Toronto Islands set to reopen after severe spring flooding

By Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The Toronto Islands, a popular summer destination for both city residents and tourists, are set to reopen to the public on Monday after a nearly three-month closure due to historic flooding.

Heavy rains in the spring caused water levels in Lake Ontario to rise to record highs, closing the cluster of islands to visitors as trees fell over, roads were washed out and carp spawned in large, muddy puddles.

Island businesses — which rely on the busy summer season for a large portion of their revenue — suffered losses as their flow of customers slowed to a trickle, residents who lived on the islands stacked sandbags in an effort to keep their homes dry and industrial pumps worked to remove water from waterlogged areas of the community.

The islands were supposed to reopen on June 30 but persistent rain and high water levels kept them closed.

With Monday’s opening date now in sight island residents and businesses said they were happy the community will be able to benefit from tourism again.

But many residents say they’ll also miss having the island all to themselves.

“It was, at points, surreal,” said Shane Kearney, an island resident, who said that an entire generation of islanders have never had the island to themselves like this.

“It was beautiful. You could go for bike rides and not see one person in the middle of a sunny afternoon on a Saturday.”

As of Thursday morning, the island already had more of a buzz in the air as crews started to prepare for next week’s visitors. Pumps were still flushing out water in some closed-off areas, but many of the spots that had been submerged only had small puddles.

At the Island Cafe, a restaurant a short walk from the island’s eastern ferry terminal, co-owner Zorah Freeman-McIntyre said businesses on the island have been ready to receive guests for a while.

“As soon as (word) gets out, I think the boats will be quite packed,” he said. “We’re excited for people to come and for our businesses to thrive again.”

Freeman-McIntyre said all the businesses had been frustrated the islands couldn’t open earlier, but understood that the flooding posed some safety concerns for visitors.

Toronto’s water taxi services have also been anticipating the opening date, as they lost out on large chunks of business when the islands were closed.

Sean Stewart, CEO of Infinity Water Taxi, said he only started his business 10 weeks ago. To offset the lack of island visitors, Stewart said he had to approach hotels and businesses to offer more tours of the lake, rather than just taxiing visitors back and forth from the islands.

He said it’s a relief to learn business will soon go back to normal.

“It is fantastic news, it’s great to know that we can have a piece of our history back again,” said Stewart.

Some parts of the Toronto Islands will still have to remain closed, the city said.

All beaches will be open with lifeguards on duty, but portions of some beaches will remain off-limits due to erosion and Olympic Island will remain closed to the public due to high water levels.

Mayor John Tory has said the cost of fixing the damage done to the city’s shorelines and the Toronto Islands will run to many millions of dollars. The city said Thursday that preliminary numbers suggest the flooding and closure of the island had a financial impact of $4.9 million on its operating budget.

“I know that for many Torontonians summer isn’t complete without a visit to the Toronto Islands, which is why I’m so pleased that the park is being reopened for residents and visitors to enjoy,” Tory said Thursday.

“I want to thank city staff for their tireless and ongoing commitment to preserving and restoring the island park and to residents for their patience throughout this unprecedented event.”

Island resident Jennifer Scott-Wood said she’s happy the islands are opening, but she’s going to tell her relatives to skip the visit this year.

The ground is mushy and it’s not a great play spot,” she said, adding that a lot of areas were mosquito-laden throughout the day and that the island had tested positive for West Nile virus.

“If you go on the grass it’s very … gross,” she said. “I hope we don’t have this again for another 30 or 40 years.”

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