Wet 1954 culminated with Hurricane Hazel

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.

The event most remembered from 1954 is certainly Hurricane Hazel. Most oldtimers are able to recall exactly what they were doing when that storm swept through the area on Oct. 15 of that year.

Hurricane Hazel was one of the most destructive storms ever experienced in Ontario. The death toll hit 83 and damages, depending on whose figures are quoted, totaled somewhere between $25 million and $100-million, equivalent to perhaps nine times as much in 2020 dollars.

Books were published about Hazel in 2004 to mark the 50th anniversary, and television stations showed historical clips of the big storm. Most centred on Toronto and the Humber River valley, where death and destruction were the worst.

The centre of the storm passed through the western section of Toronto and Brampton as it headed north. But Hazel cut a wide swath, affecting all of southern Ontario, and American states from New Jersey to Indiana and Michigan.

Hurricane Hazel was first tracked and named on Oct. 5, and for more than a week it flitted around the Caribbean. Then it began to head north and gain strength. Hazel made a shambles of Haiti, destroying a majority of the buildings there. Deaths were never properly tallied, but it was certainly about 1,000.

Continuing north, the storm hit the mainland on the coast of South Carolina early on Oct. 15, and at high tide, which amplified the effects of waves and wind. Within a couple of hours, 20 were dead in the Carolinas; 18,000 houses had been destroyed.

Through the day, Hazel tracked north at about 50 miles per hour, accompanied by torrential rains and severe winds. By noon, western New York state and Pennsylvania suffered the impact. Ontario was next.

In southern Ontario, the summer of 1954 had been one of extremes. July and August brought drought and sweltering temperatures, punctuated by occasional severe thunderstorms. September more than made up for the dry summer. Between Sept. 18 and Oct. 17, only four days passed with no rain.

Hugh Cameron, operator of the Shand Dam, also had charge of a weather station there. The Grand River Conservation Authority operated only two dams in 1954: Shand, completed in 1942, and the Luther Dam, completed in 1952. The normal policy was to draw the reservoirs down in the fall to make room for spring flood water.

Cameron had lowered the water in Lake Belwood in late September, but was forced to refill the lake with the heavy rains at the end of September and early October. He measured a little over four-and-a-half inches of rainfall in 16 days, equal to the precipitation for two full months. With no flood controls on the Grand’s tributaries, he held back as much water as possible at Belwood.

A heavy rain fell on Saturday, Oct. 9, and continued into Sunday and Monday. By Oct. 11, the ground was completely saturated. The Grand’s major tributaries in Wellington, the Irvine, Conestogo and Speed, were near or at spring flood height. By holding back water, Cameron prevented flood conditions farther down the watershed. But on the 11th, he was growing nervous: the reservoir was more than half full, and the forecasts predicted more rain during the coming week. He crossed his fingers and looked in vain for blue sky.

Cameron wasn’t the only person with problems. Farmers across the county were unable to do any fall plowing. Fields were seas of mud, and water sat in small ponds where the soil was heavy. In the Drayton area, sugar beet growers couldn’t get onto their fields to begin the harvest. The rain tapered off on Thanksgiving Monday, and the sun appeared for a few hours. That was good news for the Erin Fair, offsetting poor attendance due to Saturday’s rains. The few hours of sun were sufficient to boost the weekend attendance to the 12,000 mark.

Across the county line, near Breslau, the 1954 International Plowing Match (IPM) was scheduled to open on Oct. 12. Local committee members, most of German background, had organized the match with Teutonic thoroughness and efficiency. As the opening neared, they were frustrated when the weather failed to co-operate. Things got off to a bad start at the opening ceremony. It was raining again. Lieutenant Governor Louis Breithaupt, a Waterloo native who was to open the match, got stuck in axle-deep mud when his car was barely through the gate. He had to be extricated with a tractor.

Breithaupt joked about the incident in his remarks, but none of the IPM officials laughed. They worried that the weather would keep the crowds away, resulting in a big financial loss. And there were fears that if the rains continued there would be little plowing.

Oct. 13 brought a rare sunny day. Though the sun did little to dry the fields, the respite at least permitted excess water to drain away. The IPM might be a success after all.

Those hopes were dashed the following day, Oct. 14. The forecasts predicted more rain, part of a disturbance ahead of Hurricane Hazel. Though not heavy, the rains that day caused more mud and flooding. The ground simply could contain no more water. Weathermen predicted that the remnants of the hurricane would pass through Ontario on Friday, Oct. 15.

At Drayton, the advance front of Hurricane Hazel claimed its first victim. A group of children were playing on the slippery banks of the swollen Conestogo. One of them, four-year-old Ronald Whale, lost his footing and slid into the river, which quickly swept him away. Despite the rain and coming darkness, volunteers quickly assembled a search party.

It was normal for the tail end of a hurricane to pass through southern Ontario. By the time the tropical storms reached this far north, they normally were largely exhausted, though they still could bring strong winds and occasional heavy rains.

Thursday’s rains continued into Friday. Weather forecasts that morning still predicted that the centre of Hurricane Hazel would not bring much rain to Ontario when it crossed Lakes Ontario and Erie later that day. They failed to realize that the storm was heading into a cold front, from which it  would wring millions of gallons of water.

As the rain grew heavier through the afternoon, many people decided to postpone or cancel travel plans for the weekend. Visibility was poor and pavement slippery. As well, increasingly strong winds aggravated the problems.

At Breslau, IPM officials decided to cancel the day’s events. Plowing was impossible in those conditions. Though there was little reason for celebration, the wind-up banquet would take place that evening, as scheduled.

By early afternoon, Guelph, Kitchener and Wingham radio stations carried announcements that various functions scheduled for that night were cancelled. By then, most people had already decided that they would not leave the house that night.

Hazel’s full force advanced into Wellington County at about 4pm. The sky was pitch black, though nightfall was still a couple of hours away. No one could recall rain falling in such quantities. At Elora and Fergus, the peak of the storm came at about 6pm. A strong northeast wind pushed the rain like a wall, making it almost impossible to walk. Occasional gusts, estimated to be 75 or 80 miles per hour, made the storm seem like a maelstrom.

Water streamed down chimney flues, and seeped around windows that had never before leaked. The wind-driven rains even penetrated clapboard siding, resulting in wet walls and peeling wallpaper.

Between 7 and 8pm the worst was over. Hazel was moving quickly as it headed north on a path that would take the storm into northern Quebec, and eventually, over the north Atlantic. The rainfall on Oct. 15 ranged between four and seven inches in Wellington, and most of that fell in a three-hour period.

The rain continued sporadically through the night. Radio and television stations broadcast confusing and contradictory stories of the damage through the evening.

The full extent of the impact of Hazel would come with daylight on Saturday morning.

(Next week: After the deluge.)

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 8, 2004.

Thorning Revisited