The year of the flood: hell and high wa­ter on the Toronto Is­lands

For the 600 soggy res­i­dents of the Toronto Is­lands, the summer of 2017 will for­ever be de­fined by sand­bags, sump pumps and an in­trepid fight to keep ris­ing lake lev­els at bay

Toronto Life - - Front Page - By Kather­ine Laid­Law Pho­tog­ra­phy By ea­mon mac ma­hon

Like many people who grew up in Toronto, I spent my child­hood sum­mers pic­nick­ing on the Is­land and rid­ing the Cen­tre­ville merry-go-round. It was both serene and ex­otic—a fancy va­ca­tion for a fam­ily that couldn’t af­ford to take fancy va­ca­tions. Get­ting out on the wa­ter was al­ways a thrill. So three years ago, when I got word that a woman was look­ing to rent out the top-floor unit in her white gin­ger­bread cot­tage on Algonquin Is­land, I jumped. Walk­ing up the lush garden path, lined with rustling lilacs and wil­lowy grasses, it seemed like a Car­rol­lian Won­der­land.

Life on the Is­land ne­ces­si­tated new rou­tines. Af­ter a few too many sprints to the ferry, I un­der­stood why all of the is­landers rode bi­cy­cles. Car­ry­ing my gro­ceries for the week down to the dock, across on the boat and along Ci­bola Av­enue to home, I re­al­ized why they all had bug­gies on their bikes. The last ferry left the city at 11:30 p.m., which meant a sig­nif­i­cantly cur­tailed nightlife. There was no wa­ter taxi in the win­ter, and friends in the city be­came ac­cus­tomed to leav­ing the door un­locked for me if I needed a couch to crash on once in a while.

Win­ter on the Is­land was like liv­ing in a snow globe. I watched teens play hockey on the la­goon near my house. I joined a group of el­derly rev­ellers with mugs of whiskey on the bridge to marvel at the su­per­moon.

There was a pa­gan fes­ti­val on Hal­loween and a Christ­mas mar­ket that drew crowds from the city. At the an­nual Was­sail in the St. An­drew by-the-Lake chapel, I belted out car­ols, watched the Is­land kids turn into mum­mers and drank mulled wine. Life in this small town, just a 10-minute ferry ride from the big city, felt magical.

Even­tu­ally, though, the Is­land’s quirks mor­phed into an­noy­ances. My friends got tired of me mo­nop­o­liz­ing their couches; I got tired of ask­ing. There were nights I would have given up all of my worldly pos­ses­sions to or­der a pizza. And, one spring morn­ing, when the rain pelted me fu­ri­ously on my wa­ter­logged com­mute, I ar­rived at work so drenched that my co-work­ers scrounged up cast-off cloth­ing for me to change into. When my land­lady of­fered me a lease ex­ten­sion, I de­cided the trade-off wasn’t worth it.

That kind of think­ing is blas­phemy among the Is­land diehards. Many of them come from fam­i­lies that have in­hab­ited the park­land for nearly 100 years. Ac­cord­ing to a land trust sys­tem, spouses and chil­dren get first right of re­fusal on a prop­erty that’s al­ready in their fam­ily, which is why so many gen­er­a­tions stay on the Is­land. “If a per­son says it’s ex­clu­sive, I’m afraid they’re right,” says Elizabeth Amer, a long-time res­i­dent and for­mer city coun­cil­lor.

The Toronto Is­lands ini­tially weren’t is­lands at all, but a group of shift­ing sand­bars cre­ated when cur­rents car­ried sed­i­ment from the Scar­bor­ough Bluffs west­ward and de­posited them near the foot of the city. Lo­cals called the area the Penin­sula un­til 1858, when a fu­ri­ous storm sev­ered the shore from the city and cre­ated a hole known as the Eastern Gap. The govern­ment has spent mil­lions dredg­ing the gap to make it deep enough for boats to travel through. The gunk they pulled from the bot­tom of the lake makes up the land­fill that’s now the Les­lie Street Spit. Parts of the Is­land are the re­sult of dredg­ing, too: Algonquin, where I used to live, is largely made from dredged sands. But this year’s floods could per­ma­nently change Is­land life: the spit now blocks nat­u­ral de­tri­tus from run­ning down the lake from the bluffs, pre­vent­ing the Is­land from re­plen­ish­ing it­self.

