The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Flooded Cities - Here and There, Now and Then
Harvey and Houston. It has not been a pretty combination.
Watching the movement of this hurricane made me think of some kind of exotic folk dance. Take one step across the coastline, stop and do a full spin to the left, take one step back out to the warm gulf waters, do a small side step, step forward, stop, spin, step back, and repeat.
After six long days, the storm is finally doing what most of expected from the start -- pushing inland at a steady pace, and finally running out of steam. Amazingly, the hurricane experts predicted precisely this strange do-si-do of Harvey. Day after day, we watched the precipitation amounts edge up to almost exactly the astounding levels that had been forecast. (Let's hear it for solid science!)
Four feet of rain within a week has overwhelmed even the most prudent drainage systems. Flooding throughout the region is an ongoing disaster -- in terms of human disruption, soaring economic costs, and environmental impacts. (How much soggy carpet is being junked this week?)
For my church-based audience, I encourage you to make your donations for disaster relief through your denomination's channels. Religious agencies are exceptional in their efficient use of resources, their cooperative work with the impacted communities, and their persistence for the long-haul recovery.
Far before Harvey started to spin in the Gulf, I had my eyes -- and my heart -- opened to the painful realities of catastrophic flooding. Through this past week, I've continued to think beyond the immediate headlines from Texas.
Without discounting the trials and trauma of southern Texas, let's stretch our thinking in space and time.
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At the end of July, I received an unusual email. The basic request wasn't so odd -- how can my church be more green? It was surprising, though, to get that question from a church leader in Sierra Leone.
I replied, asking for more details about the church. Sylvester told me that his small congregation didn't have any "green" programs in place. And, he added, "we are faced by environmental problems during the rains."
I offered some basic suggestions about bringing environmental awareness into the church with an appropriate theological perspective, and ventured a few ideas about how to deal with the rains -- clearing out trash from streams, restoring wetlands, and planting trees in a region where deforestation is a problem.
Within a week, the rains came, and they brought problems far beyond my imagining. Current estimates place the number of people killed by the floods and landslides in Sierra Leone at over 1,000, with many more missing. In our continuing email exchanges, Sylvester looks beyond the immediate heart rending destruction, and considers the high probability of a cholera outbreak.
Unfortunately, we can't stop with Texas and Sierra Leone. On Thursday, the "March for Science" Facebook page posted a stack of three photos of crowds of people wading through flooded city streets. The text read: "Houston. Mumbai. Niamey. All within the past week."
The Independent reports "At least 1,200 people have been killed and millions have been left homeless following devastating floods that have hit India, Bangladesh and Nepal, in one of the worst flooding disasters to have affected the region in years."
AlJazeera, while educating me that Niamey is a city of more than one million people in north-central Africa, wrote that "Emergency officials in Niger say torrential rains have destroyed hundreds of houses outside the capital, Niamey." At least 44 people have been killed by the floods.
Wherever these disasters occur, the most devastation comes to the poor. They are more likely to live in low-lying areas. They are in dwellings that are least able to deal with downpours. They have less resources to evacuate and less resources to recover. This month's Season of Creation calls on us to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. These extreme floods call out to us with that conjoined cry.
I'm glad to see that reputable reporting about the storms does not say that they are caused by climate change. But solid reporting is passing along the scientific word that climate change is probably a strong factor in the amplification of extreme weather events like these. Last July is the hottest month in human history. Hot air and hot oceans put more moisture into circulation, and when that water comes down it is likely to do so in massive amounts.
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This week, I've also been thinking back. Harvey hit the Gulf Coast 12 years after Katrina slammed New Orleans. I am encouraged as I see differences between the two floods.
I went back to the Eco-Justice Notes that I wrote just days after the levees broke and neighborhoods went underwater. I'm reminded of the horrors broadcast from Louisiana that have not been repeated in Texas.
In 2005, I wrote, "In the midst of the world's most affluent and powerful nation, people are starving. In the midst of our most astounding technological wonders, people are paralyzed by the complete failure of communications, transportation, health care, water and sewage. In the midst of 'the world's greatest democracy,' social systems collapse, and anarchy rises."
I'm reminded of scenes from Katrina of people trapped on bridges being treated as criminals, of desperate residents who were not rescued, of looting and arson, of bodies floating in the streets. Over 1,800 people died after Katrina flooded the city. The count in southern Texas is still below 50.
I hope that the difference in responses shows that local, state and federal agencies have learned how to work more effectively. Katrina helped launch what is called the "Cajun navy" -- a loosely organized and deeply committed team of volunteers who use their fishing boats to help evacuate flood victims. Cell phones and social media provided a new way for those trapped by rising waters to put out calls for help. Shelters seem to be more available and better stocked. Water and other supplies are getting delivered. Rescue teams are agreeing to evacuate pets as well as people.
Perhaps we're learning. And perhaps we are fortunate that the Texas flood waters rose more gradually, that more neighborhoods had safe places to shelter, and that Houston wasn't faced with the already toxic mix of race and poverty that turned relief into warfare in New Orleans.
More storms will come -- to the US and around the world. I pray that communities can be thoughtful and resourceful in their planning for the next time. Let's make sure that less people live in danger zones, and that they have a way to escape. Let's be sure that shelters and supplies are available. Let's foster the sense of community that has neighbors helping neighbors.
And about that next time -- it might be soon. Hurricane Irma is a powerful storm churning up the central Atlantic and heading west. About half of the latest projections have the storm making landfall somewhere in the eastern US, but it looks like it will miss the Caribbean and most of the Gulf coast.
These extreme weather events do combine the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. May we be faithful and effective in hearing that cry, and responding well.
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