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It's rare that you can point to a single event on a particular night and say: This is where a city found its identity. But that is exactly what happened to Toronto.

The city we know and often celebrate, the urban experiment that adventurous visitors instinctively admire, is a place where deep ravines and majestic valleys edge their way right into the core. They are such an indelible part of modern Toronto, the metropolis at peace with its very own wilderness, that we're inclined to take them for granted -- just as Rome is ancient monuments and New York is skyscrapers, Toronto at heart is, and always has been, its green space.

But if it weren't for the windy and rain-filled night of Oct. 15, 1954, a time that might as well be ancient history to many Torontonians, the city we cherish could have taken a completely different turn.

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"I thought when I first discovered the paths along the Humber River," says 34-year-old Jim Gifford, a book editor at HarperCollins, "that Toronto must have had a mandate to build a lot of nice parks, the way that New York constructed Central Park. But no, that's not the case. It was Hurricane Hazel that built Toronto -- a terrible event forced us to create this beautiful city."

The terror seems unimaginable today in the Humber Valley, where the broad river looks eternally placid and the biggest disturbance to the abiding sense of peace is the sudden sight of a salmon arching its way over a weir. And yet on the stormy night 50 years ago next week, as Mr. Gifford chronicles in his book Hurricane Hazel: Canada's Storm of the Century, everything was different in the worst way.

When the rains came like they had never come before and the rivers flooded -- the Humber alone rose more than six metres -- 81 people died in the Greater Toronto Area, 3,000 people were left homeless and damage reached a billion dollars. Twenty bridges were destroyed, streetcars and fire trucks were tossed like toys into the raging waters, cows from upriver farms rolled in the rampaging waves, houses were ripped from their foundations, and on Raymore Drive in Weston, an entire block disappeared along with its inhabitants.

"In the aftermath," says Madeleine McDowell, an artist and local historian who was an awestruck 13-year-old at the time of the storm, "there was a tremendous will to protect people from the flood. But people also felt a desire to create something green and beautiful as a legacy in the wake of this terrible loss and destruction."

It must have been hard to recognize the potential for beauty in the deadly chaos 50 years ago. What was then Metropolitan Toronto was only one year old, and still found it hard to see itself as a unified city capable of great things rather than as a disjointed collection of towns and villages and remnants of rural life. Rivers weren't viewed as public space. Trailer parks and humble cottages bordered Etobicoke Creek and the Humber River, market gardens filled the riverbanks at Jane and Eglinton that are now (as a result of the storm) the Eglinton Flats sports facilities, and until Hazel caused a quick rethink, it was widely assumed that most floodplains were destined to be developed into housing that the booming postwar city needed.

But in the wake of the hurricane -- officially an extratropical cyclone by the time it tore up Toronto -- the first reaction among those in power was to make sure nothing like this could ever happen again. "As a direct result of the damage," says Brian Denney, chief administrative officer of Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, "it was decided that residential communities could not be located in floodplains."

In a complacent inland city that may have thought itself immune from nature's worst, Hazel became the benchmark for how bad things could get; Toronto's 9/11.

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Bridges had to be built higher than the high-water mark, weirs were added to rivers to temper the force of the current, storm-water retention ponds were added to new housing developments and flood basins were redefined as much bigger places than had previously been imagined, putting off construction of intrusive roads and housing and the landfill projects that would have stripped away the character of the ravines.

The conservation authority was created after the storm to manage the watersheds, and began buying up private property in the floodplains and redefining its uses -- instead of farms, campgrounds, garbage dumps, trailer parks and houses, the authority envisioned parks, golf courses, formal gardens and anything else that would weather a storm.

Upscale Hogg's Hollow on the banks of the Don near Yonge and York Mills somehow managed to escape the prohibition -- the development was said to be too far along to stop, and house inspectors today still find evidence of river silt in the foundations of million-dollar homes. But in those early days, the engineers were dominant and beauty was very much in the eye of the beholder. The tradeoff meant securing the river with some of the ugliest concrete channels you will ever see. There were grandiose plans to build what Mr. Denney calls "a vast series of dams and reservoirs" that would have given the city's river systems a much more antiseptic look, but fortunately after the Claireville reservoir near Woodbridge and the G. Ross Lord project near Finch and Dufferin were completed, a more protective approach prevailed.

"It became apparent that these were not good investments," Mr. Denney says. The vertical drop of the rivers winding their way to Lake Ontario is unusually steep, which meant that reservoirs built at huge cost did not actually have the capacity to restrict the flow of the sudden torrents -- the reservoirs would rapidly fill, and any water entering the containment area would simply displace the same amount of water over the top of the dam.

So instead of soulless reservoirs, nature-lovers in the GTA got the run of the Boyd Conservation Area and the atmospheric Kortright Centre along the Humber at Islington and Rutherford, and the extensive network of parks and river walks along the Don northwest of Leslie and Sheppard. To anyone imagining the concrete alternative, they look even more beautiful. "Aesthetically and spatially, the ravines are quite extraordinary," says Michael Hough, an environmental designer and the author of Cities and Natural Process.

