The Summer Shower that Took Down Toronto
A Real Life Survival Story
Toronto, a modern international city, financial and cultural capital of Canada, was taken down in twenty minutes by a summer shower.
On Monday July 8th a record 126 millimetres of rain fell on Toronto in just two hours. Around 4:30, just into rush hour, the sky turned black and a sudden deluge descended. Twenty minutes later the power went out throughout the city. A half hour later every major artery out of the city was flooded. The flooding combined with the lack of traffic lights ensured that traffic throughout the city came to a standstill.
Public transit fared no better, subway stations became flooded and all trains were stopped. The railway lines for the commuter train service, known in Toronto as the GO system, came to a halt stranding thousands. One train tried to make it out of the city but ended up swamped in six feet of water where it took seven hours for police in zodiacs to shuttle 1200 trapped people to safety.
The power blackout lasted, in our neighborhood, for three days, which gave us a chance to test our three day emergency kit. Although it was a record rainfall for one day, it was, after all, a summer thunderstorm, not a category 5 hurricane, not a 9.0 earthquake, not a nuclear attack.
The following are some observations on what worked and what didn’t and some tips on how you can fare better.
Firstly, the national weather center totally dropped the ball. No severe thunderstorm warnings were issued. Later the excuse was they were tracking two storm cells and had no idea they would converge over Toronto.
In addition to internet, TV, and ground line phones going dead, all cell phones and Wi-Fi connections went dead as well – only radio was left.
We had an emergency radio that you could recharge using a built-in dynamo hand crank. This radio worked great and we we’re able to listen to talk radio shows to kill the boredom of sitting around for three days.
We pulled out the radio after about a half hour without power to see if there was any news. There wasn’t. Public radio was at least two hours behind what was happening on the ground. Personally, I find a two hour delay in getting information on a developing emergency situation is too long.
After spending twenty minutes scanning the AM/FM and even the SW channels I got the hint that we were not going to get any useful information. So we broke out the EMCOM Kit and our Yeasu HT and tuned into the emergency services trunk line. Within minutes we started to get a picture of what was happening in the city.
We found out which roads were closed or going to close, good to know if you plan on evacuating. We knew which public transit services were affected. If you’re an urbanite without a vehicle, this info could well affect your decision on whether to shelter in place or evacuate.
We also found out that within a half hour, all emergency services were stretched to their limit.
Most of the emergency calls were for people trapped in elevators, followed by people trapped in cars, followed by car accidents. Lesson learned? Avoid elevators and roads during an emergency. Keep this in mind for everyone thinking they’ll just load the Bug Out kits into the SUV and head for the cottage should the shit hit their fan. This minor emergency shut down all roads, imagine if there had been an evacuation order or a wide spread disaster.
There were dozens of other emergency calls, such as the three people swept away into the river and clinging to a tree branch. Or the warehouse roof collapse, the sink hole, and dozens of medical emergencies usually for the elderly who were experiencing panic attacks. All of this kept the EMS hopping as evidenced by the near continuous wailing of sirens that went on for a sold twelve hours.
Of course we had more than enough food for ourselves for three days and so did all of the neighbours we spoke with. One problem was the food spoiling in the refrigerators. Things stayed cool in the fridge for about 12 hours, but after that, things started to spoil. As soon as the blackout hit, my wife put all the items she wanted to keep cold into the freezer. Especially the beer, which stayed frosty for the entire ordeal and was the one luxury we enjoyed. She also keeps about six one litre water bottles of water in the freezer so that if there was a power failure the blocks of ice will keep the freezer cool longer.
Twenty-four hours into the blackout our neighbours were throwing out bags of spoiled food.
People living in the 35 story tall hamster cage next to us all had electric stoves, so trying to cook and thus save some of the food before it went bad wasn’t an option. Most camp stoves and improvised cooking stoves are dangerous to use in a small apartment with no ventilation. The real hero in our case was the pop can alcohol stove. This little beauty easily boiled pots of water for coffee, (imagine going three days without coffee?) and we cooked all our meals with it. We set it on top of our electric range and there was no fire hazard or fumes.
The next day, most of the other tenants took to their cars in search of coffee shops and grocery stores in areas where the power had been restored. The local grocery store had emergency generators and so they stayed open for the first 24 hours, but then their generators stopped working. The condo complex also had back-up generators that kept the elevators, lobby lights, and hallway lights working but by the second day that generator stopped working too.
Batteries, I keep about 16 rechargeable batteries 8AA and 8AAA and they served our needs for the three days, mostly because we had the hand crank emergency radio. But I could see that without being able to recharge them, those batteries would be used up in a week
Toronto is one of safest places to live in the world. Our annual crime rate is about equivalent to any Sunday morning in Chicago. However, on the second day, the police issued warnings to the residents in the still affected blackout area of an increase in burglaries. No power, no alarm system, easy pickings. These burglaries were crimes of opportunity, but what would happen if the power stayed off for two weeks instead of two days, and people were hungry? Those burglars won’t be after TV screens and laptops, they’ll be after food, period. And they won’t be just the career criminals, but your starving neighbours too.
Shelter in Place or Evacuate
The first question one asks in an emergency situation is whether to shelter in place or evacuate.
During the first 12 hours there was no sense trying to evacuate since you would only get trapped in a traffic jam. Most people stayed put and sweated it out, literally. The temperature and humidity ranged between Turkish Steam Bath and Bangkok in July. Sleep consisted of lying naked and semi-conscious while your sweat soaked the sheets and pillows beneath you.
By the evening of the second day, and with recent reports that the transformers servicing our area were still under thirty feet of water, most residents, fed up with the heat, lack of food, light, internet, cable TV, and hot meals, started to evacuate to friends, families and hotels outside the affected areas.
We really had nowhere else to go, so we toughed it out. Which brings me to my biggest oversight in my preparedness equipment. Living in Canada we assume that a power blackout will entail slowly freeing to death, and so we have means of generating heat. But in this instance we were in serious danger of succumbing to heat stroke. There was nowhere to go to get out of the heat. We took cold showers when we started to become a little dizzy, but if there had not still been water available, heat stroke would have been a real possibility. I’ll be looking into getting a couple of battery powered fans, and extra batteries.
On the evening of the second day the property management brought in four portable generators. Tenants that had extension cords could plug their fridge in. Of course anything in the fridge would have gone bad by then, but our fridge was still icy cold from all the ice blocks. Most tenants didn’t have extension cords that could reach the generators. While it was nice to have some power to run the fridge and even plug a fan into, the noise from these machines is deafening.
Finally, after 72 hours power to our area was restored. The minute the air conditioner started working again, the outside temperatures dropped to a cool breezy 18C.
The three days without power was a nightmare. The boredom, the noise, the heat, the isolation and lack of communications was trying. While our emergency supplies and equipment was enough to provide the basic necessities, it wasn’t enough to ensure we would be comfortable.
What concerns me is what if this had been a real disaster? I tend to be more positive than the doomsayers who predict social chaos following any serious disaster, but I question now that I may have been too optimistic. No one we spoke with had even thought about preparing an emergency kit. They would become very desperate very quickly.