Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Janice Person- an open-hearted and dynamic individual who happens to live in recently-flooded Memphis. After I heard Janice speak about the floods on the BBC, I sought her out, and she was kind enough to entertain my follow-up questions during this difficult and somber time.
Janice’s thoughts about the peculiarities, tragedies, and mysteries surrounding a flood provide incredible insights into the plight of the drowning islands (and their inhabitants). While Janice admitted that she doesn’t necessarily “study” climate change to the degree that some others do, her witness to the events of the past several weeks shed light on the “slow-moving thing” that is “strange and surreal.”
Here are pieces of what Janice shared with me:
“There are folks that know they are the first to be flooded. Part of what happens is that this is such a slow-moving thing. It’s a bit strange and surreal. A tornado comes out of nowhere and then it’s gone. This has been building up for a very long time… People know it’s coming. It’s strange to see water coming up over a period of time- a slow progression.”
This “surreal” experience, the slow progression, that Janice spoke of reminds me of several conversations I’ve had with islanders in the front-lines of climate change and sea-level rise. That slow, gradual, lurking, pervasive knowledge that their land is disappearing seems similar to the southern experience that Janice described so well.
“There is a sense for some that they just won’t leave no matter what, that’s part of it… Some people aren’t sure where to go… For some folks, their houses flood every few years because of where they are. They love living close to the river. There’s a draw to the river. Everyone knows the Mississippi has this incredible power… There’s a sense of wanting to live closer to it… I think people get a very defined sense of place… The thing that is the weirdest to me is when people ask: ‘why would you live in a flood zone? Move!’ The flood zone is some of the most productive land in America! You choose to live somewhere for a variety of reasons… There’s a deep, inherent personal connection to where you’re from.”
As Janice shared these thoughts about a deeper, immutable sense of place and connection to home, I couldn’t help but draw strong parallels with islanders that hover just above the ocean. It’s easy to ask someone to move, but it takes more time, sensitivity, and certainly creativity to understand the powerful lure that “home” has and how we can work within that.
“Now I think more people will be aware of just how devastating the water can be. The choices that have to be made along the river with these spillways, that’s something… [rather long and fairly heavy pause here]. Mentally knowing that your home and your land is the first to be sacrificed- that’s really hard.”
I wonder what sort of sacrifices we are asking of those in far-away lands at this very moment. Our daily activities, our creature-comforts, our political and economic decisions- what impact do we have as we open our metaphorical spillway? My pictures in this post are of several beautiful, rather somber Maldivian islanders from a very small and very flat island in the Baa atoll in the Maldives- perhaps very similar to those 25,000 residents in communities on the Morganza spillway who sacrificed their homes this past week in order to spare larger cities from the destruction of the water. Be sure to visit Janice Person’s blog- http://jplovescotton.com/ -and contribute to the cleanup effort as these brave communities put their lives back together (the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and United Way all have donation links on their websites).
I can’t help connecting tsunamis, floods, an individual drowning, and the rising tide of climate change in my mind. These events share a textual, emotional, even symbolic connection. Once I commit thoughts to paper (or screen), I fully and readily admit the many differences between specific water-trauma events. Of course- the present floods in the US south are different from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which was different than Hurricane Katrina, which was unique from Japan’s recent earthquake/ tsunami/ and subsequent nuclear disaster, and these are all quite different from what climate change has and will do to small, flat islands standing alone in our oceans.
But speak with someone who has been afraid of, saddened because of, traumatized in some way because of the water, and notice that these individuals and groups speak the same language. The language is emotional, wistful, and in my opinion, the words come from someplace deep within that is reserved for water-trauma and water-trauma alone. I’m not a therapist or psychologist, but I have talked to those that fear the water in a very personal way that is almost… earned.
This week I will be writing about those that have experienced “water-trauma,” and hoping that we start to weave a web of understanding and compatibility for people across the world that have been or fear traumatic impact from water. I hope for and work towards a better global understanding and recognition of this language that those individuals speak because I believe it will build to a heightened sense of compassion for those in that are losing their land to the sea as climate changes.
I sign off today with a quote from one of this morning’s AP stories on the horrific flooding in the US South (linked below). My heart goes out to those impacted during these floods. As we listen to and respond to their stories, we start to learn a new language- one that sheds light on the plight and future of those in the “drowning islands.”
Merleen Acosta, 58, waited in line for three hours to get her sandbags filled by prisoners, then returned later in the day for more bags. Floodwaters inundated Acosta’s home when the Morganza spillway was opened in 1973, driving her out for several months. The thought of losing her home again was so stressful she was getting sick.
“I was throwing up at work,” she said.
“We have become a force of nature” – Vatican’s Report on Climate Change calls for Habitat Protection and Action
In a new report commissioned by the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, written by a world-class team of scientists affiliated with one of the world’s oldest scientific academies, the Vatican urges dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
The report highlights world renowned and Nobel-prize winning Paul Crutzen’s term the “Anthropocene era.” His theory is that we have entered into a new geologic epoch, where human activities and emissions impact our ecosystem. The Vatican’s report highlights how we have imperiled vulnerable societies across the globe. The report suggests that if we claim to care about humanity, we have a responsibility to protect our environment:
“We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us…”
Tom Painter, a NASA snow hydrologist, who was present at the Vatican meetings, candidly states that “We have become a force of nature.” The report called for three urgent measures: reducing the amount of “warming air pollutants” such as methane and soot by as much as 50 percent; reducing worldwide carbon emissions by stopping deforestation and other initiatives;and preparing for now-unstoppable chronic and abrupt changes.
How do we – the “force of nature” – suggest that those in the “drowning island” countries prepare for these chronic, abrupt changes? Consider countries like the Maldives, which is comprised of roughly 1,200 tiny, nearly flat islands in the Indian ocean. The Maldives already lost 20 islands during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami*. Or Tuvalu, a Pacific ocean island with under 11,000 inhabitants and a peak elevation of less than 5 meters. Or the Marshall Islands, which has a maximum elevation of 10 meters, with most of the country living just inches above the sea. How do we expect them to cope with what we have done and with what we, the force of nature, continue to do. Comments on this question would be much appreciated, because as I show in the picture above and the picture below (the daily crew of sandbag fillers and movers), sandbags are about as helpful as you can imagine…
Find the New York Times Article here: http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2011/05/06/06climatewire-green-smoke-is-sighted-as-vatican-releases-g-91480.html