Lessons from the Wreckage, Pt. I: A Voice from the Whirlwind

He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;

he makes the clouds his chariot,

he rides on the wings of the wind;

he makes his messengers winds,

his ministers a flaming fire.

—Ps. 104:3-4

On August 13, a complex of thunderstorms moved off the coast of West Africa, and raised a few eyebrows at the National Hurricane Center, which began monitoring it for any signs of development into the “Cape Verde”-type hurricanes which often leave an ugly stamp on the pages of history. It dithered and sputtered unimpressively for a few days, before becoming a tropical storm on the 17th: Harvey, the 8th named storm of an already-active season. But less than two days later, Harvey’s brief life as a tropical storm came to an apparent end as it withered away upon entering the eastern Caribbean Sea, an area often dubbed a “hurricane graveyard.” All but the most dedicated weather watchers turned their attention elsewhere, but the disorganized cluster of clouds continued steadily westward, nameless, but not finished.

Soon, computer models began to forecast with remarkable confidence that these remnants would emerge into the southwestern Gulf of Mexico and re-organize into a tropical storm. They did, around midnight August 23rd.

Models then predicted with remarkable confidence that Harvey would intensify with stunning rapidity and make landfall near Corpus Christi, Texas. It did, and it did, becoming the first major hurricane in twelve years to make landfall in the United States, and ending the longest such drought in history.

Models had also forecast, with remarkable confidence, that Harvey would stall, just inland, and unleash a deluge such as the United States (and scarcely the world) had ever seen, and right on top of the nation’s fourth-largest city no less. It did, shattering almost every known US rainfall record and the lives of hundreds of thousands.

But this was only the beginning. Harvey dissipated on September 1, but a younger sister, Irma, had just made her appearance off the coast of Africa. Models forecast, with remarkable confidence, that Irma would become one of the strongest storms ever seen in the Atlantic, and so she did. After a two-week reign of terror that left unparalleled destruction in her wake, Irma exited stage left on September 16 only to make way for Maria, upgraded that day to a tropical storm and with her sights set squarely on the impoverished islands of Dominica and Puerto Rico.

Collectively, the three storms have left experts and disaster officials nearly as dazed as the millions of unfortunate victims along their paths. Meteorologically, no such sequence of storms in one year, much less one month, has ever been observed, though I will not bore you with the string of statistics and superlatives, some of which defy comprehension. Financially, there is a non-trivial possibility that we will have just observed the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd most damaging storms in US—and Atlantic hurricane—history (though odds are that Irma at least will come in significantly under Katrina and for the US at least behind Sandy as well).

What can we say in the face of such an awesome and terrible display of nature’s power—for Christians, an awesome and terrible display of God’s power?

A few days before Harvey, ironically, I found myself in a Facebook discussion with a couple friends about the recent solar eclipse and the hype surrounding it. They had as little interest in the event, hyped as it was, as they had in any other mass media obsession or hysteria of the sort that seems to grip our collective consciousness every few weeks. I protested that natural phenomena—and natural disasters—had an objectivity that such ephemeral social phenomena did not; perhaps they might become the subjects of hype, but Christians should see through such frothy epiphenomena to what they really were, communications of the power and beauty and wisdom and terror of the Lord of hosts. Fair enough, a friend responded, but what are we to make of such communications? They can command no response save dumb awe; they cannot invite us to form any judgments about them, and judgments are the currency of communication. Inasmuch as we may share and tweet and emote about natural phenomena and natural disasters, then, we are doing no more than talking to ourselves about ourselves; whatever there is of God that is revealed in the whirlwind, it is a revelation that cannot be spoken, something communicated, perhaps, yet not communicable.

As we sit in dumb awe and speechless grief before the parade of whirlwinds that has swept across our stage in the past month, what then is there that we can learn, that we can judge, and that we can communicate to one another?

