Nine Canadian cities devastated by weather disasters
Thursday, August 23, 2018, 11:31 AM - Canada is in the thick severe weather season, with torrential rains leading to flooding in Ontario yet again, to a weeks-long wildfire crisis in B.C. sending air quality plumetting over half the continent.
Though emergency services normally do a fine job keeping the worst in check, along with early warning systems that keep people largely out of harm's way, occasionally a disaster happens that is so powerful, it does severe and lasting damage to one of Canada's cities.
Here are nine such disasters.
The Great Fire of 1825
Before Canada was created, the Maritime provinces were great centres of shipbuilding and forestry, with northern New Brunswick well-steeped in that tradition.
But the region was dealt a major blow on October 7, 1825, when what has been called the largest fire complex in eastern North America roared through a fifth of the province after a dry summer.
More than 1.2 million hectares in New Brunswick and Maine burned, and in the flames’ path were communities on the Miramichi River.
They were devastated. In the town of Newcastle, home to 1,000 people, only 12 of 260 buildings were still standing. In neighbouring Douglastown, only six of 70 remained.
People fled to the river, taking refuge from the flames and heat along with wildlife and livestock. Estimates of the dead range from 160 to around 300, but the number is certain to be higher: At the time the flames were whipped out of control by strong winds, thousands of loggers and settlers were about their business in camps in the forest.
The area burned stretched from Belledune to Richibucto even down to the Fredericton area, but this account says the area’s industry had mostly recovered by the 1830s.
The Regina Cyclone, 1912
YMCA, after the June 30, 1912 cyclone. Image: Regina Archives/Wikimedia Commons
Saskatchewan had been a province for less than ten years when its capital became the target of Canada’s deadliest-ever tornado.
At 5 p.m. on June 30, 1912, a tornado believed to have been rated F4 at its strongest formed south of Regina. It scoured farmland before making a direct hit on the city itself, according to this look-back in the Saskatchewan Archives Board.
In a time with nothing even remotely the kind of tornado warning systems and building standards we have today, the city was near-defenceless.
A major Prairie economic centre, the businesses, railyards and warehouses that were its livelihood suffered major damage, as did hundreds of homes. Among the wreckage were 28 fatalities, a death toll that wouldn’t come close to being matched by any other tornado disaster until 1987.
More than 2,500 people were homeless, almost a tenth of the city’s population at the time. The twister caused around $1.2 million in damage, which would equate to more than $400 million in today’s terms.
Although the city was quickly rebuilt, it took more than 40 years to pay off the cost of reconstruction.
Windsor tornado, 1946
The Second World War was a year over when this tornado entered the Windsor, Ont., area from Michigan on June 17, 1946, eventually intensifying to F4 strength.
Environment Canada says 400 homes in the city and surrounding area were destroyed or badly damaged, along with 150 farm buildings and hundreds of trees in orchards and woodlots. 17 people died in the disaster.
Even the printing facility of the Windsor Star was a casualty, and in the hours following the disaster, there was a temporary outbreak of civil unrest, including looting.
Windsor sees some of the strongest and most frequent thunderstorms in Ontario, which do occasionally produce tornadoes, and the city was the site of another of Ontario’s deadliest twisters.
While nowhere near as devastating as the 1946 event, the F3 twister of April 3, 1974, wrecked a curling rink and killed nine people.
Hurricane Hazel, 1954
When this powerful storm made a direct hit on the Greater Toronto Area in October 1954, it couldn't have come at a worse time.
Much of Ontario had endured several deluges by the time Hurricane Hazel arrived, such that the ground was too saturated to absorb the storm's deluges of more than 200 mm. As much as 90 per cent of the rain flowed into the region's rivers, some of which rose by six to eight metres.
The result was devastating floods, enough to sweep houses off their foundations, derail trains, and make short work of the various bridges across the area's rivers. By the time the rains stopped and the waters began to receive, 81 people were dead, and about 1,900 families were homeless, to say nothing of the tens of millions of dollars that had been inflicted on the city, back then the nation's second-largest.
City, provincial and federal authorities took lessons from the disaster, and one of the most enduring developments after Hazel was the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and various other improvements to manage stormwater runoff.
The Barrie Tornado, 1985
This was one of Canada’s most powerful tornadoes, an F4 monster with winds of up to 418 km/h. When it touched down on Friday, May 31, 1985, it was only one of several twisters in an outbreak that left 12 people dead in southern Ontario.
