A year after the flood, Toronto Islands rebuild for storms yet to come

But as climate madness becomes the new normal, a political atmosphere of denial hangs over the city’s efforts to mitigate the effects of global warming



On the Toronto Islands, where the homes of the more than 600 residents were either flooded or at risk of flooding during the deluge of 2017, the community is making itself as resilient as it can afford. 

Water damage has been repaired, furnaces have been lifted out of flooded crawl spaces that should never have been dug in the first place, and landscaping has been restored around homes to make them less vulnerable to future floods. 

This past summer, life returned to normal, and Islanders celebrated. 

Rogue Wave, the annual outdoor art show from Ward’s Island to Gibraltar Point, ran from September 8 to October 27. It included many works that referenced the flood – and one work that was a reminder of another storm that whacked the city hard this past spring. After the flood in 2017, Thelia Sanders-Shelton and Julie Ryan created El Corazon, an eight-metre-long reclining giant made from the driftwood that was swept into Humber Bay. Less than a year later, on April 15, 2018, El Corazon was taken by 100-kilometre winds that raised waves higher than any measured before on Lake Ontario.

Six months after this year’s storm, Sanders-Shelton was at Rogue Wave with Nature’s Sandbox, a giant bucket and spade, beside Slavica Panic’s silk banner Sandtastic!, two proofs of life facing the city from Ward’s Island beach. 

Along Cibola Avenue, which was a river in 2017, Barbara Kunder’s Water Snake Speed Bumps and Gary Smith’s Carp Diem recalled the flood and a time when the Toronto Islands were fishing grounds for First Nations and early settlers.

“The Islands would have been decimated”

Toronto Islanders are an optimistic bunch. Liz Amer, a fourth-generation Toronto Islander and former city councillor, recalls Hurricane Hazel. 

“Like last year, the lagoon road was turned into a river but things returned to normal within a few months,” she says.

This spring, however, many Islanders were still feeling the effects of 2017’s high water. Gardens were still water-logged and many trees whose roots sat in the water too long were lost, especially species not native to the Islands. Among them was the Jack pine dedicated to Jack Layton, that has now been replaced.

Island Parks supervisor Warren Hoselton, who oversaw heroic efforts to make the Islands safe in 2017, managed the planting of flood-tolerant poplars and willows to replace trees that had died. The 47,000 sandbags that formed makeshift seawalls in 2017 have been emptied to create berms along the most vulnerable beaches. They are now planted with rye grass, red fescue, dogwood (and whatever arrives naturally) to stabilize them against erosion – including the kind caused by trampling tourists who climb onto the berms so they can make the city a backdrop in their photographs. 

In low areas near vulnerable buildings, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority teams led by Associate Director of Habitat Restoration Gord MacPherson have dug two-metre-deep sump pits to allow for the extraction of floodwater where last year Islanders were sinking in a swamp that surface pumps could only skim. 

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Richard Jackson

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Richard Jackson

El Corazon, the eight-metre giant made of driftwood pushed to Humber Bay after the 2017 flood, was swept away from its resting spot during another storm this spring.


But it’s on the southwestern tip, where the Islands are most vulnerable, that the most ambitious engineering, The Gibraltar Point Erosion Control Project, is underway to brace for future floods and storms. 

It’s here, after decades of losses, that the beach has been reduced to a narrow strip strewn with fallen trees. If this erosion is not halted, the Islands could be breached to their inner lagoons within the next 20 to 25 years.

Meg St. John, TRCA’s manager in charge of the Gibraltar Point project, explains the urgency of the situation: “The island may be divided into two.”

St. John says that outcome would expose Trout Pond, a warm water refuge and one of the most important sources of juvenile fish, to the cold water of Lake Ontario – not to mention imperil major parts of the Islands’ infrastructure, including gas lines and water pipes. 

To prevent a disaster that could wreck the Islands, an artificial reef of armour stone is being lowered from a barge, block by block, some 130 metres from the Point along what was the lake’s edge in 1980. When it’s in place, the reefs convex wall will deflect water away from the beach that will be restored behind it and stabilized with dune grass and other plants, to make it more like what the Toronto beaches were before colonization. Erosion will not be stopped entirely. Sand that drifts north to Hanlan’s Point will have to be replaced, but at a rate 15 to 20 times less than would be needed if there were no reef. The project will take five years to complete and cost an estimated $15 million.

