Major disruptions like Monday night’s storm bring communities together—while also reminding us how unprepared we really are to deal with disasters.
What did you do in the Great Toronto Flood of 2013?
I’d like to say I swam through underpasses rescuing stranded motorists, or that I joined a bucket line to help basement dwellers bail out their homes, or even that I directed traffic at an intersection where the signals were down, as Councillor Doug Ford did. But I didn’t do any of those things.
Instead, like many thousands of other Torontonians, I walked. From the office at Yonge and Queens Quay, I headed toward Union Station around 6 p.m., past the shin-deep lakes of rainwater at the curb next to the ACC. Parents with children squealed in their bathing suits as passing cars caused tidal waves to soak those near intersections.
The entire subway system was down, we were told at Union, so I walked up through the underground PATH, which was lit in most places only by emergency lights and full of people, quietly, calmly making their way to… where exactly?
I came above ground at King Street, where I could see six, seven, eight streetcars stalled within a few blocks of each other, car traffic crawling along beside them. So I walked west, along crowded, soaked sidewalks through the club-and-condo district, until I encountered a flooded-out bridge underpass blocked by abandoned cars and police tape near Liberty Village. My phone could not access the 3G network, so I was without news of what might be working, or how others were coping. So I walked on—joining the exasperated, laughing mass of people in detouring up to Queen as darkness began to fall on the city. I hopped on a streetcar through Parkdale for a block or two, but it went out of service at Roncesvalles and I walked again, north this time, as the rain picked up again and people in freshly dry clothes hustled, grinning under umbrellas, to the bars that were open.
I finally caught the bus for the last leg of my trip from Dundas West Station and arrived home in The Junction for dinner—the power had been out all evening but was back on by the time I walked through the door at 9:30 p.m. It wasn’t a commute I’d like to make every day, but it was pleasant enough—a way to take in the city’s reaction to the unexpected deluge. And while it was an event of massive civic inconvenience, for sure, it was happily not a disaster. As of Tuesday, I have heard of no reported deaths related to the flood. I only wish I’d brought an umbrella.
A decade ago this summer, Toronto experienced another landmark event—the blackout that left the entire northeast of the continent without power. That outage—costly and dangerous as it was—revealed a previously hidden reservoir of civic strength in Toronto, as people gathered on streets to eat melting ice cream, and joined neighbourhood candlelit barbecues to pass the night. Communities pitched in together to ensure their neighbours were safe. Instead of looting or any other signs of urban chaos, the blackout was like indoor recess for the whole city—a giddy revelation of how much fun we can have if we’re forced, even just for a night, to disrupt our routines and engage with our neighbours. Even still, in the process, we were forced to become aware of just how heavily we depend on an electricity grid, and how quickly a disruption of that grid can throw our entire society’s functioning out of kilter.
This flood, less fun by all reports than the blackout, did reveal some strengths. Emergency crews responded admirably, by all accounts. People did not panic. By the morning after, even as the subway system continued to experience problems (I walked some more—from Bloor to Queens Quay—on Tuesday morning), the city was back to business-as-almost-usual.
But it also showed us some less encouraging things. We are obsessed with transit and transportation infrastructure in Toronto, and the sudden loss of the subways and many traffic lights ground movement to a halt. The TTC—its employees doing their best, no doubt—still failed to quickly implement adequate emergency buses on the road or to re-route streetcars to make the system function. One of our main highways is in a flood plain—a river valley—and it has been underwater twice this year to disastrous results. It took more than five hours to evacuate 1,000 people stranded in a GO Train in the Don Valley. Communication to residents from the mayor’s office and other authorities was spotty, not reassuring, and sometimes incorrect.
As a city, we seemed—and were—unprepared to deal with this storm. And even though we dodged any major horror stories—and some of us even enjoyed a nice walk—it should alert us to our lack of readiness to cope with foul weather and other unexpected large-scale emergencies. On the one hand, if five hours in a train is the worst of Toronto life in a disaster, we should count our blessings. On the other, we should be aware that if things had been just a bit different—if the rain had come with hurricane winds, for example—things could have been a lot worse and our apparent lack of preparation to cope could have turned out very ugly. And we should take action to better prepare for future emergencies, for it’s fairly certain they will come, sooner or later.
Mayor Ford has called for a review of our emergency preparedness. That’s a good start. And in the meantime, I’m buying an umbrella to keep at my desk.
How did you fare on your commute home Monday night? Share your story in the comments section below.