From the Evening Guide – Monday March 24, 1980 by Cam Christie
In an interview with the Guide on Saturday, Arthur O’Neill, chief of Port Hope police, described the events leading up to and continuing throughout Friday’s flood. The first indication O’Neill remembers was the steady ‘belting’ rain Friday morning which had continued throughout the night. Storm sewers and ditches along Ontario Street were already blocked. “We knew then we were in for something serious.”
The weather forecast however was for rain tapering off during the afternoon.
At noon the police were becoming leery at the amount of rain that continued falling. At 2 pm the town works department began notifying store owners and residents of low-lying areas that there could be flooding.
At 3 pm water was seen lapping over the wall in the area of the Rotary park, across from the police station. At this point the police themselves, reacting to calls from people who had been warned by the work crews, began the round of houses and businesses to confirm the alarm.
At this time there was also a report, later denied, that a dam upriver had broken.
At 3:45 pm the river started washing over the Walton Street bridge while police and onlookers stared on in horror. Inside the Torville Terrace businesses, people were staring out at the river’s fury. The chief ordered the bridge closed to traffic and a cruiser with a loudspeaker notified citizens to vacate the area. One of the first things to be dealt with was a car which had been left parked in the middle of the bridge.
By 4:15 pm the river had secured its channel around Walton and south onto Queen Street, making it impossible for those who lived or did business on the east side of the street to escape without aid. The police, while they were able, carried a number of women from apartments on the east side to safety.
The store people meanwhile had been forced to get out by whatever means they could manage. Several, who had heeded the warnings, removed a portion of their merchandise and were gone by the time the river started down Queen Street.
At 5 pm there was every indication of a flood condition. Police were informed that the river was not expected to crest for several hours.
Throughout this period the police were in constant touch with the Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority staff who were reporting water levels from stream gauges at Sylvan Glen, Campbellcroft, Garden Hill and Osaca.
“The mayor and councillors were all in the area. The town work crews were out in full force and everyone was keeping a close watch,” the chief recalls.
Between 6-6:30 pm extra policemen were called in. All thirteen members of the Port Hope police force came on duty, joined by two OPP officers to help with traffic control. The officers tried, but were unable to evacuate all of the affected homes on Cavan Street where hours earlier the residents had been informed of the deteriorating situation by town employees.
At 7 pm police phoned radio station CHUC and requested a radio crew to act as a liason between citizens and the emergency workers. The radio crew responded and soon was reporting from the scene, broadcasting telephone numbers to which people in distress could call for help.
The GRCA staff meanwhhile had phoned the Lindsay office of the ministry of natural resources and a 16-foot boat, equipped with a high-powered motor was on its way to the scene. When the boat arrived a plan was considered to evacuate persons at 12 Mill Street S, the Carr apartments. The owners had expressed concern that the foundation of the apartmment block would be washed away. “Good judgment prevailed,” O’Neill said, adding that the attempt would have been too risky. The owners of the building feared its foundation would not withstand the torrent of water. Flooding on Mill Street was so advanced however, that residents of the apartment and bungalow to the south of it were forced to remain there throughout the night after authorities concluded that both buildings would be safe.
The Port Hope fire department had been called in to coordinate sandbagging operations on Ontario, Walton, Queen and Mill streets. While this operation was in progress, a fire call came in from 11 Park Street. “This added to the confusion,” the chief recalls. The only passable bridge was at Peter Street and trucks were sent in a vain effort to save the interior of the building.
On Ontario Street the river had risen from the rear lot of the Ganaraska Hotel and was flowing along both the south side of the building along Maitland Street and the north side beside the river. A number of patrons of the hotel were too inebriated to heed the warning to leave the building. Cakes of ice were appearing on Ontario Street. A volunteer with a jeep and snow plow had been clearing some of the ice from the road and traffic across the Ontario Street bridge had been halted. The rescue of persons from the Ganaraska Hotel was ‘very annoying’ for Chief O’Neill. Eventually, at 9:30 pm a person appeared in front of the hotel with the river swirling madly to either side of the hotel. Fearing the man would be swept away trying to cross Maitland Street, Constable Kelly was secured with a rope and made his way across. Unfortunately, the two men fell on their backs and had to be taken to hospital. The constable was released after being treated for frostbite and returned to duty.
Concern for the residents of the hotel was being borne out across the street where the Sears store was losing its battle with the flood. When the windows broke, the store contents, including refrigerators, were swept into the street and carried along in the flood’s path.
“We knew then we were going to have to do more than flood control,” Chief O’Neill remarked. “We also had to consider the possibility of looting.” By this time the hydro had been cut to the downtown area since water had flooded many electrical outlets.
In the middle of the flood a car was stolen. The culprits were apprehended by police in Cobourg and returned at 2 pm to the Port Hope police station. The police patrolled the streets of the downtown throughout the night. Many officers were relieved only after the area had been cordoned off the next morning and a troop of almost 300 volunteers arrived at 9 am.
Throughout the flood the police had to deal with a number of drivers who forced their way around roadblocks and barricades. However, the chief expressed satisfaction with the ‘over-whelming response’ of the citizens who showed up the next morning to help with the cleanup operation. “We did not anticipate that until the basements were pumped out, there would be no hydro,” he explained. Saturday morning’s volunteer effort therefore got off to a slow start, chief O’Neill said, and he expressed regret that many volunteers had to be sent home until the power had been restored. The volunteer force would see action Saturday and Sunday when called on to perform long hours of traffic and crowd control.
The ministry of natural resources, OPP and Cobourg police were others to whom the chief wished to express appreciation for their willingness to provide assistance throughout the crisis.