Coverage of God in the flooding

The brutality of the flooding in the Midwest is hard to comprehend unless you have seen the devastation personally. News stories about flooding generally include the details of rivers cresting, the sandbagging of levees and flood damage assessments. Occasionally a blurb regarding a church or a community’s call for God’s assistance is mentioned, but only rarely.

While coverage of the role of religion in the flooding is sparse, some of the most striking imagery coming out of the Mississippi River flooding has been of churches. See The New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Journalists have also regularly noted the human help Amish and Mennonite communities have provided alongside U.S. Marines, farmers and others as they desperately try to save their communities.

With many towns submerged along the Mississippi River over the weekend, the Associated Press was one of the only news organizations I could find that included a religion angle compelling enough to put in the lead. Here is what many newspapers outside the region used for flood coverage in their Monday morning editions:

LOUISIANA, Mo. — As the faithful gathered for church services Sunday in towns hit hard by flooding along the Mississippi River, many found comfort in word the swollen waterway had started to reach its high point.

Dozens of parishioners filled the dry Centenary United Methodist Church in Louisiana, a few blocks from floodwaters that still cover about 15 percent of the town’s neighborhoods. They prayed for aid and gave thanks for the volunteers, National Guard soldiers and prison inmates who helped the community of nearly 4,000 in recent days.

“And they all worked,” Pastor Jeanne Webdell said of the volunteers. “They worked for a cause bigger than themselves, worked to help people that most didn’t even know. And through them we could see God’s love in action.”

If there are other newspapers that have coverage of the flood with a religion angle, please let me know.

The other religion angle floating around news publications, mainly outside the Midwest, usually leads with a variation of the following headline:

Iowa Flooding Could Be An Act of Man, Experts Say

In a way, this is a “man bites dog” story. What goes unsaid in that headline is that the floods are not an act of God (or just a random act of nature). Apparently, man is the cause of these floods. Here is some of the evidence:

Enshayan, director of an environmental center at the University of Northern Iowa, suspects that this natural disaster wasn’t really all that natural. He points out that the heavy rains fell on a landscape radically reengineered by humans. Plowed fields have replaced tallgrass prairies. Fields have been meticulously drained with underground pipes. Streams and creeks have been straightened. Most of the wetlands are gone. Flood plains have been filled and developed.

“We’ve done numerous things to the landscape that took away these water-absorbing functions,” he said. “Agriculture must respect the limits of nature.”

Officials are still trying to understand all the factors that contributed to Iowa’s flooding, and not everyone has the same suspicions as Enshayan. For them, the cause was obvious: It rained buckets and buckets for days on end. They say the changes in land use were lesser factors in what was really just a case of meteorological bad luck.

Perhaps someone should point out that rivers naturally flood, and if it weren’t for the extensive system of levees and dams, few would consider living near a moving body of water, particularly one as large and powerful as the Mississippi. I guess you could say that that is the way God set it up, and man came in and tried to change things. If journalists are going to start getting literal with the blame game regarding the floods (thankfully beyond what Pat Robertson has to say), credit should be given where credit is due.

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  • Dale

    I’m waiting for this headline:

    Man’s Behavior Natural, Experts Say

  • Thomas

    Hey, at least Dobson, Robertson and friends were wise enough not to publicly say that “The Midwest is being punished by God for its sins.”

    Because, as we know, that only applies to 9/11, Katrina, and natural disasters that plague other places.

  • Dave

    At the risk of being obvious I would point out that “act of God” is legalese for something that just happens, with no person able to be blamed for it. The headline writer is saying, in a very condensed fashion, that this flooding didn’t “just happen” but was enabled by human actions — land use policies and a hint of global warming, as you find out upon reading the story.

  • Julia

    There was a great interview with a guy from the Army Corps of Engineers in, I think, the Post Dispatch. He said that the height of the crest is the easiest to measure and actually see, but it’s not the most important measure. That would be the volume of water passing a certain point. Haven’t seen anybody else reporting this fact.