But it’s worth it considering the alternative. James Dann, manager of Waterfront Parks, says that if the ferocity of the April 2018 storm had coincided with the water level of the 2017 flood, “The Islands would have been decimated.” 

Climate madness becomes the norm

Protecting the Islands is tricky. In the 1850s, Sir Sandford Fleming, the Scottish-born Canadian engineer who conceived Canada’s transcontinental railway and gave the world Standard Time, warned that Lake Ontario gives less sand than it takes away. That was shortly before the Islands – then a peninsula – lost their connection to the mainland in a storm that created the Eastern Gap

The key is to direct that giving and taking in ways that make the Islands less vulnerable to erosion where the Toronto shoreline has been restructured over more than 150 years of development. That restructuring is set to continue, especially east of the Islands with the restoration of the mouth of the Don River, the creation of a new Villiers Island and more development in the Port Lands. 

On top of those coming geographic changes, we need to be ready for climate change. 

Earth’s atmosphere is an engine. Fuelling it with heat increases its temperature and capacity for work: the force and frequency of its winds and its ability to draw water out of the oceans and dump it – or not – where it will. 

Most bewildering, the atmosphere is shifting weather systems that we are used to thinking of as fixed in ways that can make winter days warmer in Alaska than in Florida. 

In 2017, atmospheric energy drove extreme climatic events across Canada. In British Columbia, an unusually long and snowy winter was followed by a summer of wildfires that forced 50,000 people to leave their homes. On the prairies, there was a summer of crop-killing drought. In the Maritimes, a January ice storm killed two people, injured dozens more and left 300,000 in the dark. In Newfoundland, hurricane-force snow and freezing rain left 70,000 without electricity and cost insurance companies $60 million. Closer to home in Ontario and Quebec, weeks of cold, rain-sodden, sunless days did not end until a scorching summer arrived on what should have been the first day of fall. What are we to do if this climate madness becomes the new normal?

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Erin Fleck

Reminders of the 2017 flood were part of Rogue Wave, the Toronto Islands’ annual art show.


Reducing the risks facing Toronto

“Toronto’s climate is going to be hotter, wetter, wilder.” That’s the warning from the city’s first Chief Resilience Officer, Elliott Cappell. 

Lawyer Howard Levitt knows what Cappell is talking about. In July 2013 he had to abandon his silver Ferrari when it stalled in a Simcoe Street underpass that was flooded by more rain than was shed by Hurricane Hazel. So do the 1,400 passengers who were trapped the same day in a stalled GO train in the Don Valley, waiting for rescue by rubber boat. Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin know, too. They were nearly drowned in August of this year, when the elevator they were in descended into a flooded basement.

Cappell was appointed Chief Resilience Officer in 2016, when Toronto became one of 100 Resilient Cities that need to “become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.” Partners worldwide include Addis Ababa, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Chicago, Manchester, Honolulu, Melbourne and Santiago. 

It’s an initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation that will pay Cappell’s salary for two years. It will then be up to city council to determine if it wants to bring him onto its payroll. 

Climate change is prominent among the challenges the Resilient Cities are facing, and Cappell points out some of the many things Toronto will have to do to prepare for it: Invest in climate modelling (so we have a better understanding of how climate is changing and how it will impact Toronto in future) and support planning and architecture that will make the city less prone to flooding. That’s what he calls “grey infrastructure.” 

There’s also “green infrastructure.” Parks and trees to absorb wind and water and stabilize land when it’s flooded. They capture global warming’s chief cause – carbon dioxide – and convert it into oxygen. And they provide shade and habitat for nature as well as places for people to relax, play, introduce kids to nature and walk the dog.

Toronto’s tree canopy could cover 40 per cent of the city rather than the 27 per cent it’s currently covering, but it’s suffering from disease, poor planting and all-round abuse. 

During the three-hour rainfall in the July 8 storm of 2013 that drowned Levitt’s Ferrari – 126 millimetres of rain fell on top of 38 millimetres the previous day. It flooded 13,000 basements, cut power to 500,000 households and caused almost $1 billion in damages, making it the worst natural disaster ever in Toronto and Ontario.