Most fundamentally, experiences such as those of the past month are reminders that

It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. (Is. 40:22)

“Grasshoppers” ancient Near Eastern man may have been, we like to think, but not modern man. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis quotes a contemporary boasting that “Man has got nature whacked,” and if that was true in the age of the radio and the vaccine, how much more in the age of the smartphone and genetic engineering! The temptation to view nature as so much raw material to bend to our will when profitable, to fence in when convenient, and to shut out when inconvenient, is almost irresistible for 21st century man. Reminders to the contrary are rare enough, but they are rude, shocking, and profoundly disorienting when they come. And few are quite as humbling as hurricanes. We can neither fully understand them, nor fully predict them, and although we can send probes to Pluto and shatter sub-atomic particles, we can do nothing to stop or avert them. They regularly confront us, as Harvey, Irma, and Maria each did, with phenomena that even the experts scarcely thought possible.

In an age of when human hubris seems to know no bounds, and we delude ourselves that will transcends nature, and bends it to our every whim, nature has a way of biting back, and when it does so, we should hear the voice of our Maker who “makes the clouds his chariot . . . [and] makes his messengers winds.”

Still, nature itself is broken and warped by sin, and dumb resignation in the face of it is no more faithful a response than blind hubris. Inasmuch as we do have the tools to protect life and property in the face of such storms, we have a responsibility to use them, and episodes like the three we have endured invite us to take a hard look in the mirror. Here, we can form judgments and debate the lessons to be learned; indeed, we must do so.

In the remainder of this essay, I will survey some of the more concrete cultural and political, lessons to be learned from these recent tragedies.

Lessons from the Wreckage, Part 2: The Demise of Prudence

The first question that is likely to be raised in this context is “So what does this tell us about climate change?” The topic is a minefield, but I will try to navigate gingerly through it with a few points that ought to be uncontroversial.

First, as there will be those who use such storms as occasions to highlight the dangers of climate change, so there will always be those who angrily retort that this is “politicizing a tragedy,” which, as everyone knows, is one of the most morally reprehensible things you can be accused of in America today, even if most everyone can be counted on to do it. But this accusation is silly in this case. Climate change is the sort of problem that is unavoidably political, and if you think it is a real problem, that is hurting real people, you will quite appropriately want to point to examples of such hurt and use them as occasions to call for action. That is no more unreasonable than to call for better fire safety standards in the wake of London’s recent Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Second, let’s recall that these days, even the most pugnacious climate skeptic will scarcely try to argue that the world is not warming—we do have thermometers, after all, and they aren’t all that complicated to use. Rather, he will generally argue that the change is largely due to natural causes and/or that it will be on the whole beneficial or at least not all that bad. Let’s concede both these points for the sake of argument (though as I have elsewhere written, I think there is little reason for thoughtful Christians to make such a concession). Even if the world is naturally warming, that is surely a matter for concern and perhaps even appropriate corrective action if it means that hurricanes are liable to become more destructive. Even if you think that, on balance, the effects of climate change will be relatively benign, that hardly means that there might not be particular effects that are downright destructive, and if so, this is again surely a matter for concerned attention.

So third, is there any climate change “fingerprint” on these storms? Perhaps not unambiguously—our historical dataset of hurricanes is just too short—but there are definitely causes for concern. Surprisingly, this is less the case for Harvey than for Irma and Maria, even though the effects Harvey produced (up to 1-in-500,000-yr. rainfalls) were more statistically extreme. Although Harvey did benefit in its initial intensification from somewhat (though not wildly) warmer-than-average water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, and although these warm waters did modestly boost the amount of water vapor available to fall as rain over hapless southeast Texas, the main problem with Harvey is just that it got stuck, and that it got stuck in the part of North America where the atmosphere is most capable of producing astonishing rainfall rates. When Sandy got stuck, and turned west into New Jersey, this was a meteorological oddity possibly traceable to knock-on climate change effects; when Harvey got stuck, it was mostly just monumental bad luck. With Irma, however, we witnessed a storm that was both far more powerful than any before seen in the tropical Atlantic (outside the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, that is), and which remained at peak intensity for an unheard-of length of time. This also was in part monumental bad luck (atmospheric conditions were just ridiculously perfect), but also undeniably a result of historically anomalous water temperatures capable of supporting a much stronger storm than usual. The same can be said of Maria as well. Particularly troubling is the fact that Harvey, Irma, and Maria all put on extraordinary (in Maria’s case near-record-breaking) displays of rapid intensification, a rare and terrifying phenomenon that can see a storm vault from Category 1 to Category 5 status overnight. Something strange is afoot when this phenomenon appears with four storms in less than four weeks (Jose too underwent rapid intensification in mid-September), and a lot of it has to do with water temperatures.

