When Disaster Strikes

When Disaster Strikes . . .

Our Lady Runs to Her Children in the Storm

A few years ago, a tornado hit Combermere, Ontario, the town where I live. Actually, it is now estimated that three tornados touched down, and two of them met in our village and worked mayhem. Such a natural disaster is an almost unthinkable event for us. We hear about Asian tsunamis, the hurricane in New Orleans, earthquakes here and there throughout the world, and we feel sympathy and send relief. But they remain somewhat abstract for us, because the worst that we suffer here is a few power blackouts a year when spring and autumn storms blow a tree across a power line, or when a winter blizzard makes the roads difficult to drive for a day or so. We grumble and complain and then stop ourselves and thank God for a fairly clement climate in which to live. But actual disasters! Never! It could never happen to us! Tornados occur in the midwest USA, we thought—not here! And certainly not three of them converging at once in a small community in the northern bush lands of Canada.

That summer’s eve in August, my wife and I had driven to another town for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It had been a long, incredibly full day for us in a sweltering, record-breaking heat wave. Our children were scattered all over the map, some working at evening jobs and some swimming in a nearby river. My 82-year-old mother, who lived with us at the time, was quietly reading at home. Though she was not in good health or entirely steady on her legs, she had firmly pushed us out the door, telling us that in our busy lives we needed a little “couple time” and that she would be just fine “home alone” for a few hours. We also had to pick up two of our children at the end of their work shifts in the neighboring town where we were to have our date.

As we drove away, rain began to fall, and by the time we reached our destination it had become a full-blown torrent, a thunderstorm of (for us) unprecedented power. The thunderclaps and lightning strikes seemed to be right overhead, and the streets were running with torrents of water. We had to wade through a six-inch deep river on Main Street to get to the café where my daughter was working. Soaked to the skin, as we went inside, all the lights went out in town. Using the café phone we tried to call home to see if Grandma was all right and if the younger children had returned from swimming, but the phone lines were down. Someone with a transistor radio said that newscasters were reporting a mega-storm tearing a path across northern Ontario, leaving a quarter of a million people without electricity in dozens of towns and villages. They were already calling it “the storm of the century.”

With two of our children, we waded back to our van and began the half-hour drive home. Approaching the bridge over the river that runs through Combermere, we came upon a startling sight. The huge roof of the local hardware store was lying beside the highway, a long way from where it should be, countless old pine trees were lying all over the road, power and phone lines were on the ground with massive trees fallen every which way—hundreds of them. Police, fire, and ambulance trucks had arrived and blocked off the village. An officer told us that the road was impassable and would be so for days to come.

Our house was only a five-minute drive beyond the village, but there was now no way through. My wife wanted to swim the river in the dark, and after reaching the other side she intended to walk the five miles home. I dissuaded her. So began a lengthy Odyssey. We retraced our route and found a side road that would take us in a wide circle of hill country on interconnecting back roads that would bring us home from another direction. It would be about a two-hour journey if all went well.

To make a long story shorter, at about 1 a.m. in the morning, after more adventures, we were at last on the main highway on the far side of the river and village, about 20 miles from home. Though there was no electricity in any of the communities we passed, and only minimal damage and a few road-blocks, which we got through safely, we felt that the worst was over. Then the car simply died and rolled to a stop. There was plenty of gas in the tank and plenty of juice in the battery, but the car would not go on. This added insult to injury because we had just bought the vehicle that morning and had driven it only a few hours. Like all the cars we have owned in our 30 years of marriage, it was a seasoned veteran, a used 1995 mini-van that had seemed in very good condition when we bought it. We now pushed it to the side of the road. The rain continued to pour down in the pitch black night. No traffic passed going in any direction. How would we get home? Was Grandma all right? Had the younger ones been able to find shelter before the storm hit?

So my wife and I and two children bowed our heads and prayed for help. We had already been praying for hours, but now we were pleading fervently. We especially invoked the aid of Our Lady and the holy angels. A minute later, a truck stopped and asked if we were in trouble. The driver and his wife were on their way to Combermere with chain saws in the back seat, intending to help with rescue operations. A lot of people were trapped in their homes, they said, under fallen trees or surrounded by impassable thickets of timber. So we all squeezed into their truck and were home within half an hour. Just beyond our place the highway was closed, the village inaccessible, only rescue workers were being allowed in. So we waved goodbye to our rescuers and walked down our road to the house. There, to cheer our hearts, was a kerosene lamp burning in the window and Grandma at the door with a big smile (she had rather enjoyed all the excitement). She had been praying the Rosary for our safety, and the children had made it home from swimming after undergoing their own adventures, hours later than they had planned.