The frequency of such storms are destined to increase. A study commissioned by the Insurance Bureau of Canada in 2015 notes that between 1950 and 2010, average surface temperatures in Canada rose by 1.5 degrees Celsius – twice the global average. The study anticipates a 59 per cent increase in climate impacts from floods between 2020 and 2040 if increases in temperatures from climate change are moderate. That number rises to 85 per cent if the effects from climate change are high. 

Climate data also tells us that Toronto can expect a  fourfold increase in the number of days the humidex is expected to exceed 40 degrees Celsius by 2050. 

In Canada, we are living in crazy times politically as well as climatically when provincial governments with no alternative plans of their own seem bent on opposing even the most meagre attempts to mitigate global warming. In Ontario, that includes the Ford government’s decision to pull out of cap and trade and cancel green infrastructure programs.

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Sean Tamblyn

Breakwall at northern end of Eastern Gap, post-flood.


The day the “Pineapple Express” poured east

Between January 2013 and December 2015, after 15 years of lows, the Great Lakes experienced their most rapid rise in water level recorded in 100 years. In January 2017 that increase was compounded when an “atmospheric river,” dubbed the Pineapple Express, poured east from the vicinity of Hawaii to deliver record amounts of snow and rain across North America. 

By May 27, 2017, accelerated snowmelt and exceptional spring rainfall had raised the level of Lake Ontario by almost one metre (36 inches) above normal. The effect of this flooding was felt along the entire waterfront. There were 70 landslides along the Scarborough Bluffs and so much erosion along the eastern beaches that much of the boardwalk had to be rebuilt. The 97-year-old Leuty Lifeguard Station had to be raised two metres and protected with a rock wall at a cost of $300,000. 

Debris swept down from the Humber River and, on the Islands, carp frolicked and spawned on flooded roads. Coyotes decamped and other species, including mink and black-crowned night herons, declined in numbers. Tourism was lost for a season. The Rectory restaurant closed. It now has a new owner. The Centreville Amusement Park lost $8 million – including $6 million for repairs. Its 110-year-old carousel was nearly sold to Carmel, Indiana, but to the relief of all who loved it, the deal fell through.

The Islanders’ ordeal was prolonged because the flow of water out of Lake Ontario through the Moses-Saunders dam between Cornwall, Ontario, and Massena, New York, had to be restrained to protect the thousands of people in Quebec who live along the St. Lawrence River. And there was another threat to Quebec. Shortly after it leaves Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence is joined by the Ottawa River, which was at its highest in 50 years in 2017 and has no dam to restrain it. So, it was hold the Lake Ontario flood back or send it pouring eastward. 

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Sean Tamblyn

Water from the flood reached far enough inland to touch the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse.


Water world

Like climatology, management of water is an imperfect science. In the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence maintaining a delicate balance is the job of  the six-member International Joint Commission (IJC)

The IJC’s 2014 Plan seeks to preserve wetlands and shorelines in as natural a condition as possible and discourage erosion by allowing lake levels to fluctuate up to 50 mm above or 400 mm below normal. The plan, the result of 16 years of research that cost $20 million, has been hailed as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore the health of the Great Lakes.” It’s also designed to lengthen the recreational boating season, maintain system-wide levels for navigation that are essential for the St. Lawrence Seaway and increase hydro power. But the plan’s dependence on fluctuating water levels can be at the expense of exposing vulnerable infrastructure to flooding. For that reason it’s been condemned in the U.S. for putting “muskrats and cattails above property values.” 

In July 2017, at the sunken dock of Wilson Harbor near Rochester, New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo called upon President Donald Trump to replace the U.S. representatives on the Commission who support the 2014 Plan with “people who know what they’re talking about. They’re doing tremendous damage and it has to stop now,” he said. 

Cuomo backtracked later, saying he was speaking for people in his State. But his comments raise another question that’s being asked more often in an increasingly flood-prone world: Why build – or encourage rebuilding – where there is risk of flooding?

Are we sure we will be able to afford the future costs of not attempting to mitigate climate change?  We may never know but our children will. And the Toronto Islanders? Who knows where they will be living 20 or 50 years from now.

Richard Longley is former chair of Architectural Conservancy Ontario.

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