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A look back at the Toronto snowstorm of 1999

Posted by Derek Flack / December 29, 2010

Toronto Snow Storm 1999I've bee enjoying the photo galleries a number of media outlets have posted of the recent winter storm that buried the northeastern United States. Unlike the paltry amount of snowfall that can shut down European cities, the storm was certainly the real deal, with 50 to 60 centimetres of snow falling in New York. Airports were closed, traffic was snarled, snow plows crashed into SUVs, and removal crews were overwhelmed. But, they didn't call in the Army.

No, that was -- as many will recall -- Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman in January 1999. Indeed it's difficult to look at photos of this year's storm and not think about how bad things got in our city after that blizzard dumped between 35-45 centimetres on us. I remember that it took about an hour and half to drive to my part-time job the day after the storm, and I was only going from around Avenue and Bloor to Yonge and Lawrence.

The subways of course were temporarily snowed-in, the airport was closed and many businesses decided to give their employees a day or two off after the blizzard have done its damage. But, good ol' Mel figured it all out by soliciting the services of 400 troops, who took to city streets in armoured vehicles and eventually got Toronto up and running again.

Here's a look back at what was often referred to as the "Blizzard of the Century."

From Christine Kelly's Flickr stream

Toronto snow storm 1999





From skaliwag66


From JnL


From CP




yuck / December 29, 2010 at 05:19 pm
zomg!! call in the army!!
Jen / December 29, 2010 at 05:37 pm
We in Ottawa, where I lived back then, thought it was hilarious that Toronto had to call in the army. I didn't realize that the city didn't have the capacity to deal with the dump, but still. Lol.
Rico replying to a comment from Jen / December 29, 2010 at 06:46 pm
Whereas Ottawa uses the RCMP in every day affairs? LOL. Try being a city of 6 million people, not a town of 800,000.
Morga / December 29, 2010 at 06:52 pm
My grandmother was one of the people picked up by the army because the ambulance couldn't get to her. People who make fun of that make me sick.
j / December 29, 2010 at 07:06 pm
Honestly, these comments all make me sick. Get over yourself Torontonians: We are all Canadian, I think we can deal with a little (or a lot) of snow..
rofl / December 29, 2010 at 07:20 pm
But london, Ontario gets 4 feet of so snow and can handle it, though they did have to close everything down for a day, why couldn't Toronto deal with it? My friends from other parts of the country still make fun of Toronto to this day.
Rob / December 29, 2010 at 07:33 pm
Sure, London handles 4 feet of snow no problem, but for them it's a fairly regular thing. It seems every winter London gets at least one storm that dumps 50cm+ on them. But in Toronto, that amount of snow is unusual, so it makes perfect sense that they couldn't handle the storm of '99.
Chino / December 29, 2010 at 07:33 pm
This argument is kinda silly, but I guess I'll keep it going.

Toronto's a massive city with over 4 million people set across an urban core, outer core, and suburbs. The size of a snowstorm and its impact on major streets, neighbourhood streets, highways, businesses, subways, airports, etc is difficult to predict.

Sure meteorologists might know how long a storm will last, but the kind of snow and how slowly it will melt or how quickly it will freeze is a challenge.

So to belittle a city because they had to call in the army is pretty pathetic. We should be glad that we have an troops ready and willing to help its citizens.
James / December 29, 2010 at 08:03 pm
The army was called into to help with the 402 rescue a few weeks ago. The national guard is routinely used to all manner of mundane "disasters" in the states. Given the uncertain weather at the time it was the right thing to do. Mel's only faux pas was the flamboyance with which he did it.
Torontonian / December 29, 2010 at 08:03 pm
Does anyone else remember how quiet the city became,
particularly in the side streets? And the brightness
of the snow even at night!
Chester Pape / December 29, 2010 at 08:58 pm
Let's be clear, crazy as he was Mel did not call in the army to shovel snow. It was also NOT in response to the 40cm of snow that we got during the Jan 2-4th blizzard that also shut down Chicago. People forget that it just kept snowing every day for nearly two weeks totalling up to 118cm of snow, that's nearly 5 feet of snow. At the end of this when the plows were just not able to keep up any more Toronto asked the reserves if they could station some LAVs at strategic locations around the city to act as backup ambulances in case regular ambulances couldn't get to an emergency where the plows hadn't been yet. That was it. Period. No snow shovelling. Some public affairs hack from DND decided to stage a photo op where a bunch of soldiers shovelled snow for about 10 minutes because he thought that footage of a parked LAV was too boring to get on the 6 O'clock news and bingo, Toronto is a laughing stock for 10+ years
dudebro / December 29, 2010 at 09:00 pm
That picture before the subway one looks like giant piles of delicious ice cream.
Harry / December 29, 2010 at 10:36 pm
BC has called in the Canadian Forces to fight fires, Manitoba asked for and received help during Red River flooding, and three provinces - including Ontario - called on the CF to help during the ice storm. Part of the CF's job is to assist civilian forces who have become overwhelmed or don't have the ability to handle crises. We should be thankful that they're here to help. Laughing because Toronto needed help is childish.
saltspring replying to a comment from Torontonian / December 29, 2010 at 11:01 pm
Thanks for that memory. Just reading your comment gave me a rush of reliving and relaxation. Thank you.
Bonk replying to a comment from Chester Pape / December 29, 2010 at 11:30 pm
Chester Pape I could kiss you! Thank-you for telling what actually happened while everyone elses memory failed. Dummy up dummies, it wasn't one storm it was FIVE BIG ONES over a period of two weeks that finally took the city down.
electric replying to a comment from Rob / December 29, 2010 at 11:41 pm
Rob, the army was almost called into London that night. Only at the 11th hour did their mayor with a new weather forecast in hand put down the phone.
Terry / December 29, 2010 at 11:41 pm
I remember my sister in the Montreal West Island telling me that Montrealers were laughing, as I was shovelling out the snow in January 1999. And then the same storm system blew into the Montreal area and tore a hole in the Big "O", resulting in the cancellation of the Montreal Auto Show....thank goodness nobody got hurt!
Bubba / December 30, 2010 at 12:04 am
This looks like a job for Mel Lastman! Call the Army!

