Hell and High Water
Torrential storms have become the new normal. They’re turning our basements into lakes and our streets into rivers. Is Toronto ready for the age of the flood?
On the evening of August 7, 2018, Gavin Odho and his girlfriend, Manuela De Medeiros, had just gone to bed when a neighbour called the house. “Check your basement,” he said. “The street is flooding.” Odho, who’s 29 and works as a home renovator, had bought his bungalow on Hilldale Road near Weston Road and St. Clair two years earlier.
He jumped out of bed and raced down to the basement, where he found a pool of murky brown water, six inches deep and rising. Water was spurting around the edge of the door leading to the street, trying to get in. Immediately, Odho and De Medeiros started to hoist their belongings up the stairs: tools, music equipment, a bed. Odho was turning back for more when he heard De Medeiros scream. The sheer force of the water had pushed open the door and the basement was filling rapidly. He slammed the door shut again and locked the deadbolt. They turned to see if there was anything they could save, but a wall of water broke through the deadbolt and the door burst open with a bang. Within seconds, the water had risen to their chests. Stunned, Odho turned off the power so they wouldn’t get electrocuted. Then they half-swam, half-walked to the stairwell and climbed up to the ground floor to dry out and figure out what to do next.
The small but powerful storm had slipped past rain sensors from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, the agency responsible for warning residents about floods. It started north of the 401 and inflicted massive damage in Odho’s neighbourhood, Rockcliffe-Smythe, just east of the Humber. Then it moved south toward the lake, in some areas dropping 10 centimetres of rain in under three hours, on par with the worst storms in Toronto’s history. It wasn’t until a water-level sensor in Black Creek set off alarms that anyone realized what was happening. By then, rising waters were already washing out underpasses and climbing basement walls in the most flood-prone parts of the city.
A wall of water broke through Gavin Odho’s deadbolted basement door. Within seconds, he was chest-deep in water
The August 2018 squall belonged to a class of storms that are occurring more frequently in Toronto as the climate changes. Sometimes called “ghost storms” or “ninja storms” for their sudden appearances, these extreme downpours possess two qualities that allow them to strike violently and without notice: they’re super-compact and super-localized. That’s why some neighbourhoods remained relatively dry while others were overwhelmed by the deluge. In the wee hours of August 8, for instance, Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod tweeted a photo of a dry street. “Still can’t find the chaos in Toronto the NDP is claiming,” she wrote. “Beautiful morning in the provincial capital.” Only a few hours earlier, two men had nearly drowned in an elevator while trying to get to the underground garage in their office building on Alliance Avenue, just a few hundred metres from Odho’s home.
Basements across the city were filled with sewage-laden water. Underpasses were swamped, stalling a streetcar in an impromptu lagoon under a bridge on King West. Condo residents along the waterfront saw stairwells turn into waterfalls, and flooded garages swallowed their cars and storage lockers. Toronto firefighters had to break through the windows of vehicles to liberate trapped passengers. The marine unit was called to pull people from submerged cars. One man tried to drive through the deep water and found his car suddenly floating; he had to ditch it and swim to safety. In North York, 16,000 people lost power. The flood inflicted $80 million in insured damage, and that was just through private claims. Damage to public infrastructure was even greater.
The GTA is braided with 300 kilometres of waterways across nine watersheds. Half-hidden in dry weather or buried under roads and properties, these rivers and streams swell quickly in severe storms, threatening some 9,000 structures and 40,000 residents in their path, and potentially causing billions of dollars in flood damage. Many of those homes and businesses flood because of poor overland drainage and infrastructure problems, or because they were built near Toronto’s lost rivers and streams, which have been corralled into underground stormwater sewer lines. When it storms, those channels overload the pipes and inundate the surrounding areas.
The August 2018 downpour was classified as a 100-year storm, which means that the likelihood of that much rain falling in a single event is about one per cent in a given year. Yet it was the sixth 100-year event in the GTA in the past two decades. By the latter half of this century, the historical 100-year events are expected to become 30- to 60-year events, and 100-year-floods will be 15 to 35 per cent larger.
In the next few years, intense downpours will likely exceed the capacity of the city’s stormwater infrastructure, which wasn’t designed to handle such vast quantities of water. And many homeowners will be on the hook for the exorbitant costs of flooded basements.
Toronto is investing billions in stormwater infrastructure in newer neighbourhoods and along the waterfront. But the fixes are slow, and the floods are rapidly getting worse. Urban development has effectively turned the city into a giant reservoir, so that even a small storm can quickly overwhelm the system. And some areas, like Rockcliffe-Smythe, were built back when sewers were still a novelty, before city planners had stopped to consider the effects of extreme weather, let alone an anthropogenic climate disaster. In 21st-century Toronto, when it rains, it floods.
