This story was also published with West Virginia Public Radio.
Jake Dowdy is a police officer in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where he lived a block from Howard Creek, a stream so inconsequential you could usually hop-skip across parts of it without wetting your toes.
It was the morning of June 23, 2016, and a heavy rain was falling as Jake went to the gym for a workout. He wasn’t thinking much about the rain, other than that it’d be good for the garden. When he got home around noon, he had lunch and kicked up his feet in the living room, chilling out for a while before his 4 pm shift. He drifted off to sleep on the couch and awoke when his wife texted, confusing him for a moment; she was concerned about reports of flooding.
His disorientation turned to panic when he set his feet on the carpet and felt it squish soggily beneath his soles. He had just enough time to grab the cat and wade through thigh-high rushing water to his truck.
Meanwhile Jake’s neighbor, Kathy Glover, was at her office job on Main Street. She was aware of the heavy rain but wasn’t concerned about the safety of her house, the home she’d lived in since she was 2 years old. It was two long blocks from Howard Creek. But in the early afternoon, a neighbor called to tell her that water was lapping at her front steps and she ought to get home. It wasn’t coming up from the creek, but pouring down from Greenbrier Mountain.
Kathy rushed home, and for hours she tried to fend off the water from her front door, until she realized that the creek behind her had risen so much and so fast that it was entering her kitchen through the back door. The house was surrounded. Kathy and her daughter fled for higher ground.
More than a year later, Kathy has rebuilt on the same spot. Jake and his family moved to higher ground; they had no interest in living so close to the creek’s edge again. Now there’s nothing left in the spot where their house once stood except two small “for sale” signs.
While they differ in how safe they felt returning to their flooded property, Kathy and Jake both speak of the White Sulphur Springs flood, along with other extreme weather events around the world, in terms of the Biblical prophecy of the apocalypse. Their religious reasoning stands in stark contrast to what climate scientists offer as explanation for record-breaking rain storms, but could anything reconcile the divergent views?
A Tale of Two Tellings
Most of those who chose to rebuild along the now-quiet creek are settled into their houses, a few towering on 10-foot foundations while others just meet FEMA’s minimum requirement for houses in a flood plain: 2 feet above the 100-year-flood level. Other storm victims, like Kathy, who is officially outside the flood plain, rebuilt their houses just as they were before.
Between the renovated homes on the opposite side of Howard Creek are freshly seeded parks bursting with colorful flowers that memorialize the dead: The three members of the Nicely family who took refuge in their attic, only to have the house tear from the foundation and float away. Mykala Phillips, the 14-year-old girl whose father tried to save her with an extension cord that wasn’t strong enough to serve as a lifeline; her body was found months later, miles down the creek and in the next town. Belinda Scott, who was catapulted from her home into a tree after a gas explosion, making it to the hospital but with injuries too severe to survive.
Eight people died in the town of 2,400, and there were 23 total fatalities across the state, with hundreds of houses damaged.
Human beings are natural storytellers, and there are two narratives being told in America today about how to make sense of extreme weather events like the one that swept through White Sulphur Springs in 2016.
One narrative comes from scientists and large international organizations with unwieldy names like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who offer a lot of numbers and complicated science about a warming planet, right down to the dueling temperature markers of Fahrenheit and Celsius. There are also some uncontroversial bits of data based on the physical fact that warmer air holds more water.
Over the last half-century, this narrative tells us, there has been a 70 percent increase in the amount of precipitation in the heaviest Northeastern storms, from West Virginia up to Maine.
The isolated band of thunderstorms on the day of the White Sulphur Springs flood, which drenched the town with wave after wave of downpours, ultimately dropped a record-breaking 9 inches of rain, twice as much as the previous record rainfall in 1890. According to Dr. Kevin Law, West Virginia’s climatologist, it was definitely one of the worst storms in the state’s history.
The other narrative turns to a single book filled with parables of good versus evil and drama far more compelling than what the IPCC reports offer. The Bible explains tragedy and human suffering and redemption as being part of God’s plan, giving meaning to natural disasters.
“I’m a firm believer that God tells us in the Bible that he will warn us through signs in the sky,” Kathy told me when I visited her earlier this fall. “It’s fitting in with the Book of Revelation. With the earthquakes and the devastation happening around the world, it’s a wake-up call.”
