Jordan: If you asked me what’s the worst possible way to die, I would answer without hesitation that it was being trapped in a small place that’s slowly filling with water. I’m not kidding you that is my nightmare. Last August 7th, I was safe on the 20 something ish floor of a condominium in downtown Toronto, when a good chunk of the city was suddenly dotted with small places just like that.
News Clip: Dropping like a veil over the city, more than a month’s worth of rain in just two hours, wreaking havoc with the city, engulfing cars that just couldn’t get out of the way, forcing passengers to flee the rising water. The water about a foot from the top of a doorway today in the basement parking garage of a building near Jane and St Clair. That’s what a pair of police officers had to swim through to rescue two men trapped in an elevator with floodwaters rapidly rising.
Jordan: There’s a moment in every instance of really severe weather where the people experiencing it shift from either marveling at the power and beauty of nature, or even just complaining about how it will delay their commute, to realizing suddenly that shit, this is getting really dangerous. The scary thing about last year’s flood is not that Canada’s largest city wasn’t ready for it. Things happen, crazy weather happens, flukes happen and we got lucky, and nobody died. Now the scary thing is that all the experts say it will likely happen again, and soon. So almost a year later, is the city more prepared than it was back then? And in general, how do we deal with the basic fact that there will be more severe weather events than ever before in cities across Canada? I’m not talking about in a few years because of climate change, not as temperatures rise by x degrees over the next decade. No, now, today or tomorrow, we’re not talking about dire predictions here. Is the infrastructure in our cities ready for what’s already happening.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Moira Welsh is part of the investigative unit for The Toronto Star. She is the author of one piece in a series called Undeniable, not about the future of climate change, about what’s already happened. Thanks for joining us Moira.
Moira: Oh, thanks for having me here.
Jordan: So start by telling me about the crazy storms that happened in Toronto one day last year on August 7th.
Moira: August 7th was a really interesting night. A storm arrived with no one really expecting it to come, it was referred to as a ninja storm. And what that means, that’s the sort of informal term that people at the Toronto and Region Conservation authority refer to these storms. They sort of sneak in unexpected, they land over a slice of the city, they create this incredible downpour and then they disappear just as quickly. And what’s really, really interesting about those storms is that we will never really know how much water they left behind on the city because there are precipitation gauges in certain locations, but an Environment Canada meteorologist I spoke to said he believes that actually 200 millimeters of water fell in certain spots where there were no gauges, and so…
Jordan: So it’s that localized.
Moira: It’s that localized.
Jordan: How bad did it get in terms of what we do know from those precipitation gauges, and how does that register in terms of how frequently we’re likely to get this kind of thing?
Moira: The gauges found about 72 millimeters of rain came down in that evening, August the 7th in downtown Toronto. As I mentioned before, probably a lot more came down in areas where nothing is recorded. But what happens is the water just flows downward and when there is a huge amount of rain coming down in a small period of time, in the older part of Toronto there are underground combined sewers, so they combine the sewers from people’s toilets and the storm water overflows and then when so much storm water is rushing in, everything flows up to the surface of the streets and depending on where you are, you are walking through a really mess.
Jordan: Tell me because you guys; well were you in the newsroom that night? Were you working the story?
Moira: I was not. I was at home and I was following it on Twitter and I remember; I follow Toronto police ops Twitter site because I’m a reporter, I guess, and I remember just after midnight they tweeted something that said, two men have been trapped in an elevator with rising six feet of water. That made me feel ill when I saw it that night and I could not stop thinking about it. So ultimately, months later, I ended up meeting Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin, the two men who were trapped in that elevator, and they had just been working away at night. Clever is an engineer, Gabriel is an industrial designer. They were really into, you know, their website work and so on, oblivious to the fact that the storm was outside and that the black creek waters which are right behind their building, we’re just rising exponentially, I believe it was three meters in a short period of time. They just rose, and so they were told, these two guys were told that the water was coming in the underground garage, go down and take out your cars if you need to. So that’s where their story began, they went into the elevator, got to the basement and then the floodwaters came in, and the elevator locked and they could not get out.