In 1954, Toronto experienced its first great flood, a storm whose destructive power transformed the course of the city’s development. Hurricane Hazel began on October 15 and continued over the next 48 hours, dropping 28 centimetres—or 300 million tonnes—of rain on the city. The eeriest remaining testament to that storm’s deadly force is Raymore Park, a serene green space along the banks of the Humber, south of Lawrence. Until the hurricane, it was a quiet residential area with a beautiful view of the river, which rose as much as 20 feet in the storm. Sometime in the night, a footbridge upstream of Raymore Drive washed out, and the rush of water demolished 14 homes in under an hour. In the end, Hazel killed 81 people in Ontario and left 2,000 Toronto families homeless. Today, the remnants of the bridge are still visible in the underbrush.
Before Hazel, Toronto barely had any flood planning whatsoever. The devastation triggered an unprecedented level of co-operation between all levels of government to corral investment and fix the problem. In Hazel’s aftermath, the province formed the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to address the GTA’s flood vulnerability across all its watersheds: 3,467 square kilometres spanning the city of Toronto, York, Peel and Durham regions, and two townships. The conservation authority assumed responsibility for flooding from rivers and streams, and the city retained responsibility for so-called urban flooding from the sewer systems and drainage infrastructure. Like all mid-20th-century city planning, our flood-control strategy involved a lot of concrete. In its early days, the conservation authority built five dams, two dikes and 12 flood-control channels, which are essentially concrete riverbeds. These artificial streams moved water much more quickly, which was great for those living upstream, but terrible for the neighbourhoods below, where all that fast-moving water collects. The channelized rivers also hold less water than the curving shapes formed by natural waterways.
The Hazel-era flood planning was no match for Toronto’s unstoppable growth. If you took a time-lapse aerial photo of the city’s transformation over the past 20 years, you’d see urbanization stretch across the GTA like a creeping grey fungus. That mass of asphalt and concrete—what urban planners call hardscape—acts like a giant overturned umbrella. Normally, when it rains, the city catches all that precipitation and transmits it speedily to the lake. As we build more hardscape, there’s less green space to absorb water, and more drains into the city’s river systems or funnels through the 50-year-old stormwater and sewer infrastructure. And in the age of the ghost storm, our pipes are largely insufficient. Toronto Water, the city department responsible for water treatment and supply, manages more than 11,000 kilometres of water mains for stormwater and sewage. The city estimates that it will need to spend almost $7 billion to repair its backlog of aging infrastructure by 2028.
About a quarter of Toronto’s stormwater infrastructure uses combined sewers, which means that the stormwater and waste-water pipes are connected. The two streams travel together to the treatment plant in dry weather; in super-wet weather, the same pipes are designed to overflow into streams and rivers that pour into the lake. When the rivers flood, they can’t receive the overflows, and instead all that water backs up into people’s homes. The water rising out of basement drains isn’t the same water that comes out of the tap: it’s toxic and filthy, destroying everything it touches.
What’s bad for basements is bad for the environment. After a rainfall, you can stand on the observation deck of the CN Tower and watch a huge brown stain seeping into the lake. The stormwater entering the lake is an unholy slurry of contaminants: human bodily waste, industrial and commercial waste, plus all the things that wash off yards and roads, like petroleum, fertilizers, pesticides and dog feces. In 2015, 3.7 million cubic metres of raw sewage spilled into Toronto waters. In 2018, staff from the environmental watchdog Lake Ontario Waterkeeper monitored nine sites in the Toronto Harbour and found they failed the standard for E. coli levels 44 per cent of the time. They also found condoms, tampons, wet wipes and other debris, including 36 syringes.
As the planet continues to heat up, experts predict Ontario will experience 65 per cent more rain in the summer months
The other factor exacerbating the city’s flooding risk, of course, is the warming climate. If carbon output continues on its current trend, experts predict a temperature increase in Ontario of about two degrees between now and 2050, and another four degrees by 2080. The number of days when the humidex exceeds 40 will quadruple. And precipitation will spike, with an average of 65 per cent more rain in the summer months. It boils down to simple physics: a warmer atmosphere generates more precipitation, and warmer air holds more moisture. By 2050, it could rain as much as 166 millimetres in a single day. That’s Hurricane Hazel water levels from normal thunderstorms.
