Toronto Islands residents ‘panicking’ over flooding concerns

Residents and City of Toronto staff are working to refill sandbags and dry out the morning after a Thursday storm forced rising lake water over temporary barriers, causing significant flooding to homes on the Toronto Islands.

“People were panicking last night,” Tony Farebrother, co-chair of the Toronto Island Community Association, said Friday morning at a news conference on Ward’s Island.

Farebrother said Island residents, many of whom are elderly, have been worried this year might be a repeat of 2017, when water levels reached record highs and Island parks were closed for months.

On Ward’s Island, the majority of the streets were full of water Friday morning. Many of them could only allow limited vehicular traffic, and city vehicles were seen going through ponds of water trying to get around with emergency services.

Farebrother said the water rose up to over his boots Thursday.

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“I was crying last night,” he said. “The waves were so strong they were pushing the bags away from us.”

As part of immediate mitigation measures, the city has deployed 24 industrial pumps to suck water out of the mainland, while city staff continue to use large sandbags to prevent flooding from accessing the Islands residential area.

On Thursday night, heavy winds forced water over the top of temporary sandbags, set up to protect against a lake that has steadily risen through the spring.

The breach primarily occurred on the north shore of Ward’s Island after sloshing water in the harbour knocked a hole in the sandbag wall, letting the lake pour in and leaving some homes surrounded by water, city spokesperson Brad Ross said Thursday night.

There was no danger to life and no need to evacuate, he said, adding the pumping effort will take 48-to-72 hours.

City staff are working 14- to 16-hour shifts to repair the sandbag walls and berms, Councillor Joe Cressy said Friday.

The floods are a sign the Islands needs permanent flood protection to protect against more frequent flooding caused by “accelerated climate change,” he said, noting that lake levels are nearing what the city saw in 2017.

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“An annual sandbagging effort cannot be the solution,” he said.

“We will not allow, long term, the Islands to be simply consumed by water, nor will we accept the annual practice of mitigation and sandbagging,” Cressy added.

Meanwhile, the city says it expects that flood-protection measures put in place following the 2017 flood can deal with the water, even as Lake Ontario is projected to continue to rise over the next two weeks, said James Dann, City of Toronto Parks — Waterfront District Manager.

Since 2017, the city has implemented a number of measures to mitigate flood damage on the island, including new drainage systems and approximately 20 industrial water pumps.

Despite the risk that storms may continue to breach the barriers, those measures are doing their job, he said.

“We are confident we can keep the Islands open the entire summer,” he said.

Nevertheless, the city is looking for cost-effective and permanent solutions to the flood risk, he said, noting the Islands are one of the few places in the city where Torontonians live in a floodplain.

People fill sandbags on the Toronto Islands on Friday morning after rising lake water breached the barriers, causing significant flooding.

A report due in June will speak to long-term mitigation measures, he said.

Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo

TORONTO STAR

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