The Thousand Year Floods

Hurricane Harvey captured from the International Space Station, Courtesy of NASA

Circa 8 CE Ovid wrote about an ancient flood the gods of Olympus unleashed upon the earth, leaving only the pious couple Deucalion and Pyrrha looking over the side of their small boat to see fields and villages underwater—dolphins brushing the trees.

A pre-colonial Aztec myth says that during the era of the fourth sun, a devout couple hid in the hollowed trunk of a large tree with two ears of corn as divine storms drown the wicked of the land.

About 2000 BCE it’s said the Great Flood of Gun-Yu inundated large parts of China. According to myth, it continued for at least two generations causing people to leave their homes to live on the high hills and mounts or nest on the trees.

Great floods have been part of the human mythos of human apocalyptic destruction and punishment for millennia. Today, they are just as relevant to the human narrative as ever.

On August 25th, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas.

Two members of the Humanist HUB, Dan Richards and Jesse Wallace, are from Texas and have friends and family there. Dan’s parents weathered the storm in Galveston, TX while his cousins were in West Houston. Jesse’s extended family, spread out from Corpus Christi to Baton Rouge, had their homes flooded, their cars totaled. Watching it all happen from 1600 miles away, both men wanted desperately to be of use.

A “wild flash” hit Dan. He had a strong impulse to get in his car, race down to Texas, pick up an inflatable dinghy on the way, and start riding around the waterways of Houston trying to save people. But in the end he stopped himself.

“I wanted to help,” says Dan, “But I didn’t want to center myself. … Taking my ego out of it was my number one priority.”

He had no rescue training, he reflected, no equipment or experience. If he had gone and gotten himself hurt or stranded, someone would have to come out and get him. Or worse, in an attempt to help an injured or stranded person he could potentially cause them harm for lack of medical or rescue training, simply aggravating the problem.

Instead, both Dan and Jesse stuck to their phones and tried to coordinate flow of information over social media. Dan showed me an S.O.S. he saw on Facebook about a group of nine adults, two children, six toddlers, two infants, three cats, and three dogs stranded in a house on the brink of flooding. 911 was not responding to their distress calls. He forwarded the message to a high school friend who, after losing his home, was riding around with his brother picking up stranded. He could only hope they’d be able to reach the stranded.

The civilian response was overwhelming, and combined with social media channels, people picked up the slack where governmental rescue agencies were over-extended. The Cajun Navy, an ad-hoc volunteer group of private boaters from Louisiana formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, arrived to Texas en masse. There were guys who rolled through the flood waters in their monster trucks. Groups of citizens who made chains of people to get to those who were stranded in floodwaters.

If he was there, Jesse reflected, he probably would have been with his uncle in a boat pulling people out of houses. But from afar, he focused on the next step after immediately surviving the flood: helping people survive the next month.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Jesse did volunteer electrical work in New Orleans and from his experience knew that it wasn’t middle-class people like his family that would need most financial support but people with fewer resources. He donated installments to several GoFundMe campaigns aimed at helping specific families below his socioeconomic status weather the upcoming months as well as to low-income school districts whose supplies had been completely flushed away.

As Humanists, we don’t have a God or divine hierarchy to look up at and pray to. Dan saw a lot of people posting, “Thoughts and prayers,” on social media during the hurricane. “I don’t see that as misguided,” he says. “There’s some utility in prayer.” He feels it focuses people on the task that needs doing. If we were silent, what use is that?

Jesse saw the same flurry of reflexive thanks-to-God messages after they’d been rescued. “No!” Jesse says. They shouldn’t be thanking God. “Thank the [guy] who just gave you the help and recognize his humanity is amazing.”

Jesse recounted a different kind of “rescue” story about a friend living in Houston, hated by his neighbors for being a Black Lives Matter activist. During the storm, both he and his family and the family of a neighborhood man who hung a Confederate flag on his truck were huddled together in the same shelter for some 40 hours. The conservative man thought BLM was a terrorist organization, or at least a hate group bent on assaulting white people. A conversation began between the two men.

After the clouds passed, the BLM activist and the conservative man worked side-by-side to help others in the neighborhood get their houses back together. Last Jesse heard, a kind of friendship seems to have formed between him and some of his staunchly conservative neighbors.

“I find it a bit ironic how impressive humanity can be and not even know it. … I just wish it didn’t take a catastrophe [to bring it out of people.]”

This is the first time in recorded history that two Atlantic category 4 hurricanes have made landfall in a single year. And the 33 trillion gallons of water Harvey dumped on the U.S. “This is something that hasn’t happened in our modern era of observations [about 100 years]” said University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Dr. Shane Hubbard speaking to the Washington Post.

The future may potentially bring the biggest flooding the human race has ever seen. It won’t just last two generations as the Great Flood of Gun-Yu purportedly did, it may last far, far longer.

The old flood myths often represented a cleansing of wickedness from the world. A time when humanity had gone a wrong way and needed to be radically, violently redirected. The great floods of the future—just like those of the past—will also be a consequence of human “wickedness,” so to speak. The difference is that we won’t see them as God-sent but human-made. And our redemption too will not be divine but gruelingly, honestly, heroically Humanistic.

Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.

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