Floodwater Utopia: No Place for Beloved Community

Matthew 25 gives us an image of the Gospel: a person shows up at your door in need and you serve that need. It sounds simple, but it requires you to look directly into the eyes of the other and find compassion. It would seem, in the wake of tragedies like Hurricane Harvey, that it has become on earth as it is in heaven. Everywhere there are stories of people helping people. There is no judgment. All the things that divide us – class, race, sexuality, even political affiliation – fall away. Standing in three feet of sewage-infused river water with the alligators circling has a leveling effect; no one feels privileged to be there. Certainly, Americans – perhaps Texans most of all – love the big moment, the time to be a hero, to prove what they are really made of. But what of the other moments? In the slack times when the waters subside and the cameras are turned off and the exhilaration of desperation has run its course, do we see each other? Given the slew of policies that exacerbated the effects of Harvey into the tragedy it became, I don’t think so. Public policy is the least heroic thing that one can imagine, but it is absolutely necessary to do well because behind all the red tape are the eyes of the other.

I was vacationing in Tulum when Harvey rolled in. Having lived on the Gulf Coast for many years (and suspicious that I somehow attract tropical weather events) I learned to keep an eye on such things. I saw the path coming straight for us, but I wasn’t too worried because there were some shearing forces that would knock it down a bit. By the time it got to us, it was “tropical wave,” which is really just a big storm. It doesn’t even get a name at that point. But the track also had it passing over the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Bay of Campeche. I thought then that it might regain some strength. Why did I think that?

One of the predicted effects of climate change is warmer oceans, which in turn create more extreme weather events. The Gulf of Mexico never dropped below 73 degrees this past winter for the first time in history. Take a look at the map at the top of this article. See all that red in the Bay of Campeche? That’s the path of Harvey. The water is warm enough to take Harvey from a nothingburger to a Category 4 hurricane in a few days.

Another predicted outcome of climate change is radically altered air currents. Normally, the jet stream pushes storms to the east, so they move quickly. Winds are bad, but the rainfall is manageable. The jet stream also often has a shearing effect, which breaks the storms down. In this case, there was no movement around Harvey, so it was like a top on a perfectly level table – nothing to push it away. So it sat and dumped all that warm water-primed moisture on Houston.

Unrelated to climate change, but critical to the impact of hurricanes, is the alteration of the landscape to suit humans. Both Katrina and Harvey hit areas that, historically, are wetlands. In New Orleans, the needs of shipping required dredged canals and diverted waterways that disrupted the normal process of depositing silt into the Mississippi Delta. The famous swamps of Louisiana retreated over the last few decades because there was no dirt for plants to grab onto. What used to be a wetland that took the steam off tropical events, absorbing the storm surge and robbing the storm of the warm water it needed long before it reached New Orleans, is now just water. Warm water. Katrina was worse because of the degradation of the wetlands.

Similarly, Houston is largely wetlands, but we’ve paved over it. A rain event like this would have been bad regardless, but a large wetland has the ability to soak up more moisture and spread it out over a wide area. But highways and parking lots don’t do that. They become rivers.

Further, Texas is extremely antagonistic to government regulation. In Houston, that has meant a lack of zoning. First, that means you can build pretty much anywhere. The neighborhood I grew up in got about six feet of water by the looks of video. When I was a kid, there was a lot of undeveloped land, especially as you got closer to the San Jacinto River. About ten years ago, after we were annexed by Houston, I noticed signs up to sell lots on that land. I couldn’t believe anyone would want it. We didn’t even play in there because it was mostly just mud. But people bought it and built McMansions. I doubt any of them are habitable now. Lack of zoning also means that homes are built next to reservoirs that have to be relieved when they overfill and next to chemical plants that might explode.

Finally, we can’t discount the effects of race and class in a tragedy like this. We know that most cities are more segregated now than forty years ago. We also know that segregation by race and class go hand in hand. That means that communities of color are concentrated with poverty. In addition to receiving poorer city services – poorly maintained roads, poor drainage systems, and more fragile sewage systems – than their wealthier, white counterparts, they are also often located in lower lying areas. These places are cheaper because everyone knows they are prone to flooding, but when you don’t have the resources you have to take what you can get and hope for the best.

Impoverished people are also less likely to be able to evacuate. When I lived in New Orleans, I was in management, a salaried position with benefits. Whenever there was something brewing in the Gulf, I didn’t have to wait for the city to decide to shut down. I could take some vacation time. I started calling our escapes from the danger zone “evacucations.” We would find a nice B&B away from the trouble and relax for a few days. But the woman who cleaned my office couldn’t do that. She had three part-time, hourly, minimum wage jobs. Not only did she need the money, if she missed a shift, she would lose that job. So she had to stick around until the city declared an evacuation, which was usually too late.

Impoverished people, if they can get out, probably can’t come back. They lose everything in the storm and have no reserves. Charity will get them by for a bit, but they have to get busy rebuilding their lives. They have to get jobs, make money, find housing. Look at how many people left New Orleans during Katrina and how many stayed in Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta.

Unfortunately, this exposes the grand illusion of the floodwater utopia (from the Greek, meaning “no place”) I’ve heard so much about. After Katrina, I remember white people viciously attacking the black mayor of New Orleans for perceived failures – and it was always racialized. I remember white people mocking the impoverished black people who couldn’t escape the storm as stupid and lazy. I remember white people in New Orleans openly expressing their glee that all “those people” had to leave and won’t be back. I remember white people in Houston openly expressing their disdain for all “those people” who had moved in. I remember even worse things, but I’m afraid to share them because I want to believe they were just nightmares; I want to believe no one could be that inhuman. I expect to hear the same things after Harvey; I’m already hearing it.

Whenever there is a tragedy, there are those who ask us not to “politicize” it. But politics is how we negotiate our lives together, how we figure out how to live in community. As Christians, we believe in a beloved community where all are valued as equal. Building that community takes intention and connection and sacrifice. It requires us to consistently look into the eyes of the other and care about their material well-being. Politics is how we live that out.

Climate change can seem abstract. Building codes and zoning are just plain boring. Wealth inequality seems insurmountable, perhaps even in the nature of things. Racism, of course, remains mostly invisible. But now, people we know and love have had their lives washed away. God forgive us for all those we don’t know because this is the world that we built. It is functioning exactly as we might have expected it to. And the only reason we don’t know that is because we don’t want to know it.

Segregating ourselves along lines of race and class allows us to avert our gaze lest we be convicted. It creates a bunker mentality that focuses our attention on our neighborhood and our family, all the people who look and behave like us. In a tragedy like this, when all of our bunkers are underwater, we can’t go on like that.

The question soon to be on everyone’s minds is how quickly we can rebuild. How quickly can we get back to work? When will our kids be back in their schools? When will our bunkers be habitable again? And then, maybe next year, maybe in five or ten, we’ll do it all over again. This may seem like a condemnation in advance of evidence, but that’s what prophecy is. It’s my job. The good news is that there is always a chance to repent and build the beloved community that God dreams for us. The best way to start on that is by looking into the eyes of the least among us and finding compassion, not just in this moment, but in all the moments ahead.

As they begin the house-to-house searches and inevitably find more dead, don’t turn away. Instead, think about whether those lives are worth changing your driving habits or opposing development in favor of green space or paying a little more in taxes to support anti-poverty measures. If that sounds extreme, I submit that it is only because we don’t want to look.


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