Sixty years old, Kathy has blond hair styled short and an easy smile that brings out her dimples. In addition to her job as office manager at Workers United Local 863, she sits on the city council as the recorder.
The flood is “a sign of the times,” she said, and feels that her primary duty since the storm is to “share God’s word with more people.” In terms of actions to be taken in a post-flood town, “There’s nothing really I can encourage or discourage, other than to encourage people to be ready for the Return.”
A Time of Puzzlement
Two weeks before I arrived in West Virginia, Hurricane Harvey pummeled the Texas Gulf Coast with rainfall that in some spots doubled prior records—more than four feet of rain over four days. And while I was there, Hurricane Irma broke records for sustained wind speeds as she spun disaster over the Caribbean and Florida. Hurricane Maria was still brewing, her devastation yet to come.
These events dominated news headlines, as epic stories tend to. But small-scale flash floods like the one in White Sulphur Springs accounted for the second-highest number of weather-related fatalities in 2016; only heat killed more people. These sudden floods hit Houston in April of that year, Maryland in July, and Louisiana in August, where they took out 40,000 houses. The damage from the rains was worsened by lax building codes and excessive development in vulnerable areas, but the ultimate source of the destruction was the sheer amount of water itself.
Surveying the damage in their own town, White Sulphur Springs residents like Kathy, Jake and many of their friends and neighbors turned to Christianity for an explanation, and for guidance about what to do next.
“I’m a believer in the Good Lord,” Jake told me as we sat together in City Hall. At 31 years old, he’d recently been promoted to chief of police and was cognizant of his increased responsibilities in safeguarding the town’s citizens.
In full uniform, with his strawberry hair shorn close, he was composed and steady as he described his disorienting experience of the flood, but his demeanor shifted as the conversation veered toward climate change. He seemed genuinely confounded, wrestling with how to square church teachings with recent weather extremes.
“With the flooding not only here but other places, and the wildfires out west, and hurricanes hitting the Eastern Seaboard,” he said, stretching his arm over his head, his foot starting to tap-tap below the table, “and you look up in the north and you’re seeing glaciers melting—seems like more and more things are impacting this world that are hard to explain. Things are changing. I don’t know,” he said, “It’s kinda scary in a way. I don’t know if these are signs of the ending coming or if this is climate change. I’m as puzzled as everybody is.”
Who Has the Authority?
Before the flood, many of the people in White Sulphur Springs didn’t think about climate one way or the other. In its aftermath, many turned to their churches not only for how to make sense of what had turned their tame creek into a torrent, but for physical relief as well.
Evangelical Christians make up 40 percent of the population of West Virginia (compared to 25 percent nationwide). In the small town of White Sulphur Springs, there are more than 20 churches. Religion permeates many spheres of life: when I asked people in town what they thought about the science of climate change, most punted the question, often to their pastors, who carry an authority not granted to scientists. It’s not that people were skeptical of the science necessarily; instead, they seemed to think of it as cordoned off in a place they didn’t consider theirs.
“I don’t have a big science knowledge or that sort of thing,” said Kathy, who attends one of the Baptist churches in town, when I asked her how she thought about the flood.
Chad Dingess, the pastor of the fast-growing evangelical Bethesda Church, said something similar. He could speak of the end of the world, but it was not his place to consider climate change.
“I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge to speak on that,” Dingess told me early one Sunday morning, before stepping on stage to preach three sermons that would reach one thousand people by noon. He said he has “no clue” if humans have had an impact on climate change.
“The scriptures say very clearly: in the last days, there would be earthquakes and hurricanes. And what the scripture really says is that it will happen more frequently. And I think that’s some of what we’re seeing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s anything we need to be afraid of. It’s pointing to the return of Christ.”
When the waves of thunderstorms drenched White Sulphur, believers and non-believers alike were unified in horror that the flood came so fast. Together as a town, they still suffer jitters each time a hard rain falls. But the deeply religious had a broader context that transferred this confusing data into clear “signs.” From Matthew 24 to the Book of Revelation, they were primed for apocalypse.
Just as Rachel Carson amalgamated every dire outcome that chemicals could produce to make a point in her opening chapter of Silent Spring, the Book of Revelation mentions almost every catastrophic natural tragedy that can befall humanity: locusts and earthquakes, eclipses and scorpion strikes, scorched earth and sulfury fires.
