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From Juan to Hazel and beyond: A look back at some of Canada's worst hurricanes

Hurricane Juan south of Nova Scotia. Courtesy NASA/MODIS

Hurricane Juan south of Nova Scotia. Courtesy NASA/MODIS

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, June 16, 2013, 11:36 AM -

While perhaps not as hard hit as the United States tends to be, hurricanes are common enough to our shores to regularly leave their mark on the land and its people.

2013's hurricane season is only just beginning, with Tropical Storm Andrea drenching people in the Maritimes last week.

Here's a look back at some of the worst storms to hit Canada from recent times all the way back to before Confederation.

2010: Hurricane Igor

Only one person was confirmed killed when Hurricane Igor struck Newfoundland, but Environment Canada calls the storm the province’s “worst by far.”

The wind and rain battered the island hard enough to leave 150 communities cut off after roads and bridges were washed out or destroyed. More than 150 mm of rain fell of some communities. In St. Lawrence, on the Burin Peninsula, the rain gauges read almost 240 mm in just 20 hours.

Schools were closed a day in advance of the storm, for the first time in the province’s history, and more than 70,000 people were left without power – about 15 per cent of the island’s entire population.

As for damages, the Insurance Bureau of Canada says the insured costs of damaged or destroyed homes and infrastructure came to $65 million, but uninsured costs are believed to be much higher.

The storm’s only fatality was a man who was swept away as his driveway collapsed.

2003 - Hurricane Juan

When Hurricane Juan roared into Halifax, Atlantic Canada’s largest city, it was the first direct hit suffered by the community in more than a hundred years.

Aside from eight direct and indirect deaths, more than 300,000 homes were left without power in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island (The combined population of the two provinces is only around 1.1 million people).

Huge swaths of the Nova Scotia coast were swept clean of wharves and moored boats, homes were damaged and up to 100 million trees province-wide may have been blown down.

Workers at the Halifax-based Canadian Hurricane Centre – not used to being THAT close to their subject matter – were evacuated as a precaution.

In Prince Edward Island, a provincial election scheduled for Sept. 29, the day the hurricane made landfall, went ahead as planned, with an 83 per cent turnout, despite a power outage covering two-thirds of the province.

1959: The Escuminac Disaster

A stone monument watches over the wharf in the New Brunswick community of Escuminac on Miramichi Bay, a memorial to 35 fishermen who were lost at sea when a hurricane passed through the Gulf of St. Lawrence:

That June, Winds of 120 km/h whipped the seas and raised waves as high as 15 metres.

None of the 45 fishing boats at sea had any radios to warn them of the coming of the storm. Twenty-two vessels did not make it to shore. Of the 35 dead, the youngest victim was reportedly only 13 years old.

Something like a third of the Miramichi-area’s salmon fleet was destroyed in the disaster, harming the communities around the bay economically even as they struggled with the loss of the fishermen, boats and traps and nets.

1954: Hurricane Hazel

More than 80 people lay dead in the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel, the monster storm that struck the city of Toronto days after forming far away in the Caribbean:

When Hazel arrived, the ground was already saturated after unseasonably heavy rains, so when the skies opened, there was nowhere for the rain to go but the region’s already swollen rivers. Parts of the region got as much as 180 mm of rain, and Environment Canada estimated something like 300 million tonnes of rainwater fell on the region.

Roads and bridges were washed out, and some parts of the region’s rivers rose so drastically that houses were lifted off their foundations and carried away, complicating search and rescue efforts.

The destruction and death toll were a big wake-up call for the province, and many communities, including the Toronto area, started developing flood management plans to mitigate the effects of another Hazel.

1900: The Galveston Hurricane

Take a look at this extreme wreckage:

Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons.

It’s just one snapshot of the staggering damage in the wake of the Hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, at the turn of the 20th Century. Aside from the unprecedented damage, it may have claimed as much as 12,000 lives, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

So what’s it doing on a list of Canadian Hurricanes? Although weakened, the storm or its remnants wandered deep into the North American continent, drenching the U.S. Great Plains before curling into Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Environment Canada says as much as 230 lives may have been lost in Canadian waters, although the Canadian death toll may be lower, as some of the deaths may be from the French island territory of St. Pierre et Miquelon, just off Newfoundland.

The same part of Texas was struck by Hurricane Ike in 2008: 

While nowhere near as powerful, it still eventually affected Canada, downing trees, causing flooding and cutting power. A reminder that hurricanes affecting our neighbour can easily spill over into Canada.

1869 - 1927: The storms of the east coast

As bad as the many of the preceding hurricanes have been, especially in the public mind, to really understand the terrible power of the sea, you have to look back to when our country was still young.

Provincial archives of New Brunswick.

Provincial archives of New Brunswick.

We’ll start in 1869, two years after Confederation. A powerful post-tropical storm, combined with a high spring tide, caused a massive storm surge in the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, already home to the world’s highest tides.

Much of the isthmus between the two provinces was practically underwater. Farmland was swamped and an unknown number of lives were lost.

Yarmouth County Museum and Archives

Yarmouth County Museum and Archives

Only four years later, a storm known to history as the Great Nova Scotia Hurricane swept that province’s coast. Environment Canada says it wiped out 1,200 boats and 900 homes, with a death toll perhaps as high as 500 people, mostly sailors off the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

And in the 1920s, the east coast was hit with three “August Gales,” in 1924, 1926 and 1927. Together, they were responsible for 276 deaths, mostly at sea.

1775: The Great Newfoundland Hurricane

Photo: Mike Shackleford.

Photo: Mike Shackleford.

Four thousand dead. That’s how devastating this storm was when it raged off the coast of Newfoundland, sweeping the seas clear of fishing boats and British warships as the American Revolution was just beginning in the 13 Colonies.

There’s very little information on the storm, so most of the numbers we have come from contemporary accounts that also suggest the unnamed tempest may have whipped up a storm surge of as much as 10 metres.

It is by far Canada’s deadliest natural disaster, and the eighth deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record.

Drastic improvements in forecasting, infrastructure and emergency management have cut the number of hurricane deaths in Canada since this storm, but the shocking numbers of dead or missing is a stark reminder of how exposed Canadians once were to the fury of the seas.

Canada is also tornado country, and there've already been several twisters confirmed this season. Here's a glance back at some of the worst tornadoes in Canadian history.

And for severe weather in the here and now, check out our video galleries.

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