Eight of the dead were in and around Barrie, which felt the twister’s wrath as it tore a five-kilometre path of destruction through the city, around 600 m at its widest. The tornado’s winds tossed cars, snapped trees like twigs and dismantled structures hit by the worst gusts.
Some 600 homes were badly damaged, a third of which were left uninhabitable. As well, the tornado tracked through an industrial park, destroying or damaging no less than 16 factories.
The death toll could have been catastrophic, were it not for a fortuitous development: A temporary power outage left the park dark, so the factories’ workers had already been sent home by the time the tornado arrived.
Still, hundreds were left without work, and more than 155 people were injured in and around the damage path through the city.
That same day, another F4 caused arguably more extensive damage to the village of Grand Valley. The Barrie Examiner says roughly a third of structures in the community were destroyed or damaged, and two people were killed.
Though sparsely populated, northern Ontario was inhabited by Canada’s First Nations long before European and, later, Canadian settlers entered the region.
The village of Winisk, on the river of the same name as it flows into Hudson Bay, was founded as a trading post in 1820 and came to be a community of the Cree people.
Ice jams are a fact of life on Canada’s rivers, and in 1986, one jam brought the community to a total end. The still near-freezing waters of the river rose to consume the village, destroying all but two of its buildings.
Helicopters operating out of the nearby airport, which was not destroyed, helped evacuate the town’s residents, at one point plucking them from canoes in the floodwaters. As for the town’s homes, many were carried several kilometres downriver.
Despite the rescue efforts, two people were killed: One person died by drowning, the other was crushed by ice.
The community was forced to relocate 30 km upstream, at a new village now called “Peawanuck.”
The Edmonton Tornado, 1987
Echoing the Barrie tornado, this catastrophic twister also happened on a Friday.
It was July 31, 1987, when the city of Edmonton had its own Black Friday. For an hour, an F4 tornado tore through part of the city, along with parts of neighbouring Strathcona County.
By the time it dissipated, it left behind a shell-shocked city, and around $330 million in damage (in 1987 terms). The death toll, 27 souls, was the second deadliest in all of Canadian history, matched only by the 1912 Regina Cyclone, that killed one more person.
It moved through an industrial area, tossing cars, trucks and a large oil container, then a residential zone, wrecking or damaging hundreds of homes, then a trailer park, where as many as 15 were killed.
At the time, it was Alberta’s most expensive natural disaster, and it spurred authorities to take action to improve warning systems, including the founding of Alberta Emergency Alert.
Slave Lake, 2011
This conflagration was almost the doom of the northern Alberta community of Slave Lake.
A third of the community – around 400 structures – was consumed when the fire started on Friday, May 13, 2011. Very dry conditions already portended a bad wildfire season when the fire (which may have been arson) began.
However it began, the flames were whipped up by 100 km/h winds, moving swiftly through the community at 70 metres per minute. Among the blackened ruins were the town hall, provincial government offices and medical clinic.
The disaster’s single fatality was a helicopter pilot, killed during an accident while scooping water from a nearby lake as part of fire suppression efforts. He was recovered by nearby firefighters, but pronounced dead at the scene.
The flames ended up scorching some 220 square kilometres of land, as well as the town, causing an estimated $700 million in damages.
And then, to add insult to injury, the rains started. June saw some 17 consecutive days of rain, drenching the region in more than 200 mm that month. And in July, another deluge left 100 mm of rain flooding roads and basements.
Fort McMurray, 2016
The driest winter and spring for the better part of a century laid the foundations for disaster in the region of Fort McMurray, Alberta's fourth largest city and the heart of its oil industry.
When the fire that would come to be known as "the Beast" roared to life at the beginning of May 2016, and though initially contained, soon raged out of control due to blustery winds.
As it bore down on Fort McMurray, it sent some 88,000 residents streaming north and south to safety, one of Canada's largest peacetime evacuations. Two people were killed in a car accident during the exodus, but no further deaths occurred as a result of the fire.
Despite the low number of fatalities, the firestorm made its mark on the city. By the time the fire was finally contained, 5,000 square kilometres of land had been scorched, 2,400 homes and businesses had been destroyed, and at least $9 billion of insured damage had been inflicted.
Did you experience any of these disasters? Tell us your story in the comments below.