No matter how fast Irma’s winds roil or how many feet of rain Harvey dumps, it is a story the faithful have heard before, and—this is the tricky part—in some ways, long for. The greater the collection of disasters, the closer the long-awaited return of Jesus Christ.
How soon that return might occur has vexed Christianity for a couple of millennia. It’s also forced Christians to answer questions about how to pace their lives and where to direct their energy while here. Some focus on soul work, but others are answering with the body work of community action, sometimes specifically related to weather events.
In the aftermath of disasters that the scientifically minded explain by climate change, it’s the faith-based groups that show up, many (but not all) of them Christian. Three-quarters of the organizations associated with the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster are faith-based. FEMA might be there writing checks, but that requires a lot of cumbersome paperwork and complicated rules. The Mennonite Disaster Service comes, builds a house, and leaves, refusing even a thank you.
Kathy is grateful for this kind of service; it is part of what allowed her to stretch $13,000 FEMA assistance into the $34,000 she actually needed to rebuild her house. When talking about that feat, Kathy’s daughter summons the Biblical story of the few loaves and fishes that miraculously stretched to feed thousands.
“We are where we are today because of God’s people that were here on the ground within the first 24 hours, who were helping with the recovery, helping feeding people,” Kathy said. “You don’t see the government still here, trying to help people rebuild.”
In fact, the government was still there. A team of FEMA and National Guardsmen at that very moment was overseeing the steady demolition of houses beyond repair more than a year after the flood, and part of Kathy’s rebuilding miracle was performed by the secular United Way, which bought all her kitchen appliances.
But it wasn’t as impressive to her as the help that came from local churches or the “orange shirts” of Samaritan’s Purse, an organization led by the Reverend Franklin Graham. Their actions were easier to spot and appreciate, like the volunteers I saw ushering a family in a nearby town also hit by the flood out of their blocky, government-issue FEMA trailer and into a beautiful, new (elevated) house built by Samaritan’s Purse contributions. The young son slid giddily across the shiny wood floor in his socks.
“You see the ministries of the Samaritan’s Purse and from the Southern Baptist Convention helping people rebuild,” Kathy continued with awe. “They’re the people that are still here.”
It is God’s love expressed through human love, immediate and compassionate, arriving with peanut butter sandwiches when people are still wading out of their homes to high ground; it is God’s love expressed through human love that’s still there 15 months later, swinging hammers. I heard this from Kathy and many others. There is no denying the generosity, the unity, the vigor that rebuilding inspires. You can see it in the T-shirt slogans: West Virginia Strong. Houston Strong. Fill-in-the-blank Strong. Rally cries of resilience. The absolute best demonstrations of the human spirit.
There will always be weather disasters that will spark the emergence of these heroes. There will always be room for sweet sympathies for storm victims, the outpouring of donations, the arrival of strangers ready to shovel mud out of houses and hand out blankets.
But the other storyline, the scientific one, proffers the possibility of prevention. Can we halt the warming of the Earth and the seas by ratcheting back the amount of greenhouse gases we produce, so less water rises up to later fall as rain, heavier and harder than we’ve experienced before? So NOAA doesn’t have to come up with new colors on rain charts that signal feet rather than inches? So a good heavy rain is really just good for the garden, and you can wake from your afternoon nap and head to a day at work that will sift into a blur of other indistinguishable rainy days?
“I definitely feel that climate change is important,” Jake said as we chatted in City Hall. “We need to be taking more precautions and steps to ensure that we’re not polluting the planet as much.” He paused, and then went into police chief mode. “We’d look at hybrid cruisers,” he said with a laugh, “if they were substantial enough for the work that we do.”
There is another narrative to be found in the story of scripture. But it doesn’t turn to the burning pages of Revelation at the end of the Good Book and what has been called “escapism theology,” with a hyper focus on the world to come.
Instead, it highlights the origin story of Genesis at the book’s beginning, when God created a world, this world, teeming with living creatures and birds flying in an expansive sky. There was a garden with rivers flowing from it, and the humans God had crafted were placed there to work it and take care of it.
Science is deepening our knowledge of the garden that is our planet, with scientists seeking understanding as urgently as pastors pouring over parables in the Bible, both hoping that come Sunday morning, listeners are ready to receive the message.