Suppose that all these storms can just be chalked up to very bad luck; still, the fact remains that warmer water does mean stronger storms, and faster-intensifying storms, very much like these, and that our ocean waters are quite undeniably warming. It should also be noted that whatever the cause of climate change, it seems likely to result in significant sea level rise, such as would make storms like Irma in places like Florida vastly more destructive. To point all this out is not to “politicize a tragedy”; it is mere basic prudence.

Speaking of prudence, the triple assault of the past month exposed woeful gaps in America’s disaster preparedness, and indeed the absurdity of American-style capitalism generally. Although we know full well the risks that hurricanes of this sort pose, we continue to build and build and build in places that we know are flood plains and storm surge zones, reasoning, it would seem, that we can just replace all the destroyed buildings when the day of reckoning comes, relying on a government bailout for private risk-takers and stimulating the economy in the process. In her 1958 masterpiece The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt pointed out how modern capitalism was steadily at work in expanding the realm of consumption into formerly stable and durable things that provided the fabric of our existence. First clothing, then tools, then furnishings became subject to the logic of planned obsolescence, purchased, used up, and discarded, in order to keep the machine of the market humming along ever more rapidly. In 21st-century America, we have succeeded in turning even the home into a consumable, to be bought and sold on a whim, built, destroyed, and rebuilt to keep the GDP growing.

It was revealed in the leadup to Hurricane Irma that in the Naples-Fort Myers region of SW Florida, more than 500,000 homes with a replacement value of over $100 billion had been constructed in storm surge zones, with no flood defenses to speak of in place. The situation is even more dire in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. In the first stroke of monumental good luck—and it was about time—Irma ended up taking the best possible path into Florida, pushing its flooding storm surge into the swamps of the Everglades. Catastrophic loss of life and property was averted—for now.

Meanwhile, in Houston, historic rains were compounded by an overgrown concrete sprawl the size of New Jersey. With endless thoughtless and unregulated development filling natural drainage zones in a flood-prone region, a catastrophe was simply waiting to happen. Particularly damning was the failure to take any preventative action to evacuate residents in low-lying areas from an extremely well-forecast flooding catastrophe. The best excuse that was given at the time was that Houston was simply un-evacuable. If Wall Street banks were “too big to fail” by 2008, Houston had become too big to evacuate around the same time, a situation no less insane to permit. Major loss of life was averted in Harvey (due in part to an extraordinary civilian rescue response and technological advancements—more on this below), but again, it is only a matter of time before a catastrophic hurricane hits Houston dead-on, and barring some major change in policy, finds it with neither enough ditches for the water to escape or enough roads for the people to escape.

The most intriguing and disturbing feature of the recent trio of catastrophes, though, was the profound disconnect between advances in forecasting technology and the seeming backwardness of our social and political responses. To the meteorological community, perhaps the most remarkable single feature of the recent barrage of storms was the astonishing accuracy of the forecasts produced. From the first forecast issued after Harvey reformed in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center absolutely nailed the landfall location and time 60 hrs. out. Although not immediately forecasting the rapid intensification that was soon to occur, the NHC highlighted the distinct possibility for it. By 1 PM on the 24th, 32 hours before landfall, when Harvey was still a Category 1 storm, they had correctly predicted the ~130 mph landfall intensity. Even the scarcely conceivable rainfalls after landfall were predicted days in advance. The National Weather Service went out on a limb and issued the highest rainfall forecast ever issued for the United States, and erred only by not going quite high enough and being slightly off-center to the west. Even then, the error was not because the models failed to indicate the extreme amounts, but because human forecasters could not quite believe them.

