Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Ivan the Terrible
distributed 9/17/04 - ©2004

Even though I live in "mile high" Denver, I've been paying close attention to Hurricane Ivan, making its Category 5 way across the Caribbean and into the Gulf Coast of the US. From my calm vantage point, I have had the luxury of reading and reflecting rather broadly about this awesome expression of nature. This week, I offer some scattered "eco-justice" reactions to Hurricane Ivan.

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The poor -- it is always the poor of our human family who bear the brunt of these things.

The TV images show us beach-front vacation homes being ripped apart by huge waves, and the estimates of financial losses are pushed to astronomical heights by damages to expensive properties. But the poor -- those who live in flimsy housing, who live in the flood zones, who have no way to evacuate, whose jobs are lost and who have no savings -- they are the ones who suffer the most.

On Granada, Jamaica, the Caymans, Cuba and into the US, it is the invisible and helpless poor who will continue to feel the hurt. If images of the storm move us to compassion, may we focus our charity and relief toward those agencies and programs which help those with the greatest need. Check out the disaster relief efforts of your denomination.

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In New Orleans -- a city profoundly at risk in the face of a major hurricane, and narrowly spared disaster by the track of this particular storm -- the mayor called for a voluntary evacuation of the city. One of the reasons the evacuation order was not mandatory, apparently, is that there are 100,000 residents of the below-sea level metropolis who don't have cars, and had no way to get out of town. You can't order an evacuation when the people can't leave.

What astonished me, though, is that the city of New Orleans has no storm shelters for those city residents, no safe places to get above flood waters. No provisions were made to open office towers as a place of refuge. The mayor's advice? Go to the second floor of your house, and have a way to chop through the roof if the waters keep rising.

One of these days, The Big Storm will hit that city. The city leaders know of the danger. It will be inexcusable if hundreds or thousands die because there is no safe place to go.

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Here in the US, there are programs in place that make hurricanes more dangerous, and more expensive. Federal programs have made the problems worse.

Federal flood insurance and disaster relief have made it attractive to build on barrier islands and in flood plains. Only this summer did a law start to limit multiple damage claims -- so that people won't rebuild again and again in stupid places.

Dams and levees on the Mississippi river keep fresh water and new sediment out of coastal bayous. The land settles, and no new soil is added. Protective wetlands and barrier islands disappear. New Orleans sinks farther below sea level, and is more exposed to the sea. That which is done to preserve the city actually increase the risk factors every year.

It is an ecological fact of life. Safety and security will come -- not by super-reinforced construction on the islands, and bigger pumps in New Orleans -- but when we learn how to be part of the cycles and transformations of nature.

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The scientists who study global climate change know that warmer oceans provide the energy to generate killer hurricanes. In the statistical realm of large-scale climate patterns, global warming guarantees that we will see events like Ivan more often.

If you hear a climate optimist hyping a longer growing season for wheat in the northern Great Plains, be sure to ask about the cost of more and stronger hurricanes. Ask about the lost lives, the disrupted communities, the lost work, the economic turmoil.

Our carbon-intensive society is creating a transformed world. Ivan is a poster child for one of the dramatic expressions of what is coming. If you don't want these storms to be an annual event, then increase your advocacy for alternative energy, better fuel economy, and all of the other carbon-reduction strategies that are possible, but never implemented.

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Beyond the questions of compassion, justice and ecological wisdom, there is awe.

Day after day, satellite photos revealed the monstrous pinwheel working its way across the oceans and islands. With all of the technological power of modern civilization, we could only provide warnings, help people get out of the way or batten down their hatches, and then watch the damage unfold. Forecasts and evacuations held down the death toll, but nothing could be done to change the fact of the storm.

In a time when our civilization claims God-like power -- tinkering with genetics and maintaining nuclear arsenals -- Ivan and its ilk are a stunning reality check. The forces of this Earth defy our control. We can trigger vast changes, but not control the results.

In 1954, renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow weathered Hurricane Edna. He reflected: "In the eye of a hurricane, you learn things other than of a scientific nature. You feel the puniness of man and his works. If a true definition of humility is ever written, it might well be written in the eye of a hurricane."

May Ivan help us all find humility, compassion, wisdom and fresh energy for advocacy.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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