While the colossal tsunami tragedy occupies minds and media, it's easy to forget that human behaviour often determines the scale of a disaster when the natural world rages.
Just a few months after the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Hazel and all the self-congratulation about what we've since learned, a quick glance reveals that we're still in the middle of a flood plain, as vulnerable as ever. Neither disaster generated much discussion about development egotism - about how dams create massive reservoirs that can buckle the earth's crust and generate quakes, or how it's possible to reduce the impact of natural occurrences by avoiding the temptation to build on fill over natural waterways.
The 1954 hurricane, a tiny rainstorm compared to the current horror in Asia, had some similarities with it. Here, too, the victims were T.O.'s poor living in trailer parks and cottage settlements near waterways, a First World version of the shantytowns lining the shores of Thailand and Malaysia.
The worst wreckage took place on a doomed street along the Humber River, Raymore Avenue. Here, homes were lifted off their foundations and swept away, killing 32. The 81 deaths in total were the consequence of government incompetence and grotesque violations of basic environmental laws.
While coverage of the Hazel anniversary focused on the system of public parks developed for flood control, less attention was paid to the terrible compromises with development that still leave us sitting ducks for massive water intrusions.
Plunked in the middle of the flood plain , the Don Valley Parkway is a mass of impermeable concrete whose widening is being contemplated. Then there are the 13 dams and reservoirs built after the hurricane to catch water in the event of a disaster, all of which were designed before global warming and the onset of massive storms.
Indeed, many of the good flood protection measures result from pressure by environmental activists, not policy, like the creation of Rouge Park in 1988. Citizen outrage also rescued the former Don Brick Works from development and left surrounding lands able to serve as a water catchment area.
Friends of Highland Creek has been trying to reverse the bad engineering response to Hazel, which involved straightening the creek in accordance with the now discredited theory that meandering rivers carry less water than straight ones, and removing native vegetation. Helped by a successful court victory, Friends secured $2 million in funding to enlarge the flood plain, restore natural river corridors and plant vegetation.
All around Toronto, environmentalists' ideas clash with those put forward by engineering and development interests. The current Toronto Wet Weather Flow Masterplan has plenty of details on engineering new pipes and tunnels, but not much on tree planting, roof gardens, or stream naturalizaiton - all important to flood control.
One of the biggest ignored battles is over the Lower Don Lands. The ultimate fate of 210 hectares of designated flood plain land west of the lower Don River has been debated for over a decade, pushing aside calls for the restoration of what was one of the most productive marshes around Lake Ontario.
The failure of 20 years of struggle to restore the Don estuary wetland gets about as much ink as efforts by environmentalists in the Indian Ocean region to reduce the impact of storms by restoring the once widespread mangrove forests. Thos forests sheltered people from shock waves for thousands of years before being largely bulldozed into oblivion.