Michael / December 30, 2010 at 12:26 am
My favourite comment on that snowstorm was an editorial cartoon in the Montreal Gazette (reprinted in The Globe) with a fellow talking on his cell phone (after the army was called in.) The caption was "MayDay, MayDay, my Volvo won't start". (I live in Downtown Toronto)
Jessica / December 30, 2010 at 03:59 am
All it boils down to is *infrastructure*. Places prepare for what they expect to receive, snow-wise, and this is based on previous year's weather patterns.

Being a displaced Torontonian I saw what a difference infrastructure made first-hand when here (where I'm staying in Belgium,) we had about 30 cm over 2 days. Most of the time when snow falls here (rare,) it's light and it melts rather quickly, but this time the temp has stayed below zero, and the snow didn't take care of itself, it just kept mounting. Buses didn't move for a week... all the cities ran out of salt, the airports experienced delays and cancellations. They were entirely unprepared for 30cm, though it seems paltry to just about any Canadian. Here it's the most snow they've seen in over 50 years. But, should they spend a larger portion of their annual budget to prepare for something that happens maybe twice a century? No... it would make no sense, right? Well, following that LOGIC then it should make perfect sense why they couldn't deal with such a "small" amount of snow as well.

It's only about infrastructure. Every city prepares for what they can expect, and not much more. If you come from a city that normally gets a lot of snow, don't confuse your city's infrastructure with your citizens having a "bigger set of snow balls".
canuck1975 replying to a comment from Chester Pape / December 30, 2010 at 08:10 am
To add to Chester Pape's comments, at the time, Toronto had averaged around 120cm of snow for the entire winter, so the city received it's entire season's worth of snow in two weeks. Now, let's take that and dump it onto Montreal (the whole season in two weeks) and we'll see who's laughing next.
Abe Cash / December 30, 2010 at 08:37 am
I am glad that the mayor was called in to clear the snow because god forbid I walk the streets in anything but my Prada driving shoes.
MikesMusings / December 30, 2010 at 09:01 am
Just loving the bitter posts from jealous non-Torontonians with seething inferiority complexes. Keep it up!
Buster / December 30, 2010 at 09:08 am
Poor Army. They look thrilled to be shovelling our snow in that last picture. "Now if you'll excuse us we're late for a little thing they call 'Hero squad'."
Ratpick replying to a comment from MikesMusings / December 30, 2010 at 09:23 am
Ah yes, the old "yer just jealous" ad hominem argument. Yawn.

Newsflash for you -- the Toronto haters ain't jealous of Torontonians at all. They just need something to beat up on, and Toronto fits the bill.
mr. hood / December 30, 2010 at 03:21 pm
its super funny that everyone outside of toronto likes to chirp about this event with calling in the army. If for one minute, they took a step back and put themselves into the situation, they might see things differently.. lets say something as mundane as an allergic reaction to food, but severe enough to call an ambulance.. so when the 911 operator says "sorry pal, our ambulance cant get to you" you are left with no other option... to have the CF at intersections with vehicles that are DESIGNED for that reason, seems perfectly logical! im sure if anyone was stuck in that situation they would not complain if a guy in an LAV came up and rescued you.. or maybe a family member... if the government had sat around and done nothing, people would have cried foul too!

and not everyone wears fucking prada shoes asshole
Eric S. Smith / December 30, 2010 at 03:31 pm
<b>Ratpick:</b> "<i>They just need something to beat up on</i>..."