Our proximity to the Great Lakes—the world’s largest surface freshwater system—doesn’t help matters. As the planet heats up, water levels fluctuate more rapidly, and the Great Lakes become prone to torrential rains and flash floods. Lake level changes that once took decades can now occur in the span of a couple of years. In 2017, when the Toronto Islands and beaches were submerged for most of the summer, the cause wasn’t a single storm but the rising lake levels, which were the highest they’d been in more than a century. Some 46,000 sandbags were deployed, and the flood generated almost $8.5 million worth of damage. As the cycles speed up, we could see that kind of waterfront flooding much more frequently. In early May of this year, the conservation authority issued a shoreline warning for the Toronto Islands: the water was already nearing 2017 levels, and was expected to keep rising through the end of June.
When a storm hits and the river gauges trip an alarm, the alert goes to Rehana Rajabali, a senior manager at the conservation authority. As the main conduit of information between that body and everyone else, Rajabali is on her phone from the moment a threat appears on the horizon. She gathers up-to-the-minute analysis from hydrologists and the latest forecasts from meteorologists, then translates all that information into hazard updates for the public and city staff. For Rajabali, flooding is a perpetual source of anxiety. “I can’t sleep when it rains,” she says, “that’s for sure.”
Rajabali speaks in brisk, organized, Obama-esque paragraphs. Part science nerd, part bureaucrat, part triage nurse for swollen urban rivers, she seems permanently primed to compose on-the-spot TED Talks about, say, a new environmental assessment tool or a policy on stormwater management. Engineers like Rajabali who work on water are a distinct breed: they want to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. Now more than ever, storms and floods are intractable and capricious. They can rarely be contained.
Rajabali started out in Calgary as a water resources engineer. She was working for the city during the flood of 2013, when the Elbow and Bow rivers topped their banks and caused $6 billion in financial losses and property damage. Rajabali’s team had updated the emergency response plans just in time for the massive flood; 80,000 people had to be evacuated, including Rajabali herself, who fled her downtown apartment to stay with her parents in the suburbs. Less than three weeks later, a devastating flood struck Toronto, causing around $1 billion in damage and topping Ontario’s list of costliest insured natural disasters. Between the back-to-back deluges, the summer of 2013 was an alarm-bell moment for the country. That was when Canadians started thinking more about the link between climate change and rising waters.
The conservation authority has identified 41 flood-vulnerable areas across the GTA. Rockcliffe-Smythe, perched on the Humber River watershed, is number one. In wet weather, it collects runoff from roads and parking lots as far north as Vaughan. All that stormwater bottlenecks at the Jane Street culvert south of Alliance Avenue—a tiny drain for a giant bathtub—and backs up through the pipes into people’s homes, bringing raw sewage with it. Rockcliffe-Smythe is ensnarled in a bureaucratic battle between Toronto Water, which says it can’t fix the sewers until the creek stops flooding, and the conservation authority, which doesn’t have the funds to make that happen. In the meantime, for those closest to the creek, the water climbs in through their windows and breaks down their doors.
One long-term resident, who asked not to be named, bought his house on Humber Boulevard in 1983. His basement has flooded every few years since he moved in. When the Black Creek channel jumped its banks in 2013, six feet of water poured in through his basement windows. His insurance at the time had a cap of $10,000, which didn’t even cover the cleaning cost. During the 2018 flood, a foot of water came up through the drains, destroying his washer, dryer and furnace. Ever since, he’s left the basement bare, and wants to fill it in with concrete.
He attended his first public meeting about flooding in the area in 1985. He’s seen repeated studies and assessments, though they don’t seem to have any effect. Now he’s completely lost faith that anything will happen. Assessment fatigue is common in the neighbourhood; few believe that anyone at city hall cares about their problem. Fixing Rockcliffe-Smythe’s flooding problem will cost the city about $35 million, but the city believes the onus is on the conservation authority to solve the Black Creek problem before they make a move. In 2014, the conservation authority reported that the only way to stop flooding in that part of Toronto would be for the city to replace the bridge at Jane Street, build earthen berms to wall off overflows, renaturalize the channelized creek and potentially put in a huge underground storage tank. These measures would cost roughly $30 million, and even then, they would only protect about half the residents from the flood plain. Councillor Frances Nunziata argued the plan didn’t go far enough, and supported a feasibility study to find a better solution. Later, land was sold to a meatpacking facility in an area that some residents thought could have been used for renaturalization.
People in Rockcliffe-Smythe often sell their homes when they grasp the scope of the flooding, but the resident I spoke to doesn’t feel comfortable with that solution. “I can’t in good conscience pass it on to somebody else, knowing the problem,” he says. “I bought this house with so much excitement. Within three months, I saw this black stuff coming up in the basement. I can’t think of anybody else going through that heartbreak.”
