Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Natural Disaster?

Acts of God or sins of humanity?
by Wes Granberg-Michaelson

From a vacation cottage Karin and I watched on TV as the desolation unfolded in New Orleans and the Gulf coast. Through that agonizing week we sat helpless with millions, while the world's most technologically powerful nation could not provide food, water, and rescue to fellow citizens whose desperate faces filled our screen and haunted our consciences.

Commentators described Hurricane Katrina as a "natural disaster," or at times as an "act of God," like language used in some insurance policies describing events beyond human control. It means no one is liable. Except, of course, God. And that's what troubles me. How can a God of love, Creator of all that is, be responsible for such terrible, destructive disasters?

But as I listened, reflected, and prayed during that week, another question emerged. Just how "natural" was this disaster? Consider this, for instance. When Katrina left the Florida coast, it was classified as a "tropical storm" - not even a hurricane. It picked up tremendous power as it passed through the Gulf of Mexico, in part, experts think, because the waters of the Gulf were two degrees warmer than normal. So by the time it reached New Orleans, it was a category four hurricane.

Years before becoming general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, I led a group studying global warming and the responsibility of the churches for preserving the environment when I served as director of Church and Society for the World Council of Churches. Even then (1990), a clear global scientific consensus warned that global warming due to human causes - especially the accelerated use of fossil fuels - was causing disruptive climate changes. And I clearly remember listening to scientists say that one effect could be that storms such as hurricanes would increase in their intensity and destructive effects because of warmer waters and changing sea levels. So a part of Katrina's fury was not completely "natural."

And there's more. New Orleans was built between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, with much of the city below sea level. Its vulnerability to flooding from hurricanes was partly protected by the wetlands between the city and the Gulf. These act like a "speed bump," absorbing and lowering some of a hurricane's force. But they've been disappearing, making way for shopping malls, condos, and roads, so 25 square miles are lost each year - an area the size of Manhattan. And the city has kept moving closer to the Gulf.

Moreover, the levees and dams constructed to protect the city and "control" the Mississippi deprive the wetlands from the sediments and nutrients that naturally would replenish its life. There's a lot "unnatural" about this "act of God."

And then, consider the victims. Those who have suffered the most are the poorest, and most of them are black. Twenty-seven percent of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line, and many of those simply had no cars, or no money, and no way to leave. That also isn't "natural." The poverty rate, and the gap between rich and poor, continues to increase in this nation, and that is a national disgrace. More to our point, that's a sin, condemned by literally hundreds of verses of scripture. Those most vulnerable to Katrina have been kept on society's margins by persistent economic injustice and racism.

I celebrate the tides of compassion flowing in the wake of Katrina. Organizations such as Church World Service and the Salvation Army bear the compassion of Christ to the desolate, homeless, and hopeless. And I still don't fully understand why, in the providence of a loving and all-powerful God of creation, things like hurricanes and earthquakes happen.

But I do know this. When I see the devastating effects of Katrina, I don't simply regard these as an inexplicable "act of God." I also focus on the sins of humanity. We've disobeyed God's clear biblical instructions to preserve the integrity of God's good creation, and to overcome the scourge of poverty. In the aftermath of Katrina, we desperately need not only compassion, but also repentance.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Reprinted from the Church Herald, October 2005. (c) 2005 by the Church Herald, Inc. Used with permission. Another version of this article will appear in the print version of the October 2005 Church Herald and on the Church Herald Web site

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