(Astronaut Ricky Arnold snapped a photo of Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station.NASA)
I looked at Earth— it was chaos and emptiness. I looked to the heavens— their light was gone. I looked to the mountains— they quaked, and the hills swayed back and forth. I looked— I saw no one. Nothing! All the birds had flown away. I looked— the fertile land was desert. All its towns laid waste before Yhwh.
Though these sound like the words of someone watching their newsfeed this weekend, they’re from a prophet who lived 2700 years ago. Using the metaphorical language prophets prefer, Jeremiah describes the cataclysmic devastation he sees coming for the people of Judah if they don’t change course immediately in their worship of God and their treatment of the poor.
Jeremiah used images of environmental devastation to send a message to the people of Judah. What message might the images we’re seeing from Hurricane Florence be sending to us? Might what we’re seeing be calling us to an immediate course change?
In 2014, Allen and I traveled to Ireland. On a day trip to check out some ruins, an archaeologist talked to us about the place we were visiting. In his musings, he used a phrase that intrigued me: storm archaeology, the study of ancient artifacts uncovered by fierce storms….
…like the ancient human remains uncovered last year by Hurricane Ophelia in Forlorn Point, Ireland. The year before that, an 8th century carving of a Pictish dragon was found by an archaeologist passing by a cliff face in Orkney, Scotland following bad weather.
Storm archaeology…the study of things that remain hidden until cataclysmic weather events reveal them.
In August 2005, journalists Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky were attending a conference in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Stuck in the city when martial law was imposed, they began doing what journalists do–researching for an article on the hurricane.
Last year, the same authors wrote another article titled, “Lesson of Katrina that Haven’t Been Learned.” In the wake of the destruction in Houston from Hurricane Harvey last September, the authors compared four effects of Katrina with those of Harvey to see if we’d learned anything in the intervening 12 years. Ready for a little journalistic storm archaeology?
The first set of effects they considered were those resulting from poor human choices, in particular, those regarding infrastructure and climate change.
Poor infrastructure choices in New Orleans led to “shoddy work and delayed maintenance of the levee systems.” As you’ll recall, the biggest catastrophe of Katrina was broken levees. Similarly, in Houston much of the destruction came “because the flood mitigation and control systems created after several disastrous floods were shelved” when they interfered with Houston’s plan for rapid growth.
Regarding climate change, two effects directly impact the behavior of hurricanes–higher sea levels and hotter water temperatures. The Gulf of Mexico has risen more than 8 inches in the last 50 years. When Hurricane Harvey hit last year, the water temperature had risen 1 degree Celsius after the hottest month ever recorded, July 2017. That higher temperature freed up more water to be distributed by the storm. The effects of flooding in Houston were devastating.
A second effect of the storms is determined by poverty. In any major weather event, the poor suffer disproportionately. Bradshaw and Slonsky note that “during Hurricane Katrina, levels of mortality and suffering were directly linked to structural inequality, race, and class. Statisticians calculate that African Americans had a two to four times greater chance of dying during or immediately after Katrina.” In Houston, “who lives on flood plains, who can afford flood insurance, and who lives near the petrochemical industry is tied to race and class.” Think about our own region. Who tends to live on tops of the mountains; who lives down below?
Poverty and low wages also can be a death sentence for many trying to flee a disaster like Harvey or Katrina. Who has a car, or credit card, or money in the bank to pay for a hotel, can determine who is able to heed an evacuation order.
A third effect of cataclysmic weather events is exploitative practices in the aftermath…practices like price-gouging and using the storm to push through exploiatative business policies and legislation. Re-building, of course, is good and important work. It’s vital, though, to take note of who is involved in these activities and who benefits from them.
For instance, “despite federal aid totaling $120 billion for reconstruction in New Orleans, the poverty rate for Black children in 2017 remained 50 percent. Despite a construction boom and an unemployment rate of 52 percent for Black men at the same time, only 4 percent of workers hired on city construction projects were African American.”
Which leads us to a fourth dynamic where the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey are evident: racism. While most of the effects of the two hurricanes were similar, one thing differed—media coverage of altruism in the wake of each storm.
The authors note that media coverage of Houston was generous in recognizing and reporting stories of ordinary people coming to the aid of others.
Katrina, like most disasters, also was full of altruism, but it mostly went unreported. When Bradshaw and Slonsky published their piece recounting stories of everyday folks helping each other during and after Katrina, it went viral. They suspect that happened because their “firsthand account of solidarity, sharing, and collaboration in the midst of dire conditions” was a part of the Katrina story that wasn’t being told. “Acts of courage and compassion were playing out in New Orleans and all over the Gulf Coast, but were being drowned out by racist and sensationalist stories of criminal elements, gangs, child rapes in the Superdome and snipers shooting at rescue helicopters.
“Those stereotypes and rumors were later shown to be fabrications, but at the time, they provided the rationale to absolve the failure of the federal, state and local governments to provide food, water, medical aid and evacuation to thousands of stranded New Orleanians.”
Major storms like the one we’re in right now reveal a lot of things we don’t notice when the skies are blue and we’re focused on living our everyday lives. Fierce storms uncover ancient systems and practices and inequities we thought were long past, but that are still there just beneath the surface.
Here’s the thing about archaeology—when ancient artifacts are found, they aren’t left in the ground. When that archeologist in 2016 discovered the 8th c pictograph of a dragon after a big storm, after the next big storm, a crew came in and removed the piece so they could take it and study it. And once it was determined that the skeletal remains found at Forlorn Point, Ireland, weren’t a 21st century storm victim, scholars conducted tests to discover just how ancient the bones were. That bit of data is leading to more study about the people who lived in the area a thousand years ago.
Another thing about archaeology: It’s not only about getting clearer about what happened in the past. As we gain clarity about what happened in the past, it informs who we are in the present. And sometimes new things we learn about the past necessitate changes in what we’re doing in the present. Sometimes new understandings of the past make us re-think who we are all together.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I think about what’s happening to our planet, what we’re doing to Earth through action and inaction, I go to a dark place, a place of little hope. In fact, the resource that suggested interweaving Psalm 19 and Jeremiah 4 said, If you want a more positive spin, end the reading with the Psalm. If you want a more somber spin, end with Jeremiah. I didn’t even have to think about it. You’ll notice we ended with Jeremiah.
But even in Jeremiah’s jeremiad, there’s a tiny sliver of hope. Thus says Yhwh:
“The whole land will be desolate, but I will not completely destroy it.” Even when it feels like the literal end of the world, even then, it will not be completely destroyed. Even when we’re overwhelmed by the disproportionate suffering poor people face, especially during major weather events, that need not be the end of the story.
Why not? Because we have the power to change course. We have the power to change some aspects of climate change. We have the power to work at changing social systems that ignore—or prey on—the least of these. We have the power to look around us in the coming days and weeks to see what ancient artifacts and practices are revealed by this storm…to dislodge them from the places they’ve been hidden, take them out, study them, see what they tell us about the past, and what they suggest about how we might move forward into the future.
The theme for this third Sunday of creation—Sky—was determined a long time ago. I’m not sure how the timing could be more perfect. We’ve been looking at pictures of the sky all week long.
The quintessential sky text in Scripture is the first few verses of Psalm 19. It reads: The heavens herald your glory, O God, and the skies display your handiwork. Day after day they tell their story, and night after night they reveal the depth of their understanding. Without speech, without words, without even an audible voice, their cry echoes through all the world, and their message reaches the ends of the earth.
“Day after day the skies tell their story…” Will we listen to the story they tell? How will we respond? Will we, through our compassionate, justice-seeking action in the world, also herald God’s glory?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2018