Bedford Park, the wealthy residential area near Avenue Road and Lawrence, is another flood zone. During the 2018 storm, Bedford didn’t experience much overland flooding, but too much water entered its overburdened sewers and backed up into basements. The city estimates that it would cost $358 million to fix the problem in the area, with new and upgraded sewers and underground storage tanks. Debra Satok, a long-time Bedford Park resident, has experienced two major sewer-backup floods: first in 2000, only one month after she finished building her house, and then again in 2013. “It was devastating,” she says of the first flood. “You’re fortunate enough to build a home, and you’ve got so much invested in it, financially and emotionally, and then this happens.”
After her first flood experience, Satok installed a sewer backup valve, designed to prevent sewage from entering the home. In 2013, it simply stopped working—she had no idea that it needed to be maintained at least twice a year. She began a campaign to cajole her city councillor and Toronto Water to do more to prevent basement flooding. In her research, she discovered a major contributor to backups: old sewer laterals—the underground pipes that connect houses to the sewer line—often remain uncapped after a house has been demolished. A study of her street found that several of her neighbours’ properties had uncapped laterals, which meant sewage was leaking into the ground beneath their yards and around the foundations of their homes. If there are that many on her street alone, there’s no telling how many others are swamping the city. Stormwater can also enter the sewers through manhole covers on the street, cracks in the pipes underground, even other basement drains in homes that have experienced overland flooding through doors and windows.
A small increase in storm intensity has a huge economic impact. Blair Feltmate, who runs the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation in Waterloo, says insurance spikes are an early indicator of how climate change is going to transform the way we live. “Flooding isn’t just the canary in the coal mine—it’s the ostrich in the coal mine,” he says. Until 2008, claims related to extreme weather in Canada cost the insurance industry an average of $250 to $450 million per year. From 2009 onward, they’ve usually cost more than $1 billion annually. “Most of that comes from too much water in the wrong place,” Feltmate says. Pete Karageorgos, a director at the Insurance Bureau of Canada, says that in the old days, property insurance was primarily used to protect homes against the risk of fire. “Water is the new fire,” he says. In 2019, flooding is by far the number-one insurance cost in Canada. Aviva Insurance reports a 688 per cent increase in the number of flood-related claims in Ontario over the past three years. In 2016, they received about 200 such claims. This year, they surpassed that number in the first quarter alone.
Most insurance companies offer two types of extended flood coverage: overland insurance, which protects against the sloshing surge of water that pours from streets through basement windows, and sewer backup insurance, which comes in handy when overburdened sewers pump murky sludge into homes. Insurance companies are in the business of maximizing profits. When the loss from claims starts approaching the revenue from premiums, they balk or bail. RBC recently sold off its entire home and auto insurance business to Aviva. And yet insurance companies can’t just stop selling insurance. “That would be like McDonald’s not selling hamburgers,” Feltmate says.
Their only recourse is to foist those costs onto consumers. Large insurance companies have their own flood maps and use that data to determine what coverage they’ll offer. At best, customers who live in flood zones will face sky-high rates and deductibles. At worst, they’ll be denied coverage altogether. According to Feltmate, homeowners in parts of Downsview, north of the 401, have been flooded out so many times they no longer qualify for insurance. Those who do get coverage might face ridiculously low caps. The average flooded basement costs about $43,000 to repair. A customer living on a flood plain might be eligible for, say, $10,000 worth of coverage—and find themselves on the hook for the rest. Worse still, they might only have a couple of days to act before sewage makes the house uninhabitable and water damages the foundation. At the Intact Centre in Waterloo, Feltmate’s team is tracking 25 Canadian cities to see how low-cap insurance is affecting personal finances. He predicts people will default on mortgage payments because they’ve paid out of pocket to fix flooded basements.
Some homeowners are defaulting on mortgage payments because they’ve paid out of pocket to fix flooded basements
In the meantime, residents in vulnerable areas are selling their homes at a discount without warning buyers. Sophie Van Waeyenberghe and Bahri Tamer bought their three-bedroom semi near Black Creek in spring 2018 for $740,000. They couldn’t believe their luck finding such a nice affordable home in Toronto, especially one with a beautiful ravine right at their backyard. Two months later, the August storm arrived, and their basement was filled a foot deep with sewage. “When the flood happened, I finally understood why it was cheaper to buy here,” she says. Her real estate agent hadn’t said a word; she also asked the previous owners, who’d lived there three years, if they’d ever had a problem with flooding. They said no. Meanwhile, her neighbour Pietro Scelsi received a warning from his insurance company that he would only be covered for one more flood. After that, he was on his own. “If you claim too much, they cancel you,” he says.