    The corpsman said that a “100 yr flood” level means that in any given year you have a one in 100 chance of there being a flood. (It really has nothing to do with years) But those crest levels were figured out before we had all these levees artifically squeezing the natural route of the water. The more frequent floods are not the result of a larger volume of water. They are due to factors cited by the Iowa professor. In fact, the volume of water this time is less, not more than 1993.

    Now I live on the bluff, but I grew up across the Mississippi from St Louis 35 blocks from the river. A repairman once told me that he used to fish in his jonboat right where our house was located. The entire city of East St Louis was raised by hauling in dirt – gumbo that would not absorb hardly any water. Our streets flooded every other year or so. The part of East St Louis where the gambling boat is located used to be Bloody Island where duels were fought in the old days; now it’s connected to the Illinois side. When the river flowed like God made it, it would spread towards the bluff, but gently and not as deep as these over-toppings that are ruining farmland.

    My brother has a home just above Alton in Grafton, both old river towns, where the Mississippi River will be cresting soon. It’s very wide there and the Illinois and Missouri Rivers absorb some of the excess where they flow into the Mississippi nearby. Neither Grafton nor Alton have levees; and they don’t do the sandbag thing. The indigenous folk say it’s not worth the effort because the river is going to do what the river is going to do. Instead, you might have seen the shot from the helicoptor on FOX news showing the folks in Grafton having a pool party at the marina with boats tied up to the floating deck around the pool. Hey, let go and let God deal with it.

  • C. Wingate

    Much as I loved Dale’s headline, the “Act of Man” headline was a bit of a triumph of catchiness over accuracy. The story itself is very balanced and substantive, a model of its kind; the bugaboo of Global Warming gets a very short passage and the disclaimer that “there’s no proof of that.” And the reporter resisted the urge to go for the outrage quote from the usual blowhards; all those quoted are genuine professionals and academics, not advocacy group mouthpieces or others who can be counted on to say something provocative.

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  • Jerry

    What goes unsaid in that headline is that the floods are not an act of God (or just a random act of nature). Apparently, man is the cause of these floods.

    I would not expect a teleoligcal discussion in a news story. I would not expect an exploration interesting questions such as whether God is working through the decisions of men as well as through the actions of nature. Even to raise such questions could get one pounced on and verbally pummeled by many.

  • Charles Curtis

    So the issue of land use, and even the role that the levees themselves have in exacerbating massive flooding is an illicit angle to explore, journalistically?

    Like suggesting that building a major city beneath water level, protected by inadequate levees, and surrounded by wetlands diminished by human activities, wetlands that would otherwise lessen the impact of hurricanes, were all not major factors in the Katrina tragedy?

    I mean, come on, is reality too much for us now? Anyone who suggests that mono- cultural farming practices have simplified ecosystems to the point that they are ridiculously vulnerable to all sorts of threats, is now somehow a kook like Pat Robertson?

    Theodicy is a legitimate topic too, but let’s be honest. Our own activities need to be critically examined, and the idea that industrial agriculture, with it’s radical irrigation practices, and eradication of the much more resilient prairie for eroding and more easily flooded farmland should be able to be examined without rancor.

  • Grupetti

    I grew up in Iowa City, so I’ve followed the story closely, and noted this rather amusing gaffe:

    “…volunteers fled the scene Thursday, hauling out four semitrailer loads of pianos and prayer books from the Evangelical Free church…”

    Prayer books? I don’t think so.

    The other religion-related item I noticed is that this rather large church got much attention, while a smaller church that got flooded out was barely noticed.

  • julieH

    The large church in Iowa City isParkview Church. There were a bunch of stories done on them, along with a piece by CNN, which are linked from the church homepage.

    Grupetti –
    My guess is that they received more coverage because as long as they could, they were sandbagging not just for themselves, but for the community, and LOTS were helping. 300 people churning out 60 tons of sandbags per hour, one report had said.