Hazel

In the wake of Colorado’s “Biblical flooding” and the typhoon that swept through Kyoto, I am reminded of my first hurricane, in October of 1954.

I was seven years old. We lived in Buffalo, N.Y., not exactly a coastal area, but Hurricane Hazel defied history and logic. She first killed 1,000 people in Haiti, then made landfall in the Carolinas. Usually, hurricanes lose power over land, but Hazel was special. Passing over Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, she maintained winds of up to 100 miles per hour.

I was told I could not go outside, so I watched from the front window of our house. The year before, my father had planted a tree out front, a Mountain Ash, with orange berries, and as the winds roared through, the tree swayed, then bent over, farther and farther, until the top of the tree touched the ground, making a perfect arc. I watched, fascinated. Someone later said that if the tree had been a year or two older, it wouldn’t have bent; it would have snapped.

Hazel killed 95 people in the U.S., mostly from drowning, and then hit Canada, where she linked up with a cold front over Toronto and dumped more than 8 inches of rain in just a few hours. Creeks and rivers rose more than 20 feet, 50 bridges were destroyed, 81 people died and 4,000 families were left homeless.

In its wisdom, the city of Toronto did not rebuild homes in the floodplains, some of which had been under 10 feet of water. Instead, they built parks. At the time, I had no idea of what the storm had done, or even its name. I just knew it bent our tree over until the top touched the ground.

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