But as Ms. McDowell notes, wary of anyone who might take their green space for granted, "these parks are not just a frill, they're a necessity." She has been actively involved in raising awareness of the relationship between the beautiful Humber and the awful storm, campaigning for high-water markings on bridges and commemorative plaques to remind visitors that parks don't emerge out of nothing.

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Such watershed activism is in itself the direct result of Hazel's shock. "The storm was very much a wake-up call and a catalyst," Mr. Hough says. "We're much more environmentally conscious in this city."

The attention that was lavished on the Humber was later extended to the successful efforts to preserve the Rouge River and the energetic campaign to clean up the Don, and recognize its forgotten power, for better and for worse. The lower Don, as pent-up as it seems, is still considered dangerous in the event of a Hazel-like storm, and has been identified by the conservation authority as the highest-priority flood-prone area in the GTA -- particularly with large-scale developments designated for the vast flatlands south of Queen Street.

"The floodplain extends all the way over to Yonge," notes Mr. Denney, whose organization has proposed a large berm along the west side of the river to restrict the flow of water in the event of the inevitable flood to address another problem Hazel brought to the surface 50 years ago.

"It's all part of the respect for nature that Hurricane Hazel demanded of us," he says.

News of the day

Excerpts from The Globe and Mail on Oct. 18, 1954

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Death and destruction rode the crest of Ontario flood waters in the nightmare hours of Saturday morning, leaving 54 known dead, 69 missing and presumed drowned and a chaotic condition never before experienced in Southern Ontario.

From Bradford and Beeton in the north to the mouth of the Humber River in the south, the once smiling valley with its neat towns and villages today is a scene of wreckage. Homes became death traps as the wild running waters, fed by the natural reservoirs in the hills swallowed up streets and houses and automobiles.

Ghouls searching for bodies to rob of jewellery and money were reported last night in the flood-ravaged areas of Thistletown, Woodbridge and North York. . . .

Striking with a swiftness that seemed to paralyze many residents, the fast-moving water swept everything before it, smashing bridges and culverts, washing out roads, destroying communications and, most tragic of all, snuffing out the lives of those who failed to move in time.

Pleasant, shallow and slow-moving streams and rivers became raging destroyers . . . One refugee said, "We'll never again be able to trust the Humber, not after this."

The storm's stunning impact found full expression on a single street in Etobicoke, Raymore Drive. Here, the Humber River swallowed up the houses and there are believed to be 31 victims. . . .

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The river -- the slow, meandering Humber -- struck almost without warning before Saturday was two hours old. Most of the Raymore residents were in their beds. They knew during the evening that the river was rising, but they went to bed thinking that they would be able to enjoy one of their almost gay little flood adventures on the morrow. They had them nearly every spring but they never caused much damage.

In 15 terror-filled minutes the adventure had become a horror that no one who lived through it can ever forget. Twenty-four hours later Mrs. Thomas Gould was still racked by shudders as she described it from the basement of tiny St. Matthias Anglican Church, which played a giant's role in caring for survivors.

"Our little house was 30 feet from the river," she said. "About midnight we noticed the water was up in the back a bit but we didn't think it was too much to worry about. But we decided -- God only knows why -- not to go to bed.

"Two hours later I was lying down. The first time we realized there was any danger was when a faraway voice shouted, 'Are you floating yet?' I looked out the front window and all I could see was water. My husband was there trying to plug up holes in the foundation. He told me I had better get out fast.

"I phoned twice to neighbours to rouse them. I grabbed my cat Smoky, my dog Prince -- he's 18 years old -- my Bible and an old family picture. I stepped out the back door into water up to my knees. There was a terrible current. I scrambled around to the side and out to the front and by that time the water was up to my waist."

The Goulds joined others in rousing as many neighbours as they could. Gould had to smash in a door to wake the Newtons but they all reached safety. In minutes the water had driven them all back and the first houses started to weave. The rest of the night was filled with splintering crashes as they slid off their foundations.

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What the forecast predicted

Fred Turnbull of the Malton Dominion Public Weather Office was watching Hazel closely. On the morning of Oct. 15, he released a forecast calling for rain all day, according to the book Hurricane Hazel, Canada's Storm of the Century.

Then he followed it with a second statement: "The present Northerly motion of the hurricane centre is causing considerable apprehension in Southern Ontario areas. . . . the Allegheny mountain range lies between us and the storm centre. The mountain range may break up, or materially weaken, the storm's intensity, or cause it to veer off towards the Northeast. Just what effect the Allegheny mountains will have cannot be stated at the moment, but a further bulletin will be issued by noon today."

The noon forecast suggested that "in crossing the Allegheny mountains the hurricane will decrease markedly in intensity with winds not expected to exceed 50 miles per hour on the open water of Lake Ontario."

At 9:30 p.m., the office issued this forecast: "The intensity of this storm has decreased to the point where it should no longer be classified as a hurricane. This weakening storm will continue northward, passing just east of Toronto before midnight. The main rainfall associated with it should end shortly thereafter, with occasional light rain occurring throughout the night."

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