When the tornado had ripped through Combermere, they had been just on the edge of it, swimming in the river about a hundred yards from our parish church, Canadian Martyrs. When lightning started flashing nearby they hustled out of the water, and our daughter gathered together the several children from other families who had been dropped off earlier for swimming. As they all hastened toward the church for shelter, a canoe was blown out of the water and tumbled across the field. Crouching and fighting the wind, they arrived at the darkened church and went inside. There they sat for two hours, a dozen children praying and huddling together by the light of the tabernacle lamp. The wind was screeching outside in a way none of them had ever heard before, the windows rattling, and the sound of trees crashing to the ground all around. After prayers, our daughter and some of the older girls told stories to calm the little ones.

The storm passed and they all went outside to see how they could get home. Fallen trees blocked the side road along the river, and it was very dark. My young niece was with them and she had her car with her, so they packed as many kids into the vehicle as possible. By then, some parents arrived on foot with flashlights to collect their children. Only ours were unable to get home. The girls drove on and found a way through to another little back road that would take them up and over a mountain to the far side of town where it would connect to the highway and home. Higher up on this road they were halted by a blockade of more fallen trees. They had just made the decision to walk when a friend who lives on that road came from his house and with a chainsaw cut a path through. Fifteen minutes later they were home safe and sound.

The next morning we awoke to find the power still off but phones working. Then the news trickled in. The village was still impassable. One of the tornados had passed by our house a few hundred yards away. Two nearby campgrounds with hundreds of people in them had suffered almost total destruction of trailers and small mobile homes, but not a person was hurt, and there were many miracle stories. Five children who had run inside a small trailer to shelter from the rain heard a tremendous clap of thunder and in fright they flattened themselves on the floor. A second later an enormous tree fell on top of the trailer, crushing it and blowing the sides out, allowing the children to crawl out through the cracks. Not one of them suffered a scratch, but if they had not been flat on the floor all of them would have been killed. An elderly couple babysitting their infant grandchild were stricken with horror when the entire roof blew off their house and landed on the far side of their property. The baby had been sleeping upstairs when it happened and they were terrified that he had been swept away and killed. They crawled through the wreckage of the yard and found him quietly sleeping and unharmed on the ground under the roof.

By the light of day we now could see that thousands of trees had been ripped down, telephone poles snapped like match-sticks, power lines fallen, strips of forest chopped up as if by a Cyclopean lawn mower, leaving incredible destruction everywhere. In the village, parked automobiles had been scattered in every direction, blown distances, and then crushed by falling trees. One man in our parish had been driving his pick-up truck when it was suddenly lifted into the air and dropped hundreds of meters farther along the road. He was shaken but unharmed. An empty car fell out of the sky and landed in front of another driver; it was demolished but he was unharmed.

Though a number of people in the parish suffered some damage to their buildings, many reported inexplicable preservation of their homes where it would be least expected. One couple described how the ring of massive pine trees surrounding their house had been blown down, but had all fallen away from the house, some against the force of winds that were blowing at more than 250 kilometers per hour.

So now the people of our region began to pick up the pieces and consider how they could get life back to normal—whatever “normal” might be. It was difficult to know where to begin.

Our car was still stranded somewhere south on the highway, our newly-married son and his bride were due to return from their honeymoon in Europe the next day, to live with us for a month before establishing their new home in Ottawa, a three hour drive away. His wife’s parents were scheduled to arrive from their home in Europe the day after that, to spend a week with us and to share in a big wedding party we had planned to take place in our home, with hundreds of guests expected. Much coming and going to the airport in Ottawa had been scheduled, but now the highway and vehicles were out of commission. The only route open would make it a six-hour drive each way. Besides, we had no vehicle, and worse, the refrigerator and freezers were packed with tons of party food, thawing and getting warm. Specters of botulism, salmonella, and various other kinds of food poisoning filled our minds, not to mention the incredible waste of food and money.

