by Pauline Kerr
The name Fiona will long be remembered whenever storm clouds gather, the wind rises, and creatures great and small head for high ground. At least in the eastern part of this country, Fiona was the storm that finally convinced climate change deniers that something real and dangerous is going on, and Canadians are not immune.
Storms come and go – Canada gets rain, snow, hail, wind, and all of the above. We are usually spared the devastating hurricanes that ravage more southern climates, with the key word being “usually.”
Hurricane Hazel formed in early October, 1954, fueled by tropical heat and moisture. By the time the storm dissipated on Oct. 18, the death toll numbered over a thousand, including 81 here, and the long-term economic impact in Canada was estimated at over $1 billion.
By the time the storm hit the Toronto area, it had wreaked havoc on the Caribbean and United States. Toronto infrastructure was not built to withstand storms like this; rivers and creeks rose 20-26 feet, and over 50 bridges were destroyed, along with roads and railways. Outside the city, crops were ruined and homes swept away as rivers overflowed their banks.
Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was created after the storm to protect against damage and loss of life from future events of this type, and parkland replaced areas along waterways where homes once stood.
Hazel was not the only hurricane to hit Canada and certainly not the deadliest. One in the year 1775 is thought to have killed over 4,000 people.
Thanks to modern meteorology and communications, we had plenty of warning about Hazel and even more for Fiona; the death toll from each was much lower than it would have been in earlier times.
The dollar figure for damage is a different matter. The cleanup in the wake of Fiona is still underway, and when the numbers are added up, they will make the total from Hazel seem paltry. Infrastructure is more sophisticated and expensive than at any other time in history, and the pressure to build in flood-prone but wonderfully scenic areas is intense.
Add to this the fact that much of our infrastructure, both urban and rural, took place in a flurry of post-war building. Too many of our sewer systems, underground utilities, asphalt highways and bridges are existing on borrowed time.
Now add climate change.
Infrastructure does not need replacement according to 70-year-old needs, it needs updating to new, rigorous standards. Rainfall events are different than they used to be. We get fewer of those gentle, daylong rains that would soak into fields and lawns, and more sudden, intense events that quickly flow into waterways, overwhelming storm sewers and washing away soil.
Roads and bridges in rural Ontario were never designed for the pounding they take from heavy truck traffic and Taj Mahal summer homes on wheels. Climate change, with frequent freeze-and-thaw cycles, means that without constant maintenance, unpaved roads turn into quagmires and paved ones develop tire-eating potholes.
Climate change also means those horribly destructive once-in-a-century storms are hitting every decade or so, at a time when we have drained wetlands that once served as buffers, and built structures on flood plains and land prone to fires.
Nobody thought much about it except the insurance companies, until recently. One has to wonder how much longer insurance companies are going to pay people to keep rebuilding on land where they should never have been allowed to build in the first place.
Municipalities in this area are enjoying unprecedented growth, but that growth has to come with careful planning. When there is another Hazel, or Fiona, we pray this community has adequate storm sewers and flood control measures. Municipalities that have allowed growth with as much consideration for the impact of climate change as tax dollars, will.
When it comes to climate change and infrastructure, truer words were never spoken than the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We likely should add, “God willing and the creek don’t rise!”