This summer, the Is­land’s 600-odd res­i­dents watched as wa­ter rose out of the lake and up from the ground, slosh­ing onto the streets. The rains came, re­lent­less and for weeks, turn­ing their bu­colic par­adise into a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic swamp. Trees sank into the sand, and en­tire beaches were sub­merged. Forty per cent of the Is­land was un­der­wa­ter, and the Is­land’s school had to re­lo­cate its stu­dents for May and June. Most of the amuse­ment park on Cen­tre Is­land is un­der­wa­ter. A pea­cock named Po­sei­don or Ti­tanic, de­pend­ing on who you ask, es­caped from Far Away Farm and took up a perch high up on a res­i­dent’s bal­cony. Now more than 40,000 bright-or­ange sand­bags bar­ri­cade the shore. Pumps grind away at all hours. If it sounds like a dystopian fairy tale, that’s be­cause it is. The wa­ter has risen al­most three feet, and no­body knows when the lev­els will re­treat. Some people are cry­ing cli­mate change; others say this is just the lat­est in a cy­cle of flood­ing that plagues the Is­land ev­ery few decades.

The res­i­dents, a plucky, tight-knit group, have had to work around the clock to keep the Is­land safe from the lat­est calamity, and ten­sions are high. Res­i­dents whis­pered about neigh­bours pump­ing wa­ter into the street in­stead of out fur­ther into the lake. Some ac­cused their neigh­bours of flood­ing their yards, or prop­ping the sewer grates up, which would lead to sewage com­ing up into the gar­dens like it did the last time the Is­land was hit with a se­ri­ous flood, in 1973. In June, a dinghy was stolen from the ma­rina at Cen­tre Is­land. It still hasn’t turned up. The owner of the Is­land Cafe, a sum­mer­time restau­rant, says he’s lost his pa­tio and has had to lay off his em­ploy­ees.

I re­cently took the On­giara ferry over to suss out the dam­age. It was eerie. En­tire swaths of the land are for­ever changed. The beach where my boyfriend and I wiled away our first date was no more— everything af­ter the bridge over to Snake Is­land was com­pletely sub­merged. Church ser­vices had to be re­lo­cated, be­cause the build­ing, up on a small hill, was sur­rounded by a deep moat. An emer­gency pay phone meant for 911 calls stood in two feet of wa­ter, help­ing no one. I spat out mos­qui­toes as I walked—a new plague the is­landers have to en­dure. But they’ve fought for years for their rights to the sand­bar they call home. And if there’s any­thing they know how to do, it’s stand their ground. Here, five long­time is­landers ex­plain how they’re cop­ing with the cri­sis.

TANYA GOLDEN, 51 Art teacher and gar­dener Years on the Is­land: 27

“Rain­coats stopped be­ing use­ful around the first week of May. One day, when it was re­ally bad, a neigh­bour and I were stand­ing in what used to be a park, with wa­ter up to our chests. One of the hoses pump­ing wa­ter off Bayview Av­enue had flipped over, thanks to the force of the rains. We had to wade around and jimmy it out with a log be­fore we hauled it back to its spot. It was

“If those sand­bags along the shore breached, the wa­ter would come gush­ing into the house”

sud­denly nor­mal to go out and get wet, and come back and change. I changed four times a day. We were like drowned rats.

“City staff brought sand­bags over and the rain was lash­ing—I knew things were go­ing to get bad. On May 8, the parks guys said we’d re­ceived a month’s worth of rain in three hours. I piled up sand­bags ev­ery day, for at least two or three hours a day. You do what you have to do to protect your home and your com­mu­nity.

“My house is just a foot off the ground; it’s one of the lower houses on the Is­land. There’s a knot in the liv­ing room floor, so I cre­ated a dip­stick I could use to mea­sure the wa­ter be­low the house. At one point, there were seven inches of wa­ter un­der there. When I looked out­side, I saw that we were lower than the lake level. That’s when I got wor­ried about my place. If those sand­bags along the shore­line breached, the wa­ter would come gush­ing into the house. They soaked for so long they weren’t or­ange any­more—they turned ca­nary yel­low.

“The Is­land elders didn’t panic, so nei­ther did I. Plans were quickly put in place: the city had the ferry docked and stocked with cots in case we needed to hun­ker down on the boat for a night. I worked in­side my house, putting everything that was sit­ting on the floor up on bricks or planks so that if the wa­ter came through the floor­boards my fur­ni­ture wouldn’t get de­stroyed. I’ve been tak­ing my laun­dry to friends’ places—I don’t have a dryer, and I haven’t been able to hang my washed cloth­ing out­side. I still have more than 100 sand­bags lin­ing my house. The land­scape de­signs of the fu­ture are go­ing to in­clude sand­bags—pond fea­tures are out, wa­ter fea­tures are out. You heard it here first.”