From its first formation, models showed Irma becoming the strongest storm ever in the tropical Atlantic, and it unfortunately did not disappoint. Despite the much-publicized uncertainty over which side of the Florida peninsula Irma would ultimately slide up, the NHC in fact more or less nailed Irma’s Florida Keys arrival point an astounding 4-5 days in advance. Indeed, despite being a once-in-a-lifetime meteorological event, the track and intensity forecasts for Irma were among the most accurate ever produced for a major storm.

As with Harvey, from the moment Maria first formed, its track across Puerto Rico and the time of its arrival were pinpointed almost exactly by the NHC forecast4.5 days in advance. Although it took some time for forecasters to raise their intensity forecasts sufficiently, the high-end Category 4 landfall in Puerto Rico was predicted more than two days out. The only real failure with Maria was with respect to the early burst of rapid intensification that caught the poor island of Dominica by surprise with a Category 5 rather than a Category 2 or 3 storm, though even this was noted as a very distinct possibility in the early forecasts for Maria.

We should pause for a moment in awe and respect before the achievements of the Weather Service forecasters who produced predictions of an accuracy that even a few years ago would have been inconceivable—and before the incredible technological advancements that assisted them. It is high time we drop the foolish gibes about “the weatherman” and absurd memes about our inability to forecast. As Nate Silver insightfully analyzes in the first chapter of The Signal and the Noise, there are few areas of human predictive endeavor that have witnessed such remarkable and measurable success as weather forecasting, and yet few areas in which, paradoxically, we have so little faith in forecasters.

And yet, if this forecasting cannot prevent crises such as those in Houston and Puerto Rico, what is it good for? We mustn’t be too unfair—in some cases, there is only so much you can do in the face of nature’s greatest engine of destruction. For Barbuda, St. Maarten, and the Virgin Islands, islands as hurricane-ready as any, there was not much to be done but to hunker down and hope for the best, and if they were brought to their knees by Irma’s 185-mph winds, who can blame them? Likewise, Florida authorities took remarkably advanced action to prepare for Irma’s arrival there, and despite a seeming lack of clarity on where people should evacuate to, there was very good guidance on where people should evacuate from.

But why was it that in Rockport, Texas, ground-zero for Harvey’s devastating wind and storm surge, 30-40% of the population ignored evacuation orders? Why was it that despite the four-day advanced warning of a major hurricane strike on Puerto Rico, many disaster response assets were not mobilized until well after the storm had hit? Why was it that in Houston, pinpointed in advance as the likely site of historically unprecedented flooding, authorities issued no evacuations, downplayed the risk, and seemed frankly caught off guard when the rains came?

It seems clear that our hard sciences have advanced much faster than our social sciences, giving us much more accurate predictions than we know what to do with. Neither individuals asked to evacuate nor public officials charged with implementing disaster preparations and responses are used to such forecasting accuracy, and since we in America are generally disposed both to hope for the best and to think that we always know best, we tend to instinctively discount dire predictions. Harvey’s flooding rains were forecast with a precision and a level of advance warning such that targeted evacuations of those most at risk would have been eminently feasible, but no one has issued evacuations based on expected rainfall before, simply because such forecasts have not been, till recently, reliable enough.  

It does not help that, even as official forecasts have become ever sharper and clearer, the cacophony of hype-casts and prognostications of self-appointed social media forecasters has made the actual weather picture increasingly fuzzy. There is a massive need to invest in more effective communications tools and disaster protocols so that the efforts of weather forecasters do not go to waste. Nowhere was this more clear than in Maria’s effect on Puerto Rico—arguably the best-forecast natural disaster in American history that still managed to produce the worst humanitarian crisis within the US since at least the Depression. Some of this was unavoidable given the scale of the disaster, but some reflected dismally on our national priorities and willingness to translate weather forecasts into concrete logistical plans.

