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Floods of Biblical Proportions
distributed 9/20/13 - ©2013

As heavy rains and dangerous floods were slamming into Colorado a week ago, the National Weather Service used a description that has gone viral. The NWS issued a warning about "BIBLICAL RAINFALL AMOUNTS", and countless news reports since then have spoken of "floods of biblical proportions".

A bit of perspective is needed about such hyperbole, both in fact and faith. And then it is important to reflect more deeply on what these floods are stirring up in our souls and in public policy.

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The Colorado deluges of mid-September have been remarkable, and they have caused a lot of damage and disruption. Thankfully, the loss of life (human, pets and livestock) has been very small. Rescue personnel have been courageous and tireless, including the largest deployment of evacuation helicopters in the US since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The news coverage has been constant, with its own flood of dramatic photographs and an unending stream of reporters standing by raging rivers delivering "breaking news."

The city of Boulder, which normally gets 20.5 inches of precipitation in a year, was hit with 17 inches in just a few days. Flash floods swept down mountain canyons, wiping out small towns and major highways. 18,000 homes across the region are damaged or destroyed. It has been a wild week here, but "biblical"?

A TV news crew that walked through the evacuated town of Lyons a couple of days ago finally gave some journalistic balance. After almost a week of scenes showing washed out bridges and demolished homes, they reported that, "The damage is significant but not widespread. Parts of Lyons remain unscathed."

Colorado's floods this month have been major, but they're not unique. Big Thompson Canyon was hard hit this time, but it had a far more deadly flood in 1976. Denver was devastated by an even larger flood back in 1965. Both of those led to improvements in infrastructure and lessons in public safety that reduced the losses this time around. But maybe "biblical" is excessive when that sort of thing happens in one area three times in 50 years.

A little bit of time spent with Google tells me that Colorado is not the only place for "biblical" floods. That language was widely used to describe huge floods in Australia in January, 2011. Is there a quota for how often we get to use the biblical descriptor? By way of contrast, the Mother Nature Network posted a series of pictures about "9 floods of biblical proportion" that come much closer to the measure of Noah's 40 day deluge.

It does strike me as odd, too, that nobody seems to be using "biblical" language about the even larger rains, floods, death toll and damage happening this week in Mexico. As two hurricanes hit the country, at least a hundred have died and about 35,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. I'm not sure why it is biblical in Colorado, but routine in Mexico.

The constant repetition of overblown language has me considering options. I keep thinking of the movie, "The Princess Bride" and the life-threatening danger presented by "rodents of unusual size." Maybe we should settle for talk about "floods of unusual size."

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Floods happen, and huge floods happen rarely. They're classified by how frequently a storm of that magnitude is likely to occur. For building codes, a flood plain is defined as the area that will be inundated with a 100 year flood. The stuff we've just seen in Colorado in probably going to get a 500 or 1,000 year flood rating.

Those classifications allow us to normalize the situation, to put it in perspective. The old-timers get interviewed and remind us that "yup, the crick runs through the barn down there every 20 years or so." So we hose it out and go back to work. Or The Big Ones come, and the long-time residents say, "we've never seen anything like it!" And they point to the school building that had been there for 150 years, but isn't there any more. And we shake our heads, bury the dead, thank the heroes, clean up the mess, provide relief, try to learn some lessons, and work to rebuild. If it is that exceptional, then it is a bit easier to bear the losses.

But I'm hearing something different this time around. The old ways of putting it all in perspective aren't working. This may be rated as a 500 year flood, but nobody seems confident that another one won't come along soon. The climate is changing, and it feels like the odds have changed.

Some highway engineers from Vermont have come to Colorado to offer advice about rebuilding mountain roads. Vermont, you might remember, was slammed by hurricane Irene in 2011, and they're still rebuilding after those floods. One of the engineers said, in a warning to Colorado planners, "We anticipate more storms like Irene. We see the climate changing."

There's a new normal coming, but we don't know what it will look like. Wild swings of extreme weather events create headlines like, "Major Flooding Inundates Drought-Stricken Colorado Cities." These big floods are fitting into a mental map that includes years of exceptional drought, pine bark beetles killing vast regions of mountain forest because the winters haven't been cold enough to hold them in check, and a string of horrific forest fires in mountains and suburbs that keep raising the bar for the state's "most destructive fire". What's next?

Planners are in uncharted territory. Where should the flood plain boundaries be drawn now, so that people don't build in danger zones? How do you design highways in narrow canyons so that they're not wiped out every 10-20 years? And how on earth do we pay for the rescues and the relief and the rebuilding.

Ordinary folk, too, are anxious and confused. Can we really think about a "safe" place anymore, or are we at risk everywhere? Is the world, on some level, predictable and reliable, or are we headed into total chaos? The old ways of getting perspective just aren't working anymore. More than any survey asking people if they believe in global warming, the public reaction to these floods and other disasters reveals an unsettling shift in community beliefs and attitudes.

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Countless families are discovering that their insurance policies don't apply to "acts of God" like floods. Putting the storms down as "of biblical proportions" seems to let us off the hook in some ways -- it isn't our fault, and we couldn't have known.

But theologically, that seems backward. The biblical flood happened, not because God was having a bad year or decided to do something different for a change, but because "the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence." And scripturally, when God acts -- or when God allows destruction to come -- there's a reason for it. An "act of God" doesn't get us off the hook. Rather, it tells us that we'd better look for where things have gone wrong.

I am not saying that the folk in Boulder and Jamestown have been punished by God. But events of such epic proportions, events coming along more and more frequently, should lead us to look long and hard at what is going on.

The guy from Vermont said, "We anticipate more storms ... We see the climate changing." It isn't changing because God is twiddling the controls randomly. It is changing because of human impacts.

In the midst of the flood's immense damage, in the presence of our anxiety and confusion, we need to be honest. We, collectively, have some responsibility for this storm. Our culture's warping of the climate contributed to this event. Along with finding new ways to build flood-proof highways, we need to use all of our creativity and resources to build a different way of living that does not add to climate chaos.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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