The brutality of the flooding in the Midwest is hard to comprehend unless you have seen the devastation personally. News stories about flooding generally include the details of rivers cresting, the sandbagging of levees and flood damage assessments. Occasionally a blurb regarding a church or a community's call for God's assistance is mentioned, but only rarely. While coverage of the role of religion in the flooding is sparse, some of the most striking imagery coming out of the Mississippi River flooding has been of churches. See The New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Journalists have also regularly noted the human help Amish and Mennonite communities have provided alongside U.S. Marines, farmers and others as they desperately try to save their communities.
With many towns submerged along the Mississippi River over the weekend, the Associated Press was one of the only news organizations I could find that included a religion angle compelling enough to put in the lead. Here is what many newspapers outside the region used for flood coverage in their Monday morning editions:
LOUISIANA, Mo. -- As the faithful gathered for church services Sunday in towns hit hard by flooding along the Mississippi River, many found comfort in word the swollen waterway had started to reach its high point.
Dozens of parishioners filled the dry Centenary United Methodist Church in Louisiana, a few blocks from floodwaters that still cover about 15 percent of the town's neighborhoods. They prayed for aid and gave thanks for the volunteers, National Guard soldiers and prison inmates who helped the community of nearly 4,000 in recent days.
"And they all worked,'' Pastor Jeanne Webdell said of the volunteers. "They worked for a cause bigger than themselves, worked to help people that most didn't even know. And through them we could see God's love in action.''
If there are other newspapers that have coverage of the flood with a religion angle, please let me know.
The other religion angle floating around news publications, mainly outside the Midwest, usually leads with a variation of the following headline:
Iowa Flooding Could Be An Act of Man, Experts Say
In a way, this is a "man bites dog" story. What goes unsaid in that headline is that the floods are not an act of God (or just a random act of nature). Apparently, man is the cause of these floods. Here is some of the evidence:
Enshayan, director of an environmental center at the University of Northern Iowa, suspects that this natural disaster wasn't really all that natural. He points out that the heavy rains fell on a landscape radically reengineered by humans. Plowed fields have replaced tallgrass prairies. Fields have been meticulously drained with underground pipes. Streams and creeks have been straightened. Most of the wetlands are gone. Flood plains have been filled and developed.
"We've done numerous things to the landscape that took away these water-absorbing functions," he said. "Agriculture must respect the limits of nature."
Officials are still trying to understand all the factors that contributed to Iowa's flooding, and not everyone has the same suspicions as Enshayan. For them, the cause was obvious: It rained buckets and buckets for days on end. They say the changes in land use were lesser factors in what was really just a case of meteorological bad luck.
Perhaps someone should point out that rivers naturally flood, and if it weren't for the extensive system of levees and dams, few would consider living near a moving body of water, particularly one as large and powerful as the Mississippi. I guess you could say that that is the way God set it up, and man came in and tried to change things. If journalists are going to start getting literal with the blame game regarding the floods (thankfully beyond what Pat Robertson has to say), credit should be given where credit is due.