Lessons from the Wreckage, Pt. 3: The Power—and Limits—of American Solidarity

Just as the recent barrage of storms highlighted the ugly side of America’s can-do individualism—a lack of thoughtful planning for the future, limited public disaster management protocols and assets, a complacency toward forecasts and evacuation orders—so it revealed the bright side as well. As the waters rose rapidly in Houston and its suburbs and emergency officials and rescuers were quickly overwhelmed, a veritable navy of private individuals with boats descended on the region.

One particularly well-established group, the Cajun Navy, with whom I had the privilege to volunteer for two days as a remote dispatcher, mobilized no less than 763 boats on one day of the crisis and rescued many thousands of stranded civilians. Those who did not have boats, or did not live near, volunteered to verify rescue requests and coordinate efforts remotely, using their laptops and smartphones. I have witnessed nothing more inspiring—and more quintessentially American, than the spontaneous self-organization to do whatever it took to save lives in the midst of crisis, and the powerful feeling of solidarity that bonded the region, and indeed much of the nation, together. We in America don’t like to plan for disasters, but we sure do know how to respond to them. We may abide by the creed of “every man for himself” until our neighbor is in clear and present danger, and then there is no people so ready to take initiative and lay life on the line to meet his need.

Indeed, this extraordinary private response, working in close coordination with public officials and law enforcement, and enabled by an explosion of technologies unavailable at the time of Katrina, is likely in large part responsible for the remarkably low death toll attributed to Harvey. The vast majority of hurricane deaths are due to water, and although storm surge is deadlier than flash flooding, by all rights many more ought to have perished in the sudden inundation of hundreds of thousands of homes that Harvey produced. Although a robust disaster preparedness is much preferable to a robust disaster response, we can be grateful for the existence of life-saving communications tools, and citizens enterprising enough to put them to good use and improvise on the fly.

Still, this rosy account can only be sustained with rose-tinted spectacles. For, as Hurricane Maria has shown, there are stark limits to American solidarity and empathy. If we think of you as one of us, we will move heaven and earth to ensure you are rescued and cared for, and if we find that our public officials have left Americans to suffer in squalor and deprivation, our outrage knows no bounds, as federal officials learned to their chagrin in the aftermath of Katrina. But if we do not think of you as one of us, and a natural disaster sends you back to the Stone Age, we will shrug our shoulders and go about our inane daily business, since, we figure, you are poor and foreign and thus no doubt used to suffering.

Our ever more banal media amplifies this pathological blinkering, devoting wildly disproportionate attention to those parts of America it considers particularly important. When Sandy devasted New York and New Jersey, we were treated to weeks of wall-to-wall media coverage. When Harvey impacted southeast Texas even more severely, the response was fairly muted in comparison, especially when it came to covering localities beyond the Houston city limits. Still, no one could say the crisis was in any sense ignored. When Irma targeted south Florida, a region third only to New York and California on the media’s National Importance Meter, coverage went through the roof, while the territories that Irma had already obliterated (to a far greater extent than it was ever expected to do in Florida), including our own Virgin Islands, went essentially ignored.

Lest anyone could have charitably supposed that this was an isolated case, caused by information overload, Hurricane Maria exposed the ugly selectivity of American solidarity less than two weeks late. Tearing through the impoverished territory of Puerto Rico from SE to NW and inflicting the heaviest blow that island (or perhaps any part of America) had received from a hurricane in 89 years, it was clear to any attentive observer from even before the storm hit that it could cause a humanitarian crisis of the highest order.

