Friday, October 15, 1954:
Joe Ward was hurrying home that evening from his job at Toronto’s De Havilland Aircraft factory. His teeth were chattering and he scolded himself as he sloshed along. Why had he not brought along his umbrella this morning when the forecast was for heavy rain?
Actually, the afternoon newspaper headline read “Hurricane Hazel Heading Here!” but most people scoffed. “Oh, sure; a Hurricane in Toronto. That guy’s off his rocker,” were the comments Joe heard all around. “Sensationalism, that’s all it is.”
Storms and drenching rains were nothing new for Ontario – especially in October. In fact, it had been raining for three weeks steady; this would just be a bit more. Joe did get a shock, though, as he crossed the wooden suspension bridge that spanned the Humber River: the normally tranquil stream was in a boiling brown frenzy.
For fifteen years Joe and Annie had skimped and saved to raise the down-payment for their dream home beside the Humber River. Originally from Nottingham, they had spent their honeymoon by England’s Humber and had now decided that its namesake would make a lovely place to retire. They’d chosen a picture-perfect cottage with a graceful willow tree in the front yard and they’d added flowering shrubs, a bird-bath, a perennial flower garden admired by all the neighbours. Their dream was taking shape.
“Just two more payments and it will all be paid for. Oh, what a celebration we’ll have when we can finally burn that mortgage,” they’d told each other a few weeks ago. In spite of the sheets of rain drenching him, Joe smiled contentedly as he contemplated the years of peaceful relaxation ahead.
On October 6, 1954, a storm system began to churn above the Caribbean Sea. Weather forecasters on the Eastern Seaboard named it Hazel and watched in apprehension as it developed into a full-fledged fury. Hazel surpassed all expectations; she wiped out Haiti’s entire banana crop; from there she headed northeast, slurping up a zillion tons of ocean. She made landfall in South Carolina then lumbered across Virginia and into Pennsylvania.
Now the Allegheny mountains checked her passage. Since hurricanes rarely cross a mountain range the US Weather Bureau predicted that this would be the end of the road for Hazel.
One sceptical Toronto weatherman was still watching the screen. Storms can be fickle things. At that moment a mass of Arctic air was pushing southwest across Ontario. What if the weakening hurricane would suck in this mass and regain enough energy to head across Lake Ontario?
His superiors laughed but he was in earnest. He personally went on the air and made four radio broadcasts that day, warning Torontonians of the calamity that was coming. No one listened.
He was right on. Hazel blew in near midnight, Friday October 15th in a swirl of 70 mph winds, and proceeded to pour three hundred million tons of water onto the already saturated Greater Toronto area; ten centimetres (4″) of rain in less than 12 hours.
Joe didn’t know he was being drenched by Hazel’s advance guard. When he reached his home Annie eyed the puddles he was dripping on the floor and declared, “You’re sopping! Quick, change into some old clothes before you catch your death.“
Over supper she chatted about her day; among other thing she and a neighbour had taken some things to a nearby church for their upcoming rummage sale. Later they sat down to enjoy a quiet evening. At 9 pm the lights went out, so Annie lit a candle and prepared for bed, while Joe dozed in his easy chair with his feet propped up.
At midnight something woke Joe with a start. He put his feet down on the floor–and into water! He managed to reach the front door and open it–and got the shock of his life. The swing bridge had torn loose and was now thrashing in a foaming sea. His bird-bath and hedge has been swept away and his willow tree lay sprawled across the lawn, its limbs flailing in the tempest. Above the roar he could hear the screams of neighbours being washed downstream.
He sloshed through almost knee-deep water to the bedroom. “Wake up, Missus. We’ve got water inside.” Annie threw on a dress and grabbed a small flashlight. Suddenly their home heaved and started a tipsy voyage down that boiling river.
Joe rammed a hole through the ceiling and helped Annie climb up to the roof, where they hung on for dear life as their home pitched and tossed, helpless to save others being swept past. Soon they felt a jar. Their flashlight revealed that the roof of their cottage had bashed into another which was still standing against the flow.
“We’ll, have to jump, Annie,” Joe told her. “If we don’t make it, we won’t, but we can’t stay here.” So they held hands and leaped together toward that more solid foundation. Just as they landed safely on the other roof, their own house shattered.
For the next seven hours they clung to an aerial on the sloping roof of the more solid home. They heard the wails of others drowning around them and wondered about their own fate as dirty brown water swirled up to within two feet of their perch. But the house they were on stood firm.
Joe flicked the little flashlight off and on until the battery went dead. Now how would they ever be rescued? But Annie remained hopeful; she remembered a message she heard at church one day: “Ask and ye shall receive.”
“Oh, Father in heaven,” she prayed, “help us, help us!” And help arrived at dawn when an Ontario Hydro helicopter flew over and paused to pick them up and carry them to safety.
Two days later Joe and Annie returned to the spot where their dream cottage had once stood and they cried together as they looked over what was left of their dream. They found a few unbroken things in the silt; they also visited the Church where the rummage sale was to be held and were able to get their own things back. Yet Joe and Annie were thankful; they were one of only seven families on their street still alive.
Most of the details of this story come from an account in Great Canadian Disasters published in the early 60’s; I’ve retold it in my own words. I’ve unfortunately lost tract of the author, but I can tell you the book’s well worth reading.
As I read this account, I couldn’t help but see a spiritual parallel. Like Joe & Annie, we try to secure ourselves in a very insecure world. We make our plans and do our building. Like them, we don’t always heed the warnings. And like them, we sometimes experience violent storms that sweep over us and wash all our plans away.
Storms will come. God permits them to come, not to devastate us but to reveal the strength of our security. To wash away our self-image and idols. To wrench us free of the earthly things we cling to. He doesn’t want us to sail through life forgetting we must some day face Eternity.
When Joe & Annie took their brave “leap of faith” that night they left everything that they themselves had been able to build. They weren’t kidding themselves that they were still on “relatively solid ground” and just about had things under control. They abandoned it all for something durable; had they not, they would have perished along with their house.
At some point in our swirling storms, the Holy Spirit calls to us. He points us to Jesus, the Solid Rock that will stand forever. He says, “Now is the time. This is where you need to be, the only way you’ll be saved. Jump.”
Because Jesus loves us and doesn’t want us to perish in life’s storms, He offers refuge to all who will come in faith and cast themselves on Him. His promise is good for today and for eternity. As He told the repentant thief dying on the cross beside Him, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.”
“For we know that if our earthly house…were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” II Cor. 5:1