News

'This was a bad one'

Alex Zahrybelny has been dealing with the whims of the fickle Grand River for almost 80 years.

He was a baby when his parents moved the family to a cattle farm on River Road, the water just a stone's throw from their front yard.

Not every spring, but most, they prepared for the river to swell and flood their land. They found resourceful ways to keep the farm operational and the family coming and going while the water receded.

Zahrybelny's father, Michael, almost died in the 1950s when he tried to ride his horse across the swollen Grand to rescue some cows. After he fell from the horse he clung to the animal, which pulled him across. Good thing, said Helen Langille, Zahrybelny's sister, "I don't think dad was much of a swimmer."

Standing in the back with a long stick, Michael would push his kids across the property in a tiny row boat. When torrential rains turned the often-lazy Grand into a wild, overflowing monster in 1974, Zahrybelny had visiting family members jump into the bucket of his backhoe to get them from his water-logged property to their cars.

But in eight decades, Zahrybelny said he's never seen the river rage the way it has this week. It's the first time he's left his home during a flood, after police knocked on his door Wednesday morning and told him it wasn't safe to stay.

"This was a bad one," he said. "I've never seen ice like that. It was scary."

Zahrybelny returned to his home on Friday but, with two feet of water floating in his basement, it was likely to be some time before the gas company could relight his furnace.

"That's OK, things will be back to normal soon," said Zahrybelny, who said he has never considered living somewhere else. "This is my home."

It has been almost 44 years since the city declared a state of emergency on May 18, 1974 when the rains - 2.5 inches in one day over the entire watershed -- caused the Grand to flood. The river crested at an alarming 18.2 feet, compared to its normal level of about two feet for that time of year.

The areas of Birkett Lane and River Road were submerged. A burst dike in Holmedale forced some 60 families to evacuate their homes. The former canal along Greenwich Street overflowed. Sections of Newport Road and River Road were washed out.

The city's water treatment plant shut down after breaches in a canal dike flooded pump generators, allowing contaminated water to enter the reservoir. Ten feet of water flooded the basement of the plant.

"The river breached the dike and water was six or seven feet deep on Grand River Avenue," said Hugh Ellis, who was the general superintendent at the waterworks at the time. "If you ever stepped outside the door, it was just like a raging river."

Preliminary estimates pegged the 1974 flood damage in Brantford at $1 million. There is still no damage estimate for this week's flooding.

"Dad had to get neighbours out with a backhoe," said Al Zahrybelny Jr. who operates his business, Al's Automotive, on his father's property. "I remember getting into a canoe with one of my best friends, which was a really bad idea because I couldn't swim."

In a story that marked the 20th anniversary of the 1974 flood, Doris Gordon, a longtime resident of Birkett Lane who refused to leave her home when the water rose, was reluctant to recall the incident.

"I hate to talk about it because it was just awful, a terrible, terrible thing," she said. "The water came up real fast. At three o'clock we were cutting the grass and by seven you couldn't get near the house," she told The Expositor in 1994.

The water left marks on her house that were still visible two decades later.

After the 1974 flood, the Grand River Conservation Authority spent $18 million building 9.5 kilometres of dikes along the river in Brantford and $23 million in Cambridge.

While the situation is vastly improved, Dwight Boyd, director of engineering for the GRCA, told city councillors on Thursday, "Dikes reduce the risk of flooding but it doesn't eliminate it."

Langille, 76, still lives in the city but long ago moved away from the Grand.

"We appreciated it," she said of the waterway. "But we were taught to be very cautious of it.

"We were excited as kids when the flood was coming. It meant we didn't have to go to school."

The family captured the good times, and the bad, living along the river in a stack of black-and-white photographs. One standout is Langille standing in a wooden row boat decked out in a full-length faux fur coat (all the rage in the 1950s) with her father using an oar to propel them across the flooded farmland to the bus stop. She needed to get to work at a city shoe store.

"The river was clean in those days," said Langille.

"We'd swim in a springfed pond called Green Waters. Everyone in Eagle Place would go there. We had so many good times."

But the rushing water and treacherous ice jams reveal another side to that sleepy Grand.

"It's amazing how water really rushes," Langille said.

"It can be unpredictable. We learned to live with it."

mruby@postmedia.com

Brantford Expositor 2018 ©