Yet after its early Wednesday, September 20th landfall, silence ensued. The silence from Puerto Rico, with 3.4 million citizens larger than 21 US states, was due to the fact that all electricity, cell phones, and even weather stations had been knocked out. The silence from the mainland was because we had bigger fish to fry…for instance, whether football players could protest at the national anthem and whether NBA teams could be invited to the White House.

Of course, our ever-distractable commander-in-chief was responsible for igniting these tempests in a teapot, but our lapdog media went along with the farce, essentially ignoring the plight of Puerto Rico until Monday, when both politicians and reporters realized that Trump’s deafening silence about the crisis could be used against him. Over the next few days, stories gradually began to fill the newspapers and airwaves, as patients in Puerto Rico were already dying in hospitals that had run out of generator fuel.

Reports varied as to how effective the response by FEMA and the US military had been—efficient enough given the resources made available, seemed to be the consensus, but far more were needed. Certainly there were many concrete actions that demanded to be taken by the executive that were needlessly delayed, like waiving the Jones Act and allowing foreign shipping to bring supplies to Puerto Rico (finally done after mounting pressure eight days after the storm).

But the President’s biggest failure, aided and abetted by the media, was symbolic: in times of crisis, the President serves to channel and focus national empathy where it most needs to be focused, so that that inspiring force of American solidarity can awaken and briefly triumph over our self-absorbed orgies of consumerism. This time, that didn’t happen. It was, of course, not feasible for a Cajun Navy to set sail from the mainland in swamp boats, but most Americans were barely even aware of the crisis. When I spoke to a friend a week after the crisis about organizing a fundraiser, he asked, “Oh, why? Is there something going on in Puerto Rico right now?”

Puerto Rico has been shafted by the US for over a century, as colonies often are. But since we don’t like to think of ourselves as a colonial power, we prefer to pretend it either doesn’t exist, or isn’t part of the US.  And if it should ever find itself in need, our instinct is to assume that since they aren’t used to luxuries like ours anyway, they will find a way of coping. Our Petty Insulter-in-Chief gave shocking voice to this sentiment a week and a half after Maria hit, lashing out on Twitter and accusing Puerto Ricans of “wanting everything done for them” instead of being thankful for the help that he had deigned to provide.

Trump makes an easy lightning rod for outrage, and although such outrage might be justified, it can become an easy way of deflecting guilt away from ourselves. Ultimately, the colossal failure in the face of Puerto Rico’s tragedy is a failure on the part of America as a whole. Total private donations for Maria relief have thus far been a small fraction of those given for Harvey and Irma. This is due to ignorance of the scale of the tragedy, perhaps, but this ignorance is culpable. Our media gives us what we ask for, and if we ask for absurd political theater over NFL players, they will give it to us.

These observations at last bring us full circle. At the beginning of this series of reflections, I asked what it is that natural disasters can possibly communicate. As Christians, we may discern the hand of God in them, but that hand is inscrutable. To say that a natural disaster was intended as a divine judgment (as Christians of earlier eras rarely hesitated to say) seems cruel and heartless, and seems to run afoul of Jesus’s warning in Lk. 13:4. But this caution is perhaps too hasty, equating “judgment” with “punishment.” But that is not the primary purpose of God’s judgment. Rather, God’s judgment is always a communicative act, an exercise in truth-telling, a laying bare of a reality that we would prefer to remain hidden.

Nature’s recent assault on America’s shores is in this sense clearly a divine judgment, a bringing to light of who we are as a nation. Some of what it had to reveal was encouraging and even inspiring, some was perhaps unsurprising, but highlighted important ways in which we need to improve as a nation, and some has been downright shameful. In an age and a society of miniscule and ever-shrinking attention spans, we will be tempted to forget whatever has been brought to light, and turn our attention to the next political kerfluffle or sports rivalry. But if there is a message we need to hear, we can rest assured that the Lord will keep speaking more loudly until we hear it, so we had best sit up and listen.

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Posted by Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is President of the Davenant Institute and author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology. He started tracking hurricanes when he was seven years old and has been a passionate follower of meteorology ever since.