The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

AFTER KATRINA

Delivered 9/4/05
Text: Song of Solomon 8:7a
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it..."

The news footage from the Gulf Coast has been something, hasn't it? The devastation is eerily reminiscent of the tsunami that devastated South Asia last winter. The one thing I did NOT see following the Asian disaster was all the gleeful looting. How sad!

In a way, that might be somewhat expected. During hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters, those who have the least to lose are often those who lose the most. Their dwellings are not as sturdy or safe as others - a huff and a puff and the house blows down. Poor folks do not live on the mountainside, they are down in the valley where the floods come. Then, once the floods finally recede, the destroyed dwellings remain destroyed because the poor cannot afford insurance. New Orleans was particularly vulnerable because the poverty rate there - 28% - is double the national average.

Unfortunately, because of the tepid response by our government, this disaster has some ugly elements of racism stirred into the mix. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have expressed outrage at the lack of federal action and are blaming it on race. On that televised concert for hurricane relief on NBC the other night, one of the entertainers criticized the media's portrayal of blacks: "I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they're looting. See a white family, it says they're looking for food."

Someone has pointed out the irony in New Orleans that the people who normally fill the Louisiana Superdome are those who can afford the high cost of tickets, parking, and concessions. But after Katrina, its inhabitants were the poor, especially children, the elderly and the sick - those with nowhere else to go. Those with money were nowhere to be seen.(1)

Of course, here in Pennsylvania we know something about catastrophic floods. May 31, 1889. Johnstown, a steel company town with a population of about 30,000. Residents were aware that there was one small drawback to living there - Johnstown had been built on a flood plain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers. Because the growing city had narrowed the river banks to gain building space, the heavy annual rains had caused increased flooding in recent years. Add to that the fact that 14 miles up the Little Conemaugh, 3-mile long Lake Conemaugh was held on the side of a mountain - 450 feet higher than Johnstown - by the old South Fork Dam. The dam had been poorly maintained, and every spring there was talk that the dam might not hold. But it always had, and the supposed threat became something of a standing joke around town - it was just crying "Wolf!"

Then, just after 4:00 on a chilly, wet afternoon, a low rumble came that grew to a "roar like thunder." After a night of heavy rains, the South Fork Dam had finally broken, sending 20 million tons of water crashing down the narrow valley. Boiling with huge chunks of debris, the wall of flood water grew at times to 60 feet high, tearing downhill at 40 miles per hour, leveling everything in its path. Thousands of people desperately tried to escape the wave. Those caught found themselves swept up in a torrent of oily, muddy water, surrounded by tons of grinding debris, which crushed some, provided rafts for others. It was over in 10 minutes. Over 2,200 dead, with many more homeless. The cleanup operation took years, with bodies being found months, and in a few cases, years after the flood.

"Why?" people asked. Countless sermons on "The Meaning of the Johnstown Flood" were delivered in every part of the land for many Sundays running just as there are sermons everywhere today in the aftermath of Katrina. One Pittsburgh preacher compared the "wolf cry" about the dam breaking to those in his congregation who tired of hearing him on the admonitions of the Lord. Another said that the lesson was to be ever prepared to meet thy Maker.

In New York the illustrious T. DeWitt Talmage, using the 93rd Psalm as his text ("The floods have lifted up, 0 Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice..."), told an audience of some 5,000 that what the voice of the flood had to say was that nature was merciless and that any sort of religious attitude toward nature meant emptiness. He said, "There are those who tell us they want only the religion of sunshine, art, blue sky and beautiful grass. The book of nature must be their book. Let me ask such persons what they make out of the floods in Pennsylvania."

The theme that set the most heads nodding in agreement was the old, old theme of divine punishment. The story of Noah was read. ("And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt...And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me...") This was The Great American Flood; it had been a sign unto all men, the preachers said, and woe unto the land if it were not heeded. The steel town had been a sin town and so the Lord had destroyed it; for surely only a vile and wicked place would have been visited by such a hideous calamity. That was a line of reasoning which many people were quick to accept, for at least it made some sense of the disaster. However, in Johnstown it met with much amusement because, as anyone who knew his way about could readily see, the houses of ill repute up on Green Hill had not only survived the disaster, but were going stronger than ever. "If punishment was God's purpose," said one survivor, "He sure had bad aim."(2)

Not a few ministers chose to talk about the spirit of sympathy that was sweeping the country (similar to what we are seeing now toward New Orleans). The New York Witness, a religious newspaper, went so far as to say there was a "loving purpose of God hidden in the Flood." Folks in Johnstown gagged.

There really was never much mystery in anyone's mind in Johnstown about the cause of the flood. George Swank spoke for just about everyone when he wrote, "We think we know what struck us, and it was not the hand of Providence. Our misery is the work of man"...that poorly maintained South Fork Dam.

Unfortunately, the tragedy in New Orleans is NOT something unexpected, despite what the President said. A year ago, scientists, environmental groups, business leaders, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all came together in recommending the Louisiana Coastal Area project. It was costly - up to 14 billion dollars over 30 years - so the Administration said no.(3) Congress did not object. Walter Maestri, the Emergency Management chief for Jefferson Parish, fretted to the Times-Picayune in New Orleans: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."(4) So sad.

In the wake of all this, there are some questions that need answers. For example, if our Department of Homeland Security was so ill prepared for a natural disaster that everyone knew was coming, how is it going to deal with something UNexpected? Something needs fixed! Has the war in Iraq drained the nation of resources we need for things like basic infrastructure maintenance and flood prevention? One more reason to get our folks home. Is the National Guard, with currently a third of its personnel and half its equipment overseas, ready to handle a disaster that might be even worse, like a biological or nuclear attack? As the tabloids say, "Inquiring minds want to know."

Meanwhile, even if Washington's response has been less than it should be, lots of others have jumped into the breach. Hundreds of millions in private donations have been pouring in to relief agencies, and more is on the way. Good.

St Mark's Episcopal Church is in Johnstown. It was there in 1889. The church's rector and his family were among those killed in the disaster. When the flood waters receded and the church was cleaned up and reopened, the survivors decided to engrave upon the altar a verse not commonly carved into altars. We read it earlier. Song of Solomon 8:7 - "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it." In the wake of the horror in New Orleans, you and I and the whole world can show that by our response. Do what you need to do.

Amen.

1. Jim Wallis, Sojourners, sojomail, 8/31/05, www.sojo.net

2. David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood, (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1987, ©1968), pp. 252-253

3. Joel Bourne, "Gone with the Water," National Geographic Magazine, October, 2004

4. Maureen Dowd, "United States of Shame," New York Times, 9/3/05

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