INESE GRAVLEJS, 59 Psy­chother­a­pist Years on the Is­land: 26

“My hus­band, Mike, and I are mem­bers of the Is­land emer­gency prepa­ra­tion com­mit­tee. We usu­ally deal with rou­tine stuff: med­i­cal emer­gen­cies, fires or pest out­breaks. I grew up a girl scout, and Mike was a ju­nior for­est ranger, so we like to be pre­pared. We never ex­pected to be fac­ing some­thing like this.

“The first week was mis­er­able. Ev­ery­one was out in the pour­ing rain sand­bag­ging their houses. The lake lev­els were ris­ing fast, and we didn’t know how long it would last. We still don’t, re­ally. People were start­ing to panic about whether we’d lose power. Since we’re on a sand­bar, most of our houses don’t have base­ments, but we all have flooded crawl spa­ces; we had to re­move our HVAC sys­tem. That first week, many people had wa­ter ris­ing right up to their front steps and into their kitchens. Even­tu­ally, city staff brought thou­sands of sand­bags on bug­gies across the Is­land.

“Since then, my brain hasn’t stopped. I wake up ev­ery morn­ing be­fore sun­rise. There are al­ways a gazil­lion de­tails to deal with, like get­ting gloves for all our vol­un­teers to protect them from bac­te­ria in the wa­ter, or con­tribut­ing to potluck meals for all of the sand­bag­gers who are com­ing to the Ward’s Is­land club­house for lunch and din­ner. Mike says he’s hav­ing dreams about pump­ing wa­ter. Some people have started com­plain­ing— why weren’t we pre­pared? Couldn’t we have pre­dicted that some­thing like this would hap­pen? But there’s no blue­print for a threat like this.

“It’s hard work, and ev­ery­one’s con­tribut­ing. One guy bought a $1,000 pump that he’s let­ting ev­ery­one use for free. When our el­derly neigh­bour got a soggy kitchen floor, a bunch of us dug out a trench around her house.

“Even the fire ants, the scourge of the Is­land, are fight­ing to sur­vive. The other day, some­one saw a chain of them link­ing arms on top of the wa­ter. The damn ants are try­ing to fig­ure it out!

“Still, I think the city over­re­acted by clos­ing the Is­land and not let­ting city dwellers come over to take in the dam­age. I understand that they want to keep ev­ery­one safe, but this is global warm­ing right be­fore your eyes. It’s im­por­tant for people to see that.”

“This is global warm­ing right be­fore your eyes. It’s im­por­tant for people to see that”

JAY BASCOM Re­tired in­surance claims man­ager Years on the Is­land: 71

“At the be­gin­ning, it rained so hard for so long. All of us were con­cerned. Later, I could see the ground­wa­ter ris­ing and the lake wa­ter com­ing through the first sand­bags. We were help­less. City and Con­ser­va­tion Au­thor­ity crews were out dig­ging trenches and in­stalling pumps all down the streets. War­ren Hosel­ton, the parks su­per­vi­sor who looks af­ter the Is­land, went above and be­yond the call of duty, hir­ing a tug­boat called Ra­dium Yel­lowknife to ship sand­bags from the Ward’s dock around to the face of Algonquin Is­land.

“In 1992, I had my house el­e­vated 18 inches above the ground and put in a new foun­da­tion, so it’s rel­a­tively safe. But my yard is a swamp­land. My cat, Squeaks, is go­ing a lit­tle crazy. She just sits at the back door and whines, try­ing to de­cide whether it’s worth the wet feet to go out­side. I usu­ally visit St. Lawrence Mar­ket on Fri­days, but I can’t bike across the Is­land be­cause of the high wa­ter lev­els.

“I could have packed up the cat and taken her to the city when the wa­ter rose. But I didn’t. My fam­ily has been on the Is­land for 100 years, and I was born here. I’ve seen a lot. I re­mem­ber four ma­jor floods, go­ing back to 1952. We got through those, and we’ll get through this.

“Some of the new­bies over here are all in a big ker­fuf­fle. They’re the first ones to start yelling about their HVAC sys­tems in the crawl spa­ces. But they were warned not to put them un­der there. We live on a sand­bar; we live on a giant sponge.

“A few win­ters ago, some coy­otes came over the ice from the city and just stayed, killing many of the Is­land cats. They made their home in the dry meadow be­hind the Algonquin Is­land As­so­ci­a­tion club­house. Now the meadow is un­der­wa­ter. We’re hop­ing that might drive them away. Ru­mour has it that sev­eral of them were seen swim­ming off the beach af­ter the flood­ing be­gan.

“I’ve gone out ev­ery day to the grate on the cor­ner with a garden stake to make sure the drain isn’t clogged. You’re either born to love a place like this, or you’re not. I’ve had overnight guests who get ter­ri­bly twitchy and up­set when they hear the whis­tle of the last ferry. Most of us, es­pe­cially on a crowded summer week­end when the place has been filled with tourists and noise, we hear that ferry whis­tle and think, ‘They’re gone,’ and we breathe a sigh of re­lief. Those of us who were born here would never leave ex­cept in a pine box.”