Jordan: How long were they stuck there for? What happened?
Moira: It was about 40 minutes they estimated. They weren’t checking the time because I asked him that question as well, and then I think they were; What they were doing was monitoring the rising water bed by the marks where it hit. So after a few minutes, the water rose actually above the speaker, you know when you can call for help if you get trapped? The speaker’s actually in the bottom of the elevator, and so that fizzled out quite quickly. And then they, you know, they jumped on the railings, they had one cell phone, and they had Klever brought his journal, a red leather journal with him he was going to take it to his car. So they’re sitting on the railings and they’re trying to get a cell signal, they cannot get a cell signal. It’s looking really bad because the water keeps rising higher and higher, and it’s dirty brown river water and Gabriel could see these big bugs swimming around in the water as it got higher and higher. Eventually, he realized that there’s sort of a trap and escape hatch at the top. Those are locked from the other side, and so he started smashing and smashing, he, you know, his hands got bloody, he was smashing it with the top of his head as he stood on the railing, and eventually they got a crack of airspace in there so they could get a cell signal. And then they started calling and calling and calling, and they couldn’t get through because unbeknownst to them, 911 was overwhelmed with calls from all of the flooding. So eventually a call got through, it dropped, another call got through, they spoke to someone, I think they were very emotional at that time and said you know we’re about to die. The woman who was very calm, they said, said she didn’t know if she could get a truck, a fire truck to come. As it happened two police officers from another division were driving nearby, and they picked up that call on their radio and they said, we’ll go check it out. When they got there, they had to swim down the stairs into six feet of water in the basement, it took them a couple times cause they had to get a key to open the door and then they had to go and get a different crowbar to wedge the doors open with, but they were doing this while they were treading water, and by this point, the water inside the elevator was up to there; they said necks, they later told me their chin like very same area, they had few inches of breathing space left, their heads were sort of tilted to one side, angled and then the doors opened, the water rushed in and then rushed out, and they floated out with it. And Klever, who said he took lifeguard courses when he was a teenager, said he lost the ability to swim at that point, and one of the officers had to pull him up the stairs until he could walk on his own.
Jordan: Hearing you tell that story literally makes me almost have a panic attack.
Moira: Yeah, it was a… I cannot stop thinking about that story, and that their story is sort of indicative for me of the troubles that people face in these kinds of flash floods, and not expecting this kind of weather to come down, and with no real indication that it’s about to come as well. So this was a story of what if’s. I would say what if those police officers didn’t come? What if they couldn’t get a cell call through? What if somebody in a wheelchair was under the Dufferin Street bridge when the waters were really high? What if someone in the car in an underpass down on the gardiner got stuck, and the waters rose, or had a panic attack, or a heart attack?
Jordan: Ya, well you mentioned that 911 was overwhelmed. So these two men are stuck in an elevator, what other kinds of things are happening in the city at the same time?
Moira: Everything was happening. People were panicking, people’s basements were flooding, depending on where they lived of course. People they were driving along on the gardiner where the water is really low, and basically at that level you’re at the same level as the lake so it does flood, and the ground is low and you have all this water rushing out of these sewers because it has no where else to go so it goes to the lowest spot. So people stuck in cars, people were trapped in a TTC streetcar at the Dufferin overpass, and I’ve interviewed a woman who posted a picture of that streetcar on Twitter, and she said, as she was walking slowly along because the water was pretty high, she could see people at first laughing in the streetcar, and then as she moved past them, the water kept rising and then she could see them climbing up onto the chairs, and then they started to look really scared. So eventually they got out of that streetcar but the next day there were pictures that showed a really sort of dark crust throughout, and the TTC said that was human waste basically from from the sewage.