With a house full of family and guests, we spent much of our time feeding people and carrying water in buckets from a hand-pump in the basement. We were back to the good old days when a bucket of fresh water cost something in terms of effort. Upstairs and downstairs all day long, every flush of the toilet, every pot boiling on the wood-stove, was purchased by time and labor. No longer did a flick of a switch give us free time and energy. It was the “rustic” life but without benefit of outdoor toilet, ice-house, handy pump by the kitchen sink, or horses. Yes, at that point a horse and cart looked like a pretty good investment. Horses die, of course, like cars, but they also give birth to little horses. Cars, on the other hand, just eat money and betray you at the worst possible moment. They are dangerous and unreliable slaves that frequently rise up in revolt against their masters. Sometimes they kill their masters. Such thoughts flowed through our minds as we spent our days simply meeting basic human needs.

As was the case throughout the region, hundreds of volunteers poured in from other communities with chain saws and vehicles to clear the roads. Telephone and electric company crews arrived from all over the province, the people of neighboring towns rallied to provide food and water for these crews and for residents whose homes were too risky to stay in. Little by little the news spread that though the region was devastated no one had been seriously injured.

Only one man suffered a bad accident and this happened a few days after the storm. He was high up in a tree beside his house, chain-sawing off a branch that had cracked, when his footing gave way and he fell to the ground, breaking a leg and an arm. I saw him after Mass as he sat before the statue of Our Lady in our parish church. Though he was in considerable physical pain, his face was composed, peaceful, deep in prayer. Later as we chatted, he told me that he had fallen seventeen feet to the ground. Now he was thanking God for the gift of life, grateful that he was not dead or paralyzed from the neck down. He was, he said, feeling Our Lady very close. As he told me his story I recalled my frustration and silent grumbling when our car died back there on the highway. Ashamed, I made a resolution to maintain my peace in the midst of trials and to thank God for everything—in season and out of season, as the saying goes.

Our “new” old van had by now been towed to a mechanic’s garage, but even after a number of parts were replaced it still wasn’t running. We would bring it home only to have it stall again, leaving us stranded on the highway. The roads and highway were now open and with borrowed vehicles we were running about to airports and trying to meet proliferating needs in a large family with a very large wedding party looming only a day away. Our friends and neighbors were incredibly helpful. One father lent me his van to get to the airport and back. On his own initiative, another spent an entire day driving to a city to find an electric generator to rent for us. This generator saved the food, the party, and probably a few lives. At last we had electric-powered water and light and refrigeration, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

During the following days, crews cut and trucked away countless trees and still they made only a dent in the fallen forest; they also installed new power poles and restrung the lines. The power came back on the night before the big wedding party. There was some discussion about canceling the event, but in the end we decided that the best policy in the midst of a catastrophe is to celebrate. Be the celebration small or large, a cup of tea by candle-light or a full-blown feast, such moments are necessary for lifting the heart and strengthening us to carry our burdens. And it was a tremendous celebration, with crowds of people, laughter and singing and dancing, and musical performances by many of our young people who play instruments—piano, violins, guitars, accordion, whistles and flutes and even a big Irish drum. People stayed long into the night and went home happy in a landscape of disaster. No one got ill and many are calling it “the party of the century.”

Day after day, the breakdowns of material objects in our home continued, most of it unconnected to the storm damage. I won’t even begin to describe all that happened. It was the most uncanny confluence of troubles we had experienced in many a year. But every time something broke down, we reminded ourselves that we had survived the storm relatively unscathed compared to many people in the village. As more and more miracle stories surfaced in the community, people began to ponder the mystery of what had happened. Again and again, from believers and non-believers alike, we heard phrases such as “It’s a wake-up call!” or “It’s a warning!” or “God is trying to tell us something here!” Some people thought that it might be a taste, in the natural realm, of divine justice infused with divine mercy. Not gloom and doom, because the path through the Cross is the gateway to the Resurrection, and Christ is with us as we pass through it—the darkness cannot overpower the light. We had lived this in the flesh during the past week and now we were absorbing it and searching for the meaning of what had happened.

The questions remained: Why? Why here?

