Sightings from the Treehouse: Mugged by Reality

Are houses of worship prepared for the current and coming natural disasters caused by climate change? If not, they need to be. During 2017, the faith community was in the heart of the hurricanes in the east and the wildfires in the west. They provided comfort and support to their ravaged congregants and local communities. They need to be prepared to do more and not be lulled into complacency by lack of awareness or political bent.
George Schultz, former Secretary of State for President Ronald Reagan, was asked about the current day conservative movement’s denial of climate change, and he said they should watch what they say about the climate or they may be mugged by reality. Meaning natural laws do not concern themselves with politics. That mugging has already begun, but the majority party refuses to admit it is even happening and is actively spreading propaganda to misinform the public. Campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, political pressure and conformity are driving this “lemming moment.”
Miami is already in the midst of climate change and the associated costs of mitigating the adverse impacts. The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, published in 2017 by Jeff Goodell focuses heavily on Miami’s future. He highlights the business ramifications of this evolving man-made catastrophe as awareness grows. Loss of real estate value due to tightening of mortgages in threatened areas, withholding of insurance, a population exodus weakening the tax base needed to fund infrastructure improvements and basic services such as road repair, garbage collection, police and ambulance coverage. In Florida, there is no state income tax thus local governments are mostly funded by property taxes.
On November 7, 2017, Miami passed a Miami Forever bond issue. It budgeted $192 million for storm drain upgrades, flood pumps and seawalls. The four-inch sea level rise in the past decade has increased flooding by 400 percent. There are 2,000 homes currently at risk of flooding while 5,000 are at risk in a Category 1 hurricane. Despite this direct action to mitigate short-term impacts of climate change, the real estate boom continues. In fact, climate gentrification is pushing lower income coastal dwellers inland, particularly in the Southeast, due to increased insurance premiums, taxes and rebuilding costs. Replacing them are the rich, less concerned about costs, building larger coastal homes more resilient to extreme weather. Eventually, even they will be forced to flee.
The Risky Business Project, made up of Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and Henry Paulson, estimate that Florida real estate valued between $15-23 billion will be underwater by 2050. Even worse, by 2100 the value of submerged real estate could go as high as $680 billion.
In 2017, natural disasters across the US cost $306 billion according to NOAA. Hurricane Harvey in Texas resulted in $125 billion in damages, Hurricane Maria caused $90 billion in Puerto Rico and still counting, while Hurricane Irma in Florida caused $50 billion in damages to buildings and infrastructure. Western wildfires accounted for $18 billion in damages and 54 deaths. Currently, 43 million homes are located in fire prone areas. Sixteen billion-dollar natural disasters such as tornados, floods, droughts also occurred last year. In most cases, homeowners and business are moving back to the same areas to rebuild with the help of local governments, public assistance and private insurance.
The faith community has been active in all the natural disasters. In Houston, 40 inches of rain fell over a 24-hour period from Hurricane Harvey, a thousand-year climate event. Many houses of worship were flooded while those not flooded took in residents affected by the historic flooding.  The faith community can react to disasters even before FEMA since they are already in place, and provide comfort to many during and after the floods, in addition to assisting homeowners recover from their damages. They played a similar role in California during the 2017 wildfires. The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (National VOAD) represents more than 50 denominational relief agencies and secular charities that make up a faith-based FEMA and are actively engaged in these areas.
It is clear the faith community has a large role to play helping their congregations and communities understand, prepare and cope with the increasingly dire consequences of climate change. Their relief roles during natural disasters are critically important, but they must also prepare their congregations through objective education to have courage and resilience about the increasing adversity. They should additionally develop disaster preparedness plans to address natural and man-made disasters they may face, such as tornados, hurricanes, wildfires, mudslides, not to mention the Gulf Oil Spill. In a study by Wheaton College after Hurricane Katrina, they found:

  • 78% received spiritual and emotional support from their pastor
  • 73% had a pastor or other church member pray with them
  • 72% received social support from other church members
  • 47% took part in crisis counseling offered by their church
  • 43% were encouraged to evacuate by their pastor
  • 39% had medical needs met by the church (first aid, medical supplies)
  • 33% had help rebuilding or repairing their homes
  • 32% received financial donations/gifts via their church

The survey also found:

  • 59 percent of churches had no disaster preparedness plans
  • 24 percent had only the bare necessities and focused mainly on protecting physical property, while
  • 24 percent had comprehensive plans that included protecting the physical property (church records, sacraments) and church member communication (phone trees, evacuation recommendations)

Review of historic flooding, extreme storm potential, and the likelihood of wildfires are a few items that should be understood before purchasing a property or building or rebuilding on it.
Several sources for developing disaster preparedness plans are GA VOAP, Christianity Today and local church disaster preparedness plans.
It is evident that the faith community, currently and in the future, will provide a wide range of support to their congregants and the community as disasters strike. It is important that they be prepared for the adversities that will become increasingly common in the future to avoid getting “mugged by reality” and be unable to support their congregants and neighboring communities.
Read more of the Sightings from the Treehouse Blog Series.  Sightings from the Treehouse is a blog series written by GIPL’s former Director of the Power Wise Program, Bob Donaghue.