Jordan: One of the things that fascinated me about this project that you guys at The Star are doing in general is that it doesn’t try to look at climate change through some, what’s gonna happen years down the road and scientific projections and that kind of stuff, but actually focuses on things we can measure now. Without maybe connecting this specific storm to climate change, what can you tell us about what has changed in Toronto’s climate we know already?
Moira: I interviewed a climate change scientist from the University of Toronto, and he said that over the last 30 years, Toronto’s temperature throughout the year has increased by about 1 to 1 and 1/2 percent. So what that means is, and he has this documented in also, in the last 30 years, we have had 10 more winter days where the temperature was above zero. So that is a good indication of a warming climate, and what that means is that in the summer, if we have a string of really hot days with a lot of moisture in the air, very muggy sort of humid days then that can lead to storms that bring in a huge amount of precipitation, and there’s a lot of energy in the air, and then the storms arrive and they unload on the city.
Jordan: When you talk to people in the city who were looking back on this event, how ready were they for the magnitude of what happened? Did they do some self reflection in the weeks afterwards?
Moira: What the city tells me is that they are working on some pretty big projects. There’s the; they’re changing the Don River, they’re adding a lot of big underwater holding tanks to take some of the overflow from the combined sewers into the dawn river, into those tanks, hold it underground until the storm has passed and then treat it, and then release it ultimately, and those projects are $3,000,000,000 in projects that are going on. They will ultimately lead to cleaner water in the Toronto Harbour, and what’s really neat about that is Waterfront Toronto was also involved in this, and they’re actually creating a new entrance, so to speak, for the Don River as it meets Lake Ontario. Right now, it takes a hard right turn into Keating Channel, which is all concrete basically now, and when this project is finished it will open up into a natural area that will make it more…. it’ll make it easier to absorb the water because you have, you know, wetlands, and a little island will be built out there and so on, so that is going to be a really interesting project for the city. That is supposed to take 25 years, so that may not affect us immediately. There are little things that could be done. The city is doing a lot, depending on who you speak with they would criticizing the city for not doing enough, or they would commend it for the work that they do. Ontario’s former environmental commissioner Diane Sacks, who is no longer in that position because the government got rid of that office, she’s spoken about the need for better retention of water in some of Toronto’s Green standards. Right now we have these new green standards that came into play in 2010, and that requires new builds and so on to retain about five millimeters of water per storm. Well, for example, water dam collects 60 millimeters per storm, that’s what their rules call for. So she’s saying we could do better in that respect.
Jordan: Explain what that means, collecting rainwater per storm in new builds.
Moira: So you could do that in a couple of different ways every time it rains. Because there’s a new build, it’s basically taking up porous land space with a hard surface, with a condo, or a commercial build up.
Jordan: That sounds like something that has probably happened a lot over the last decade or two.
Moira: Yes, and so what happens is they must now, since 2010, collect some of the water that they would otherwise displace. So they could build a holding tank, for example, underground and keep that water there until the system…. everything else is flushed through, and it’s dry, and it can absorb it more easily. They could build green roofs on top that would absorb some water, they could put in a lot of greenery around the building with earth around it not just, you know, a tree stuck into concrete.
Jordan: Oh that’s outside my building.
Moira: And so on, so there are different ways of doing them.
Jordan: When you talk to climate scientists and meteorologists, how concerned were they about more of these events in Toronto, and the surrounding area?
Moira: They say we should expect more of these events.
Jordan: Even ones like this rare?
Moira: Yes. Everyone I have spoken to has said with the increase in temperatures, if you have the very humid days and the moisture in the air there’s quite a strong likelihood that you would have storms like this. Whether or not they come in as a ninja storm would come in, or we can be more prepared for them because we can see the radar screen is showing that this is coming our way, we should expect wilder storms with more precipitation. We might also expect really hot days that are very dry as well.