The area where we live is a community that is fervent in the Catholic faith, with a number of lay apostolates and religious movements headquartered here, plus many strongly believing families who are open to life. Thus, it puzzled some people why tornados would fall out of the skies in the midst of a mega-storm and hit our village, which is a place of grace. Then it struck us again that despite the staggering devastation, no one was seriously injured. Could it be that we were protected spiritually and physically because there are more than a dozen Blessed Sacrament chapels within a radius of about a mile, that within a slightly wider radius there are a number of parishes where adoration of the exposed Blessed Sacrament occurs, and that there is a population with an unusually high ratio of people who regularly fast and sacrifice for spiritual protection and for the conversion of souls? Was God writing a story in the lives of our people—a paradigm, a foretaste perhaps—that may be informative for those who live elsewhere in the world?

“The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike,” Jesus reminds us in the Gospel of Matthew. Thus, Christians are not invulnerable to the laws of nature. But we have grace and inner warnings and quiet illuminations, the guidance and protection of angels, and the Holy Spirit speaking in soundless words. New stories about miracles that happened in our storm continue to surface all around us as people recount the incredible events they went through. Strange as it may sound to those who haven’t experienced it, the miracles now seem more awesome than the disaster. These smaller personal stories within our big story are emerging as a bit of local history, front page headlines, and one minute on the National News, but the full significance will be unpacked for many a year to come and it will, I think, be passed down for generations: The Summer of the Big Storm. The Tornado in a Land Where Tornadoes Never Come. How the Hand of God Saved our Family . . . and so forth . . .

God is always teaching us, if we are willing to listen. He is always protecting too, though it is not on our terms, but on his. Not according to my schedule, but on his. Not in the way I would prefer, but according to his holy will. Not as a safe “boy in the bubble” but as a sojourner crossing a desert fraught with trials and full of blessings.

And what was learned in all of this? Here are a few initial thoughts:

God is God. We are not God. We are small creatures—very beloved, but very small.

Jesus is the Master of the Impossible.

“The surprises of the Lord have not come to an end.”—if we do not lose heart, if we do not give up and run or hide or compromise.

Our human capacity for sacrifice arises when it is needed. In a major crisis, unsuspected strengths emerge and unexpected graces are given.

Our resentment of minor inconveniences is a fault, a symptom of ingratitude, and often it can be overcome only by major sufferings, which teach us the value of what we once took for granted.

Civilization’s “efficiency” can easily collapse. Are we prepared for providing basic necessities for our families if such should occur?

How deep is my love for Christ? Do I get angry when trials heap upon me? Do I succumb to bitterness and discouragement? Do I forget the mercies of the Lord and focus only on my pain?

Do I believe with my mind and my heart? Or only with one or the other?

Do I believe at the core of my being in the Fatherhood of God? Do I trust that his fatherly care is for me personally and not just for an “abstract” humanity?

Am I willing to learn more about myself (my strengths and weaknesses) through severe trials? Will I let God teach me? Will I let my Father help me to mature?

Do I cry out for divine help and mercy when everything seems to fail, indeed when all seems lost? Do I persevere in prayer? Or do I rely only on my own resources?

Do I ponder what life’s experiences are showing me about the way grace and human nature work together? Do I ask the Holy Spirit for the light of understanding regarding this?

Am I willing to sacrifice to help others in need?

Do I daily invoke the help of the holy angels, especially St. Michael the Archangel, protector of God’s people?

Have I considered the role of Mary the Mother of God in my family’s life? Are we consecrated to her, do we invoke her prayers and protection?

The questions go on and on. And I think many more questions will arise—and their answers—in the years to come.

About a week after the storm, it struck us that many people had felt Our Lady’s presence during the storm and its aftermath. We remembered that our valley is consecrated to her, remembered as well that a worldwide Catholic apostolate, Madonna House, has its mother-house here in Combermere. Our Lady of Combermere is an official title of the Mother of God. Both her name and her shrine here in Combermere have been approved by the authority of the universal Church in Rome, and she has been invoked under that name since the 1940s.

In 1960, a life-size bronze statue of her was installed and blessed on the grounds of Madonna House, a minute’s walk from the river and our parish and the path of the tornados. It is open to the public and anyone can visit and pray there. There is something unique in this statue of Mary because she is not standing still and static, but is running. She is running toward her children with her face full of compassion and tears streaming down her cheeks and arms open wide as if to gather us into her protective care in the midst of all human disasters. And it seems that she is running into a high wind with her veil flowing behind her. She is in the storm with us—always.

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I will not try to tell the story of Madonna House apostolate, which is a big story indeed, but I do encourage readers to visit their website at:


Michael D. O’Brien
Combermere, August 15, 2006