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Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Great Forty-Day Flood Of 2050–How People Got Religion Then Gave It Back

It had rained for five days straight – a cold, hard steady rain that pooled in back yards, overflowed gutters, backed up storm drains, and leaked into basements. It was an incessant rain that beat so hard on shingled roofs that it was hard to sleep. Everywhere where the ground was uneven rivulets formed and made their way to alleys and streets where they joined rivers of water that had poured off other houses.

Flood II

It wasn’t so much the rain itself that was so worrying, but the fact that it never stopped nor let up.  There were no breaks in the rain, no pauses, or no brief clearing of the skies. It poured with no letup all day and night. After a week people began to worry that something was wrong. Such persistent, steady and heavy rain are uncommon even in the monsoon. 

It rains in Bombay from early June until September, and until the low pressure system that stalls over the subcontinent every year moves on, furniture, shoes, carpets and car interiors are moldy, green, and wet.  Yet there are breaks in the clouds and the rain does stop, although only for a few hours at a time. Although the sunshine and patches of blue break the monotony of the weeks of rain, most people would prefer the dark clouds to remain low and threatening for the entire three months.  Within minutes of the sun coming out, the city becomes steamy, unbearably hot, and almost intolerable.


Edson Clarke remembered that the break in the clouds and the rain, and the intervals of bright, hot sun were reassuring.  The rains would stop in September, would return again the following June.  The fields would go from sere brown to bright green in days and then to dusty brown again.  The sky would be cloudless and perfectly blue and clear for nine months and then grey and covered for three.  This was the recognizable, predictable order of things.  The monsoon rains were as much a part of life as the infernal heat of summer.

Long periods of monsoon-like rain are unknown in the United States.  Although the Southwest has what they call a monsoon, it is nothing like the torrential rains of the subcontinent. It settles over the desert for a few weeks, rains some, and then is gone. Northern California has its rainy season, and there are weeks when it rains so hard and the wind is so strong, that water lashes across the region in horizontal bands.  It is impossible to keep dry. 

Image result for images severe rain storm in san francisco

In San Francisco the water pours down the hills in torrents, and overflows any storm drains or gutters that have been blocked by leaves and debris.  In Los Angeles any kind of rain is rare, and when a serious storm comes out of the Pacific, the drainage system, built for only a few inches a year, becomes overwhelmed, tens of thousands of gallons of water pour into the dry wadi of the Los Angeles River and head out to sea.  The storm comes and goes.

After a week of rain, Edson Clarke, his family, and all of Washington were seriously concerned.  The US weather service was little help. They could describe the event – the jet stream had stalled, El Nino was particularly strong, the Tibetan Plateau had not heated as it usually did, and hurricane-like storms were forming off the coast of Africa far earlier than normal.  Why these atmospheric disruptions were occurring, they couldn’t say, nor how long they would last.

Image result for images hurricanes forming off africa coast

After two weeks even the happy talk local newscasters had trouble hiding their concern. News from Syria, Russia, and Sierra Leone were no longer even mentioned and relegated to the far inside pages of the Post and the New York Times. After three weeks – half the period of the Biblical Flood we were reminded – scientists were rarely invited to speak.  They had said all they had to say about air and water currents, temperature differentials, and cyclical ocean phenomena.  Increasingly religious leaders appeared.  The tone of the interviews was not alarmist.  They had not been invited to read Revelations and to invoke the Holy Spirit, but simply to reflect on the Biblical story of Noah, the Flood, and its significance to Judeo-Christian thought.

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If these spiritualists did not publically refer failing grace or divine dissatisfaction, their colleagues at the pulpit did.  The more moderate denominations only asked for God’s help and guidance in ‘these troubled times’; but the charismatic preachers of the South and the inner city store-front churches had no such reticence. 

“The wrath of God is upon us”, said Pastor Flinders of the New Hope Baptist Church of Aberdeen, Mississippi, “for we have sinned.  On your knees before Him”, Pastor Flinders shouted, ‘bruise them on the cold, hard floor in penance and in a plea for forgiveness.  The End is nigh, the parousia upon us, and before long we all will be standing before our Lord and Savior.  Some will be welcomed into his Kingdom.  Others will be banished.  The time has come for judgment.”