“I re­mem­ber four floods since 1952. We got through those, and we’ll get through this”

ELIZABETH AMER, 79 Re­tired city coun­cil­lor Years on the Is­land: 60

“I first came to the Is­land with my mom and dad as a baby. We were vis­it­ing my grand­par­ents, who’d moved onto one of the lots in 1919, back when Ward’s Is­land was still a tent site. I have a pic­ture of my­self on my grandma’s doorstep in my di­a­per. And I hope to be sit­ting out there in my di­a­per when I’m old.

“As soon as I grad­u­ated from high school, I moved in with my grand­mother. My mom even­tu­ally moved to the Is­land, too, and I in­her­ited this house from her in 1969. I live on Bayview Av­enue, and my front win­dow looks right onto the bay with a view of the city sky­line. Now there’s a foot of swamp wa­ter all around my house. My garden is ru­ined. My let­tuce and toma­toes are dead. My rhubarb is limp; I guess it doesn’t like be­ing drowned. It sounds sim­ple, but I just miss be­ing out­side.

“Our events—the an­nual Strawberry So­cial and the Bless­ing of the Bikes and the Boats—are can­celled be­cause we can’t get to the church. We don’t have swarms of tourists roam­ing the Is­land like we nor­mally would, and that’s nice, but no one else is roam­ing either.

“At least this year, the city is in it with us. The last time there was a flood like this, back in 1973, city work­ers dropped empty sacks at the ferry dock and we had to shovel 50 pounds of sand into each one our­selves, and drag them into po­si­tion. We’re still sand­bag­ging, but at least we’ve got dou­ble the man­power be­cause they’re help­ing.

“Mayor John Tory sug­gested we might have to evac­u­ate. If they said, okay, come to the Royal York Ho­tel and we’ll feed you, give you a bath and in­tro­duce you to a good-look­ing guy, maybe. But I’ve mo­bi­lized hun­dreds of people to protest evic­tion and de­mo­li­tion. I’ve faced off with cops. I’ve fought for 40 years to earn my right to stay on the Is­land. I’m sure there would be cir­cum­stances un­der which I could be forced to leave. But vol­un­tar­ily? I’m not go­ing any­where.”

“There’s a foot of swamp wa­ter all around my house”

JOANNA KIDD, 62 En­vi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tant Years on the Is­land: 51

“May 10 was the day I knew we had a se­ri­ous prob­lem. The wa­ter was com­ing fast and re­lent­less. I’m the grounds chair for the Queen City Yacht Club, and our club­house is the low­est and most vul­ner­a­ble build­ing on Algonquin Is­land. When wa­ter started fill­ing the foyer floor, club mem­bers quickly built a sand­bag bar­ri­cade around the build­ing. Two days later, bam—we had a breach, and for the sec­ond time in two days, six of us had to empty and drain the club­house. It was so dis­heart­en­ing.

“I had never slung a sand­bag be­fore this. But if any­thing hap­pened to the club, I would be dev­as­tated. So we kept scram­bling to pile them on, out there in the rain. And ev­ery time I thought we were okay for a lit­tle while, sud­denly, the wa­ter would come through again. The lake just kept on ris­ing.

“The area around the club­house was equipped with seven pumps, which the vol­un­teers mon­i­tored 24 hours a day. We called our­selves the pump brigade. In the mid­dle of the night, ev­ery night, vol­un­teers would check the wa­ter lev­els, pour fuel into the pumps out of jerry cans, record their find­ings and slosh their way back home in the dark. At one point, we were pump­ing so much wa­ter out of the lawn that you could see streams jet­ting into Lake On­tario from the ferry.

“When the rain died down in June, some vol­un­teers built cat­walks around the club­house so we wouldn’t be wad­ing in the wa­ter. It means some of our mem­bers can reach their boats and go sail­ing, too, which re­stores some nor­malcy to their lives. It’s too soon to tell if there will be ma­jor last­ing dam­age, though we know we’ll have to re­place some of the floor­ing and fix the track sys­tem that’s been dis­placed by the shift­ing ground be­low.

“I’ve been sail­ing on Lake On­tario my whole life. Sailors are used to a lit­tle ad­ver­sity, we’re used to be­ing wet. And I know wa­ter is a pow­er­ful force. But ev­ery time I think we have it beat, all of a sud­den it knocks us down again.”

“In the mid­dle of the night, ev­ery night, vol­un­teers would get out of bed to check the pumps”

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