...because of their seething inferiority complexes? Just asking.
Bubba / December 30, 2010 at 04:52 pm
Good Times
Margot replying to a comment from Jen / January 10, 2011 at 06:46 pm
Toronto IS the biggest dump on the planet. Well, next to New York. All big cities are dumps. Urbanization is disgusting. People are disgusting. Humans make me sick. They clusterfuck like cockroaches!
Margot / January 10, 2011 at 06:56 pm
The only reason they called in the army is because of work... These industrialized bastards can't go one day without people working or the country would fall apart. Humans will never learn until their need for greed disappears in maybe 5000000 or so more years. Look at NB and the tragedy there. The government does NOTHING to help them, nothing. Not even the media says jack about it. Why? Because there is no Gardiner Expressway or Don Valley Parking Lot to bring sheeple into the city so that they can slave away for $11 an hour. This country has turned into the 51st state and it's only going to get worse. The more people that women pee out, the more problems we will have as society. People are the problem. The more people, the more problems. Just look at the US. 10x the people, 10x the problems. Stop breeding. There are no jobs left as computers and robots have replaced almost ALL of them. This is not taught in schools. It's just common sense. The only jobs that will be left will be in the Service "Industry" feeding billions of people hamburgers so that they can breed more kids on drunken Friday and Saturday nights... Face it, that's all humans are. Orgasms on a night of drinking. LOL. Sad but true. We're lucky that BP oil disaster didn't finish the planet off. One day, humans will find a way to do it. Look at the money spent on militaries!!!!!!! Humans spend MORE on militaries than on FOOD!!!! It's disgusting how disgusting humans really are, yet no one can see it. Keep talking on that IPOD!
Derek / January 14, 2011 at 04:33 pm
I was there... diggin' and a diggin' in fact i was up from Windsor,
visiting my weekend home.. i ended up staying for an enjoyable snowed in week of fun!
rustysheba / February 1, 2011 at 01:45 pm
lets only hope that what is coming tonight is not where near this!
Andre replying to a comment from Margot / November 4, 2012 at 11:55 am
Absolutely true
Don replying to a comment from Torontonian / December 28, 2012 at 07:22 pm
Yes. There was an amazing quietness and calmness in the city after that storm. It was beautiful. But I lived in an apartment back then and the parking lot was located down a rather steep hill. No one could make it up that hill. It took 2 days until they came to plough us out. I missed a day and half of work, and I still remember to this day, my boss giving me a hard time about it. :(
Simon Tarses replying to a comment from Don / December 29, 2012 at 05:59 am
WTF? Why would you boss give you a hard time at work when the storm was so bad that you couldn't get to work? What were you supposed to do, put on your jetpack and just fly to work from home? Or, were you supposed to activate your personal transporter and beam yourself to work and then back home again?

I swear, most bosses are full of it, and need to get perspective about what happens in life, and can happen in life OUTSIDE of work.
Biff / February 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm
Margot, you need counselling. Soon.
Greg / February 9, 2013 at 05:40 pm
Don't mind Margo, she's off her meds. right now because her rural road is blocked with snow and she can't get to the drug store!
I was living on Bay St. during this storm and although it was a crazy storm the city did a pretty good job of keeping main roads and sidewalks clear downtown. Calling the army in was a little embarrassing at the time because Toronto became a laughing stock, but they did serve during the snow crisis (which it was for Toronto) and their help was much appreciated not to mention how lives were saved because of their services.
Corey / March 19, 2013 at 12:35 pm
I was living in Toronto during that storm, and it is very easy for people who live elsewhere to make fun. But when you have not had that amount of snow in 50 years and you dont have the recources to deal with it, it becomes a very big deal. I can remember cars that were so buried in snow, they basically stayed where they were until spring.
KB replying to a comment from Chester Pape / December 14, 2013 at 04:49 pm
Yes that part gets left out because it ruins the storyline-- I, like many Torontonians, grew up in Montreal which was better equipped to deal with it. I remember trying to get to work the morning after the storm-- and I live on a major, major thoroughfare-- and the entire street was just a huge snowdrift. And for what seemed like weeks we could barely get anywhere because every street lost a lane or two.
Kevin McCallister replying to a comment from Margot / December 14, 2013 at 06:09 pm
Everyone in small towns are uneducated, bigoted rednecks.

See? We can all make rash sweeping generalizations!
Frank / December 14, 2013 at 06:25 pm
I remember that year. I had a bunch of soldier friends from The Queen's Own Rifles who were going door to door, some in uniform, some in civvies, shovelling snow to raise money for some soldiers who had returned from Bosnia. That was sweet.
Butternuts / December 15, 2013 at 10:44 am
If Toronto wasn't full of so many smug a$sholes, there wouldn't be so many people in every other city in Canada jumping at the opportunity to laugh at Toronto for calling in the army.
Franklin / December 22, 2013 at 10:44 am
Is this #IceStorm2013 worse than this 1999 winter snowstorm?
Kevin / February 8, 2016 at 10:17 pm
Actually, this article is wrong. Lastman didn't call in the army on the blizzard that dumped 40cms in 24hrs. This blizzard dumped 40cms on one day and for the next ten days it snowed till there was 118cms on the ground and that is when he called in the army.
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