We all learned in grade school about the influence of the moon on Earth’s oceans, that a combination of the gravitational force of the moon and the rotation of the Earth causes the incoming and outgoing tides. Some of us – not me – may even have learned that twice a month, at the new and full moons when the sun, moon and Earth are aligned, the sun reinforces the gravitational pull exerted by the moon, and “spring tides” – referring to the bursting forth of water as a spring, without reference to the spring season – increase the range of the high tide.
The night of January 31-February 1, 1953, was the date of such a spring tide. The waves of the North Sea beat against the land in Britain and France and the “low countries” of Holland and Belgium. This was nothing to be especially concerned about – it happened twice every month. But on that Saturday, January 31, a strong northwest wind also began to blow. The storm grew more and more severe and added its force to that of the spring tide, raising the level of tidal surges to more than 18 feet above the mean level of the sea.
Fishing trawlers around the North Sea were overwhelmed and sank, as was a ferry east of Belfast, Ireland (133 deaths). In Belgium, 28 people on land were drowned; in England, the loss of life reached 307. In Holland, much of whose land was lower than sea level, having been claimed from the ocean by the building of dikes and the draining of seawater, the losses were catastrophic.
Almost without warning – radio stations did not then broadcast at night – the sea rushed into and over Holland, particularly in the region called Zeeland. Tens of thousands of animals died in the flood; thousands of buildings were destroyed, tens of thousands more flooded and damaged; and 1,835 human beings drowned. Loss of life could have been even greater but for the heroic actions of some, such as the owner of the ship Twee Gebroeders, who deliberately grounded his vessel in a breach of the dike protecting three million people in one region; his makeshift plug held and that dike was saved. Reports describe the flood that night as the worst natural disaster to happen to Holland in the past 500 years.
As the sun rose on February 1, Dutch Mission President Don Van Dam began to assess the safety of and losses to Church members and property. This was no easy task, with telephone and telegraph lines destroyed and with hundreds of thousands of people displaced by emergency evacuations. Eventually he was able to ascertain that all LDS missionaries were safe, and that although many Church members had lost some property and many more had been displaced, apparently none had suffered serious injury or loss of life.
About 4,000 Hollanders had emigrated to the United States following World War II, and they, along with many thousands of Americans of Dutch descent, were anxious for every scrap of news – but such news, especially about particular neighborhoods and families was not reaching them.
In Salt Lake City, former Dutch Mission President Cornelius Zappey was anxious for news about the welfare of the LDS people in particular. When news was not forthcoming through public channels, on February 4, three days following the flood, Pres. Zappey began to try to place an overseas call to President Van Dam. Not an easy task in the best of times, during this disaster it took more than 24 hours of attempts before he was connected with the mission office in The Hague. Later on the same day, another call to the editor of the Dordrecht newspaper was completed. Both calls, made from the control room of KSL Radio in Salt Lake City, were recorded. Both were broadcast at 10:15 that night during the regular 15-minute Dutch language broadcast of KSL – surely one of the few, if not the only, such language broadcasts in the western United States. In the next few days, letters poured into the offices of KSL from Dutch immigrants throughout the western states, thanking the station for broadcasting the first direct interviews from the disaster zone.
A follow-up letter from President Van Dam to President Zappey summarized what had been broadcast that night:
None of our missionaries were seriously affected. The Rotterdam South Building was filled to the top of the furnace in the basement. No water got upstairs. there were three feet [of water] in our new Dordrecht building. It has now been drained and pumped out. Our only damage so far seems to be from water. All members in our organized branches are safe and suffered but small property damage.
The few who are scattered in parts of Zeeland we won’t know about for days or longer.
Many parts are still under water and will be for a long time. Over 300,000 are being evacuated.
No water came over the dunes here on the Laan Van Poot, but Scheveningen really took a beating. The boulevard along the beach is ruined. A French freighter is sitting high and dry on the sand in front of the lighthouse. The death toll rises by the hour in the areas that still remain critical.
Please ask all our Dutch friends at home to remember these suffering people in their prayers.
Utah’s Dutch immigrants, and friends of the Dutch, began an immediate collection of funds to help relieve the displaced people of the flood zone. Later, Holland’s Prince Barnhard, through the Dutch vice consul for Utah, sent the thanks of his people for their assistance:
Dear Mr. Van Dongen,
Will you be so kind as to convey to all who have contributed to the collection of an amount of $17,830.92 which the National Disaster Fund has received from the Citizenry of the State of Utah, the most deep-felt and hearty thanks for their contribution.
This expression of gratitude comes to the Citizens of the State of Utah, not only from her Majesty the Queen, but also from me, as president of the Disaster Fund, and especially on behalf of all who sustained losses of human life and possessions.
We are thankful not only for the money, which naturally is very welcome, but also for the evidence of real friendship and solidarity ensuing from this gift, by which we all have been deeply touched.
All of this is well and good, of course, but the reason for this story’s inclusion in this series remains to be told:
Five days after the disaster, President Edwin Q. Cannon of the West German Mission sent a special delivery letter to every branch president in West Germany. He reminded the Saints of what the Dutch members had done for them immediately after the war. He recognized that the German Saints were still struggling with extreme poverty and had little to spare, but if – if – any German Saints had articles of clothing they wished to send to the Netherlands, the mission office would be pleased to receive that clothing and deliver it to the Dutch consulate in Frankfurt for shipping to the flood zone. No drives were to be conducted among the German members – no branch quotas established, no pressure placed upon anyone. It was to be a low-key, perfectly voluntary suggestion.
And the response of the German Saints? A picture tells it better than I can:
And that is apparently only part of the outpouring of generosity. On February 17, the mission staff delivered five truckloads of such packages to the Dutch consulate