Neither homeowners nor providers can solve the debacle of flood insurance. One solution, Feltmate argues, is to prohibit new development in flood zones, but that presents its own set of political challenges. Real estate developers are clamouring to sell units. City councils want more tax revenue. And residents want to protect their property values, which would plummet if the area were branded a flood zone. “Morality often goes out the window when money is on the line,” Feltmate says.
Over the next decade, Toronto Water plans to spend some $3.4 billion, creating infrastructure to prepare the city for any catastrophe that comes its way. And Lou Di Gironimo, general manager of Toronto Water, is one of the front-line officers preparing the city for its watery fate. Stolid and unflappable, he first recognized the city’s need for a new approach to handling basement flooding during the storm of August 2005, which flooded several thousand homes and washed out Finch Avenue. The deluge destroyed 200 metres of a sewer main that services the Highland Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Scarborough. “One storm caused tens of millions of dollars of damage to the city’s infrastructure and hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to private property owners,” he says. “That was when we started to improve our storm management.” In 2005, he convinced council to approve a nine per cent increase in water fees to pay for new projects and update decaying infrastructure.
The biggest project is the $1.72-billion Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, designed to add and upgrade sewers and solve the problem of combined sewer overflows in Toronto’s waterways and the waterfront. The city will build new ponds or wetlands, underground stormwater management facilities and combined sewer overflow storage and treatment facilities. The master plan’s signature build is a 22-kilometre tunnel system running up the Don River and across the central waterfront, connecting 12 massive underground storage shafts. It’s like a subway system for stormwater, channelling rush-hour rain surges to a new specialized treatment facility before they enter the lake. The whole project will add 600,000 cubic metres of storage for stormwater, enabling the city to prevent much of the sewer overflow from directly entering the lake.
The other massive project on the horizon is Waterfront Toronto’s Don Mouth naturalization project, a $1.25-billion endeavour designed to square off against the next Hurricane Hazel. The project will feature a naturalized river system and coastal wetlands along Lake Shore Boulevard at Cherry Street. When completed, it will raise the majority of the industrial waterfront by one to three metres and create a new island to house the future Port Lands district, a mixed-used residential and commercial neighbourhood that the city hopes will become a second downtown by the water. The naturalized river system has a wealth of advantages over raw concrete infrastructure, building habitats for birds and fish and green space for humans.
The city has also invested $1.69 billion in the Basement Flooding Protection Program, designed to enlarge sewer capacity, store stormwater and move it away from basements and roadways. And a subsidy program rebates homeowners who take steps to protect their basements from flooding: up to $3,400 per property for flood protection devices like backup valves and sump pumps.
These projects showcase the kinds of innovative flood planning that didn’t exist when older Toronto neighbourhoods were built, and they won’t do much to help residents whose properties are in those areas. For people who live close to watercourses—those at Jane and Wilson, Mimico, Hoggs Hollow or any of the 38 other vulnerable parts of the city—flood protection measures have limited impact.
And in the spring, Doug Ford’s government slashed annual funding for Ontario’s 36 municipal conservation authorities by half, from $7.4 million to $3.7 million. Toronto is lucky—our conservation authority has considerable funding from other sources, and it has also applied for special federal funding. But for small municipalities, with aging pipes and limited resources, the cuts will hit hard.
When Gavin Odho first moved to Hilldale Road, a neighbour tipped him off to the flooding problem, and he purchased a premium insurance package that included overland flood coverage. “I was insured for $10,000 worth of damage. I thought I would be fine,” he says. After the 2018 flood, however, his vinyl plank flooring—which he thought was waterproof—was destroyed. His drywall disintegrated. He lost his washing machine, hot water tank, boiler and a basement kitchen with a fridge, stove and cabinets. He was without hot water and heat for months, and had to buy 10 radiators to heat the house. “My insurance adjustor was Satan incarnate. His attitude was, ‘You’re lucky you’re getting anything at all.’ ”
Odho spent $40,000 out of pocket to refinish the basement, and says it would have been more if he hadn’t done most of it himself. The insurance company told him that if he makes a claim in the next three years, they have a right to deny him insurance. Odho is taking matters into his own hands. Since the flood, he has installed a new steel-reinforced door to his basement that opens out instead of in. He also tiled the basement floor, so it won’t be destroyed in a flood. And for good measure, he installed three sump pumps, capable of expelling 10,500 gallons an hour. “It’s going to happen again,” he says. “I’m planning for that.” This time, he’ll be ready.
This story originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested Councillor Frances Nunziata opposed the TRCA's proposed flood measures, and that she approved the sale of the land in question. Toronto Life apologizes for the error.