Image result for images preachers at pulpit with bible

Indian tribes, especially those on Arizona reservations which had retained a closer tie to their ancestral spirits than their brothers and sisters who had chosen business enterprise and assimilation over their ancient traditions, were asked to pray for the rains to stop. Few white people stopped to smile at the irony of reverse rain dances or the fact that this was the first time since Pocahontas that the White Man ever asked the Indian for anything.  Even the Indians on the poorest and most desperate reservations, such as the dismal and depressing Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, were invited to pray to their environmental spirits for intercession.

Rain dance

As the period of the rains approached 40 days, panic began to set in. Not only was normal life impossible – subways had been inundated, low-lying roads were flooded and impassible, water had found its way into electrical circuits and relays and shorted them out.  Commuter trains ceased service because of widespread power outages, and electricity supply was only intermittent in most DC neighborhoods. Schools on high ground continued to operate, but those on reclaimed land from the former swamps by the Potomac had long since closed.  The Interstates were still passable and food and fuel trucks were still moving; but all transport was affected by high water.  As soon as interruptions in supermarket food supply were noticed, panic buying began, shelves were empty, and hoarding increased.  Because of a lack of home refrigeration due to a loss of power, perishable food rotted in trash cans in flooded alleys.  It had been weeks since garbage trucks had made it down Edson’s alley.

Image result for images empty supermarket shelves panic buying

The low-pressure system that was causing the rains gradually expanded and covered the entire East Coast.  Every city from Miami to Boston was at least partially under water. The only reason why a full, out-and-out national panic did not take hold was because the West Coast, the Great Plains, and the desert Southwest were spared.  The phenomenon could not be anything more than meteorological.  God could not possibly be so selective, singling out Washington and New York while leaving San Francisco and Phoenix untouched.

Yet there were many evangelical preachers who thought otherwise.  There was no doubt in their mind that God was sending a second Flood to destroy the East Coast because it was the locus of sin and evil, the breeding ground for Jewish conspiracies, socialist plots, and orchestrated attempts to create a godless, spiritless, and venally secular country.  The ‘dens of sexual aberration’ of the West Coast would be next.  Pacific waters would soon be spilling over into the Castro and wiping the city clean of sexual and spiritual deviants.

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American atheists began to wonder whether or not they had missed the boat and whether or not there was indeed a vengeful and retributive God in heaven.  Agnostics were flocking to church, and thousands gave their souls to Jesus Christ.

Academics were the last holdout, especially those in theological seminaries at places like Harvard and Yale. Had they been wrong about Jesus Christ, the doctrine of grace, redemption, and salvation?  Was Christ just a mythological figure created at a unique point in history? And the only real God the one of the Old Testament who visited plagues, floods and disasters on the Israelites when he was unhappy with them?

Image result for image yale divinity school

Doctrinal issues long settled since the days of Martin Luther were reassessed.  Terms that were never heard outside the carrels of university libraries – Monophysites, Pelagians, Neo-Platonists, Gnostics, Montanists and many more discredited, excommunicated, or marginalized thinkers were rehabilitated and given a second look. Even in these troubled days, academics found time to argue received religious wisdom.

Image result for image gnostics early christian era

The fact that the rains did end after 40 days only sharpened the edges of religious debate and spiritual conversion.  It was too much of a coincidence, and God must have had a hand in the disastrous events of the last months and a half.  Thanks to his mercy and grace we were saved; but he was obviously sending us a message to ignore at our peril  For years after The Second Great Flood churches were filled to overflowing, and even the most diffident were brought into the discussion of God and religion.

Meteorologists still had no explanation for what happened to the East Coast; so for many years following the flooding, a belief in divine intervention ruled the day.  People being what they are, the fervor soon cooled, and after a while – especially once the streets were cleaned up, the sewers unclogged, and the subways running – people went back to their ordinary, routine lives. Church attendance went back down to its pre-flood level, Armageddon hysteria disappeared completely from the airwaves; and it was as though the flood had not happened.

“If people go back to normal after a 40-day flood”, Edson Clarke said to his wife after vivid memories of The Long Rain, as the Lakota called it, had faded, “then we are not as religious a country as people say”.

“Of course not”, his wife replied. “Did you ever think it was?”

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