordon offered to drive the donations to the Salvation Army in Toronto that afternoon.
Damascus United Church was not far behind. On the evening of Oct. 20, the church presented a recital by a former resident, Donald Alexander, who was then the assistant organist at Melville Church in Fergus. The concert, featuring vocals by members of the Damascus choir, raised about $50 to start the local fund.
At Erin, which had escaped Hazel with only minor damage, the Lions Club immediately decided to undertake a canvas of the village and immediate area. They set an ambitious goal of $10,000. D.S. Leitch started the ball rolling with a $100 contribution.
The major inconvenience in the eastern portion of the county was the temporary closure of Canadian Pacific’s line north of Streetsville. That disruption cut off express service to Erin and the area to the north, and delayed mail service to some post offices until the line went back in service on Wednesday, Oct. 20.
In the north, there were scattered power disruptions as a result of the storm, and more with the failure of a high-voltage line near Listowel on Saturday afternoon. The Moorefield area suffered the most serious outages, with some residents in the dark until Sunday afternoon, more than 40 hours after the lights flickered out.
By Oct. 20, most communities had fundraising campaigns under way. The Fergus Service Club (predecessor of that town’s Rotary Club), was already in the middle of its United Way campaign. President O.B. Brown announced that the club would also undertake a flood relief campaign. Mrs. T.H. Snyder organized a clothing and bedding drive among members of the Fergus Horticultural Society.
Provincial authorities had, by then, organized a provincial campaign for flood relief, with an objective of $10,000,000. They urged local groups to co-ordinate their efforts with the provincial campaign. In Fergus, mayor J.M. Milligan stepped forward to co-ordinate the efforts already begun by the Service Club, Horticultural Society, and others. With the blessing of Fergus council, he headed a special committee of 18 members, representing most of the lodges, societies and service clubs in town.
The group met on Oct. 22 to plan a full campaign for the following week.
Elora’s council also appointed a flood relief committee, with town clerk W.C. Murray acting as the secretary-treasurer. A.J. Waddell stepped forward, offering to conduct personally a full canvas of the village. Reeve Norm Drimmie started the fund with a $30 contribution, and the other councillors kicked in $10 each. Waddell spent the last week of October knocking on local doors.
At Arthur, Royal Bank manager Ken McPherson set up a special account, and took donations from the public. The Arthur Lions organized a Monster Euchre Tournament for Nov. 3 at the town hall, with admission and lunch proceeds going to the flood relief fund. Similar campaigns raised large sums in all of Wellington’s towns and villages.
Among the consequences of Hurricane Hazel was a renewed resolve to proceed with the Conestogo Dam, near Hollen. The project seemed to be in high gear at the beginning of 1954, but then went on the back burner, where it had been most of the time for the previous five years, and under consideration for the best part of 20 years. The Conservation Authority met on Oct. 22, exactly one week after Hurricane Hazel, to let the contracts for the project.
Rising cost projects had delayed the project most recently. Estimates in the fall of 1954 put the dam and associated expenses at $5,400,000. The Shand Dam near Belwood, completed 12 years earlier, had cost a sliver over $2,000,000. Nevertheless, everyone realized that further delay would only increase the cost. The final specifications called for an earth-fill dam, 1,800 feet long and 80 feet high at its maximum, and covered with heavy stone to prevent erosion. There would be four gates. The reservoir would have two arms, each six miles long, and covering more than 1,800 acres. Most important, the dam would provide control for more than 70% of the Conestogo’s watershed, and provide additional protection for communities downstream and in the lower reaches of the Grand River.
Another consequence of Hurricane Hazel was the gradual introduction of flood plain controls for new buildings. Much of the property damage resulted from structures being situated on sites prone to flooding.
During 1955 there were new studies for more flood control dams, in the Grand River system and the other major rivers in southern Ontario. Altogether, some 21 new dams were proposed, but not all were built. As well, there were revisions to the Conservation Authorities Act in 1956, strengthening the ability of those organizations to deal with emergency situations.
The Grand River Conservation Authority, and the other similar organizations, learned much from the storm, and established new regimes for monitoring, recording, and reporting flood conditions on the Grand River system.
Major problems during the storm were the lack of accurate information and the absence of co-ordination among the various bodies dealing with the emergency. That lead to a reconsideration of the Civil Defence movement, which was then in its infancy. Hurricane Hazel made it clear that Soviet missiles were not the only threat to Ontario’s communities.
During the following half century, flood control procedures and emergency response plans have become more sophisticated and co-ordinated. Today, a storm the equal of Hurricane Hazel would result in much less loss of life and property damage than was the case in 1954.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 22, 2004.