Jordan: When you talk about how to approach stories like this, which are so vast in terms of their scope and you know this, this is affecting everywhere in the world, and we talk about it all the time on this podcast, how do you manage to narrow that reporting down to something like the work you did, which almost turned it into a matter of infrastructure, which is what struck me.
Moira: That’s a really interesting question. My editor Lynn McAuley… this was her brainchild, the series, and she really wanted to speak to readers about the changes that we’re experiencing now. Not in the future, but now, and it seems like most regions across Canada have experienced something related to climate change, and so she has sent out reporters to every province and territory to write about this. In the case of Toronto, we discussed it at the start, that the floods, we’ve all seen it because we live in and or work downtown, and so that has a really sort of deep effect on people, actually, and so in discussions we just decided that the way to do it was to find people who had lived in that moment, in that August the 7th storm and really bring their stories to life.
Jordan: When you talk to those people and I’m not including now climate scientists and meteorologists, and people who study this, not including them, but when you talk to the people that were affected by this storm, did they make the link between that storm and what happened to them, and climate change happening now? Or was it still we got caught in this crazy storm?
Moira: I think there’s a bit of both. I think initially it’s a crazy storm, but they’re also talking about the fact that they’re seeing more of these crazy storms, and so I think climate change is something that’s in the back of everyone’s mind when you see this kind of weather. But with Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin, who were trapped in the elevator, it really resonated with them, and they had a really difficult time after this experience, and I think they probably, well they told me that they suffered from some trauma, emotional trauma related to that, and who wouldn’t frankly, and so they really started thinking about climate change and how they could make a difference, and so that’s one of the perhaps interesting asides to the stories, they change the direction of the drone business, it’s Klever’s drone business, they built drones for consumers, and they decided to look into the use of drones for the maintenance of clean energy, sensibly wind turbines, and so they’ve done; Changed the design work, added the ability to fly up there and videotape, you know, perhaps rust or anything, and then send the data down to the people who run the turbines. So that was a really interesting outcome but it was all related to the August 7th story.
Jordan: You mentioned a lot of these, sort of both the long term initiatives and also the stuff that’s happening with new builds now. But to put it down to brass tax, if this happens again this August 7th, how is Toronto better prepared?
Moira: Well, I hate to predict anything, because one never knows, is Toronto better prepared? Toronto is making a lot of changes and trying to do good things, but I would guess that the same thing would happen again because in terms of the work that we’re doing, we’re not far enough along and we could be doing more smaller projects…
Jordan: Such as.
Moira: Greening parking lots, and part of this comes from a real criticism from people at councilors like Gord Perks, and then our former environmental commissioner, Diane Sacks, who has spoken about this lost opportunity to create a stormwater charge, and put it on people who own property that create that, that covers a significant amount of land with asphalt or concrete, essentially and like a parking, like a shopping mall parking lot for example. Some of the councilors wanted this storm water charge to be applied to them so that they would pay for the runoff they create. Right now, the city takes all its money from the water bills that we all pay, and then they will use that money for various things, including some infrastructure changes. But there has been a push to try to get the people who create the runoff to actually pay for, instead of allowing the public to pay for it. And what that would do would be two things, one is it would add more money to help build infrastructure, and secondly, it would create an incentive for those property owners to actually green their property, and so you can add trees, and earth, and long grasses to parking lots so that they absorb a lot of the water. There’s a green parking lot in the West End that has done something quite similar to that. You can put what they call Silibus cells underground, and that’s a cell that would essentially hold water under pavement, there’s one along Queensway. There are a lot of little projects that could make a big difference.
Jordan: Thanks Moira.
Moira: Thank you.
Jordan: Moira Welsh is an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star, and we are The Big Story podcast. You can find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca, or at frequencypodcastnetwork.com. We’re on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn, and we are wherever you get podcasts on Apple, Google, Stitcher, or Spotify. We love to hear from you so drop us a line, drop us a tweet, drop us a rating and a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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