When I was a kid growing up in the Northwest Bronx in the 1970s, I have no recollection whatsoever of really bad weather of any kind. Some of this is perhaps because of the circumstances in which my family and I were living at the time – we rented a three room apartment in a four story walk up; if any storms did occur they certainly made no great impact on my memory; because in our urban environment the electrical wires were underground we never lost power, and when and if it snowed, it was (blessedly) the landlord’s responsibility to clear it.
In fact, the first real “weather” events that remain with me are those our family encountered once we moved to the suburbs. That move brought with it much more space for our family to live, but also – a shock to the system for this city kid – a plethora of new chores to be taken up: the raking of leaves weekend after weekend in the autumn, shoveling what seemed to be a city block of snow every time precipitation occurred during the winter, and in the later summer, the almost annual occurrence of a storm that caused a tree to fall somewhere on our block that left us without electricity for anywhere from several hours to several days. None of these occurrences were too burdensome in and of themselves, and of course our family soldiered through – in fact, for a kid the occurrence could be almost be described as fun – imagining yourself a pioneer on the frontier and the only light you had was the lantern that lit your way before you. As far as big storms go, the first one I have vivid recollection of was one that hit the New York City area when I was in the 6th Grade; it hit on a Holy Day of Obligation – this I remember, because my friends and I were off from school that day and had taken the bus from where we lived up to the New Rochelle Mall. My friends had gone up to the Mall to hang out, but I was there on a mission: a bit of a science fiction nerd at the time (not that I have outgrown it) I had spied on an earlier reconnaissance mission in the Mall’s obligatory toy store Mattel Toy’s Space 1999 Eagle Transporter, and I was there on my day off to get it! When I purchased it, I remember that it came in an enormous box (the toy itself was pretty big). I left the Mall and went outside to wait for the bus home with my friends, and the weather by that time had become pretty inclement. We were forced to stand inside the open bus shelter for cover. The wind was tremendous, and I recall that at one point while my friends and I waited it caught hold of the big plastic bag that contained the big cardboard box and blew my toy clear across North Avenue until it hit the building across the street and fell to the sidewalk beneath. Despite the weather, I scrambled across the street to reclaim my prize, which seemed – and was – intact, although dented and a little worse for wear from the wind and the water. The bus eventually came and my friends and I boarded it, and as I rode home, I tightly clung to the box my mock spacecraft came in – smiling inwardly that I was probably the only kid who had a model that had actually ever taken flight – and thinking to myself that this was some weather I had never experienced back home in the Bronx!
Since that time, I do recall many big storms that have made their way through our area – Hurricanes Gloria, Hugo, Floyd and Irene, all these passed through with no particular personal memory that I could attach to any. There was one storm – 1991’s so-called “Perfect Storm” – that I do have vivid memories of: at the time I was working at a Catholic Charities sponsored Nursing Home in the South Bronx. I used to drive there from Westchester County, and as I remember, no one was anticipating a storm of such power to pass through the area. I had lived through Hurricanes before: they all had names and were big storms, but you prepared for them before they struck and you felt secure; with this one however we were all seemingly caught unawares. Expecting just a particularly blustery rainy day, we had gone to work, expecting to get a little wet but not much more. Instead, the storm caused extensive flooding – which a colleague of mine at the nursing home got caught in on the F.D.R. Drive on the East Side of Manhattan – as well as a large number of power outages from fallen trees. I remember driving home that afternoon once we were dismissed from work – up Southern Boulevard past the Bronx Zoo – and seeing the thick trunked oaks that lined that broad street almost bent double in the wind, causing me to say a Decade of the Rosary out loud to myself in the car, that Our Blessed Mother would help see me safely delivered home in one piece that day – which gratefully She did!
Despite this wake up call, I went on in happy ignorance as to the vulnerability of our area to catastrophic weather events. I would see on television the devastating effects that severe weather would have on places like Haiti, like Florida, like the Gulf Coast – and would participate in relief efforts, donating funds and saying prayers for people in these place that they would recover and pull through despite the adversity that nature had thrown at them – all the while thinking that I would never witness in my lifetime, in this area, comparable devastation to the kind that flickered across my television screen.
That happy ignorance came to a crashing halt of course on October 29th when Sandy came barreling ashore.
I will not belabor explaining to you the devastating effects that this hurricane has had on our entire tri-state area – the lives lost, homes destroyed, property damaged, neighborhoods washed away. Others have written much more eloquently than I ever could what this storm has wrought in their lives. For myself, thankfully, the apartment live in did not lose power (in fact, it became “power-charging” central to many friends in other parts of the city that were not so fortunate); and my parents home was spared as well. Since the storm first hit, I have been witness to the extraordinary efforts of my colleagues here at Catholic Charities – both in the Archdiocese and at our sister agencies across the region in the rest of coastal New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – who quickly mobilized to establish recovery centers for those impacted by the storms, providing for the people every sort of assistance – from the basics of food, and water, and clothing and care, to rental assistance, housing and counseling for those who lost close to everything that they owned.
No, instead on this evening before Thanksgiving, I would like to write a rebuttal – not of an editorial per-se, but of a headline, one that graced (and I use this term loosely) the front page of the local tabloid here in the city – The New York Post – just about two weeks ago, in the aftermath of a snowstorm that had struck our city in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In bold stark letters, the headline declared that – in the aftermath of Sandy and the snowstorm – GOD HATES US!…
I must admit that I do not ordinarily read the Post, but walking down the street, this headline not only assaulted my eyes, but my psyche as well…. “God hates us”…. How opposite – how alien – to anything that I believe or have been taught about God – by the Church, from my parents – so alien and jarring in fact, that the words have been echoing within me for these past two weeks demanding a response.
While I cannot really begin to- and am neither equipped to – explain the age old perennial question of why God allows “bad things” – like natural disasters – to happen to good people (to use a MUCH, MUCH too overused phrase: “it is above my pay grade”), one thing that I can attest and give personal witness to through my work and exposure here at Catholic Charities is that disasters sometimes present to us the opportunity to do quite “Godly” things in response to them: to reach out and assist, to try to make whole again, to offer a prayer, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, to share with those who have been harmed from the rich bounty that God has blessed our own lives with, to simply be present to each other.
Last week, we were blessed here in the Archdiocese to be visited by an extraordinary person: at the invitation of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, Bishop Bernard Unabali – leader of the Diocese of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea – was in our city to speak about the plight of the people of the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific, whose island home is gradually being inundated by rising sea levels. They are often referred to as the world’s first “climate refugees”, and their story is told poignantly in an Academy Award nominated short film called: “Sun Come Up”, which we screened here at the Catholic Center last week. After the screening, Bishop Unabali spoke movingly to those assembled about the plight of the people of the Carteret Islands, and the willingness of the people of his diocese to welcome and provide land and assistance for these “climate refugees”. While certainly victims of a disaster, I am quite certain that the people from the Carteret Islands that are profiled in the film “Sun Come Up” do not believe that “God hates them”….in the film they were not despondent, but instead joyful and hopeful – most especially because when presented with the Carteret Islander’s crisis, their Island neighbors in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea responded in a “Godly” act of solidarity, welcoming the community to their own island home as the Carteret Islanders started their lives anew.
In concluding, Bishop Unabali urged all present to integrate the biblical values of environmental justice into their lives, and to answer a similar call of solidarity – a call that has special resonance and new urgency for all of us here in the metropolitan New York area as we work to respond to those impacted by the rising waters Hurricane Sandy left in her wake.
God’s blessing upon you and your families this Thanksgiving and always.