Is Hurricane Harvey ‘New Normal’ for coastal communities?
“Try to leave the Earth a better place than when you arrived.”
– Sidney Sheldon, TV Producer
What a catastrophe! Harvey pummeled Texas and Louisiana with 27 trillion gallons of water. Even at 757,500 gallons per second, Niagara Falls will need 13 months to match this downpour. The 52 inches of rainfall assaulting Houston is more than the Bush International Airport receives in a year.
The National Weather Service states, “This event is unprecedented.”
The human cost includes 50 deaths. One million people were displaced. About 200,000 homes were damaged, and Texas Governor Abbott says relief efforts could cost $180 billion. The New York Times reports, “Only 40 percent of [homeowners] may be covered by insurance.” Forbes estimates 500,000 cars are “waterlogged.”
Houston’s one-in-a-thousand year storm follows one-in-five-hundred year storms in 2015 and 2016. So do coastal communities just accept this as the new normal?
Let’s hope not. Actually, we can prevent storms from becoming increasingly destructive. Even if you don’t believe in climate change, hear me out.
Or better, listen to the science reporting of Britain’s preeminent newspaper, The Guardian. Their article, “It’s a Fact: Climate Change made Hurricane Harvey More Deadly,” cites four major reasons for this conclusion.
First, air moisture is measurable: Climate change adds “3 to 5 percent more moisture in the atmosphere.” The Environmental Protection Agency states this increased water vapor “creates a positive ‘feedback loop’ in which warming leads to more warming.” This added moisture contributed to the extreme rainfall.
Second, due to a recently increased sea level, “the storm surge was half a foot higher.” This added surge substantially increased damages.
Third, “Human-caused warming is penetrating down into the ocean.” This produces, The Guardian continues, “stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”
Fourth, climate change impacts weather patterns. Harvey’s devastating rainfall amassed because it stalled near the coast. The weak prevailing winds, The Guardian concludes, were caused by “a greatly expanded subtropical high pressure system over much of the U.S….predicted in model simulations of human-caused climate change.”
Bangladesh serves as a worse warning: A third of the country is under water. Their floods impact 41 million residents.
While humans cannot change the day-to-day weather, our Industrial Revolution continues to have a long-term impact on climate: Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas heating the planet, never exceeded 280 parts per million in 650,000 years. Now, it is an alarming 400 ppm – and rising rapidly.
Likewise, methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, has doubled since 1800. This worries scientists because increased thawing of Arctic permafrost substantially increases methane’s release into the atmosphere.
The Judeo-Christian biblical tradition calls for Earth care. Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther cites Psalm 65:9-13 as evidence that, “God is seen as taking profound pleasure in his work of creation, and creation in turn responds to God with praise.”
A powerful environmental practice is described in Exodus 23: Fields were to lie unplanted every seven years to enrich the soil. The leftover harvest fed the hungry.
When Israel failed to care for the land, the Prophet Isaiah warned, “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenants” (Isaiah 24:5).
We are called to care for the earth as stewards, not owners. As Psalm 24:1 declares, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” Apparently, this includes our wallets.
So what can we do?
First, let’s care for the environment in both our personal practices and our advocacy for public policy.
Second, let’s share the seriousness of climate change with family, friends and colleagues.
Third, let’s pray for the many victims of Harvey. If interested in donating, The New York Times lists ten reputable local organizations in their excellent online article, “Where to Donate to Harvey Victims.”
Rev. Harry Rix has 60 articles on spirituality and ethics, stunning photos, and 1200 quotations for reflection available at www.quoflections.org.