Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tornadoes: Deeper Compassion

The midsection of the United States has been hit by violent storms, tornadoes, and floods, and more is forecast for today and tonight. Earlier this spring, violent tornadoes tore through the southeastern United States. All sorts of records have been broken.

A spare article from the Associated Press, 2011 Tornadoes By the Numbers, tells part of the story. It’s not only the number of tornadoes or the fact that they have hit populated areas that has caused so much damage; it’s also the intensity of the tornadoes.

The Joplin tornado has been rated EF-5, the highest possible rating. No amount of warning or preparedness can keep this sort of tornado from causing a disaster if it hits a populated area. Holly Yan of CNN asks why with all the advancements in storm technology, we have seen so far this year 8.5 times the average number of tornado fatalities in an entire year. She quotes CNN meteorologist Chad Myers saying that some tornadoes are just too big to survive.

Our response to so much destruction as human beings and as Christians is a desire to help ease the pain of the survivors. We respond by offering whatever aid we can and by offering prayers. Episcopal Relief and Development offers assistance through its USA Disaster Relief Fund. A note about their efforts after the Joplin tornado is found here, and donations can be made through this page.

We wonder why we are seeing so much severe weather, so much suffering, in one season. Asking that question can lead us to a deeper level of compassion, a deeper commitment to alleviating suffering.

If we expand our vision to the rest of the world, we see that our season of severe weather is part of a global phenomenon. Alice Thomas, Climate Displacement Program Manager for Refugees International, writes in a post called Colombia: Water, Water Everywhere about the situation in Colombia over the past year, where three million people have been affected by record rainfall and flooding that has left “hundreds of thousands” of people homeless, and then goes on to talk about the number of people displaced by extreme weather events in 2010. She ends this article – one that is best read prayerfully – with these words:

I am left questioning the wisdom of continuing to view today’s extreme events as unforeseen occurrences for which no one is responsible, as acts of God or nature, as risks that cannot be managed. It is starkly evident that neither national governments nor the humanitarian community is prepared to respond to the increasing pressure that climate variability is bringing to bear not only on some of the world’s poorest and most crisis-prone countries but also on a humanitarian system that is already over-stressed and woefully underfunded.

This blog has said before that no single weather event can be linked to climate change. However, several extreme weather events in several places begin to suggest a pattern. We know that warmer air holds more moisture and that very humid air is one of the ingredients for tornadoes, violent thunderstorms, and, of course, for heavy rains. Climate scientists predict periods of drought punctuated by periods of extreme rain, a sort of watery feast or famine, and they have predicted just the sort of extreme weather we are seeing this spring. If extreme weather events are indeed risks that can be managed by addressing the problem of global warming and climate change, it would seem to be our moral duty to address these issues.

Bill McKibben yesterday wrote a tongue-in-cheek opinion piece for The Washington Post, A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never! in which he parodies our reluctance to connect the dots and recognize an emerging pattern.

In a different tone, today’s meditation in Forward Day by Day ends with this from classic Christian author Oswald Chambers: “Only by refusing to think about things as they are can we remain indifferent.” If we truly have compassion for the victims of extreme weather events, we will want to know the truth about the cause of these events and, if changes in the way we live can help reverse the trend, will find a way to do so.

On my way home from the walkabout on Saturday, my husband and I dodged severe storms in eastern Nebraska. About ten miles from home, we saw a rainbow, a sign of hope. I’ve seen pictures of a double rainbow after the Joplin tornado. The hope symbolized by those rainbows can be realized if we find the will to give environmental concerns the priority they deserve.