Thursday, March 1, 2018

'Christ and Calamity'

Why the deaths of 1,000+ people and wholesale destruction of parts of 15 states—beginning Easter Sunday 1913? Pastors grappled for meaning

UPCOMING TALK: “‘Deity and Disaster’: From the Great Easter 1913 Flood to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria,” to be given Sunday, March 11, 2018 at 9:45 AM, will explore this subject further. Please come! (No reservations needed, no admission charge; DETAILS HERE)

Easter Sunday was supposed to be Christians’ highest religious festival: celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and His promise to mankind of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And in 1913, Easter, March 23
Editorial cartoon “Lilies and Crepe” appeared on the front page of the March 25, 1913 St. Joseph Gazette (Missouri) just two days following fateful Easter Sunday 1913. The cartoon is heavy with symbolism. Crepe (used for the bow) may indicate the Victorian custom of veiling mirrors to prevent the spirit of the deceased from being trapped in the reflection. Lilies symbolized many things, chiefly the Resurrection of Christ celebrated as Easter—the day the tornadoes killed hundreds (the skeletal hand of death is writing in the Bible) and the torrential rains began, bringing the record flood.
was greeted with the front pages of Sunday newspapers across the land proclaiming the good news, and churches adorned with lilies opening their doors and inviting all to join in singing hymns of praise.

But hours later, just as families were sitting down to Easter dinner, a dozen tornadoes struck one after another. Within four hours, 250 people had been slaughtered by violent twisters roaring across Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana (see “‘My Conception of Hell’,”To Build a Tornado,” and “Terror in Terre Haute). That same evening, torrential rains began to fall relentlessly across the Midwest, especially intense over Indiana and Ohio (see “Be Very Afraid). Within days, Noachian floods swelled without warning and swept away houses and businesses. By the time the waters were receding at the week’s end, at least 1,000 people were dead, and the angry waters were continuing their destruction down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers (see “‘Death Rode Ruthless’” and Like a War Zone).

Editorial cartoon “Thy Will Be Done,” published
on the front page of the Omaha Daily Bee on
Sunday, March 30, 1913, depicts a grief-stricken
congregation struggling to understand the Easter tragedy.
(Distracting horizontal lines are scratches on the
microfilm newspaper record.)
Over that first week, grief-stricken ministers and congregations alike wrestled with finding meaning in apparently senseless forces that killed a thousand, injured tens of thousands, and rendered homeless hundreds of thousands more. So in 1913, the Sunday after Easter (sometimes called “low Sunday” because attendance often was lowest then after the build-up of Lent through Easter), sanctuaries were filled with bewildered parishioners seeking comfort—and comprehension of how, why such devastating calamities could befall a world governed by a good, merciful, and loving God.

Many newspapers—not just in the Midwest or Great Plains, but all the way to California—published on Monday, March 31, 1913 summarized sermons given by pastors the day before. The accuracy of the summary depended, of course, on the skill and understanding of the reporter. But details aside, the summaries give an idea of the range of lessons ministers drew.

Interpreting disaster
A few ministers in 1913 alluded to the notion that God sent the devastating tornadoes and floods to chastise or punish humans—an interpretation that would have been nearly standard fare 150 or 200 years earlier and apparently still had some currency in the popular mind. At least one minister might have ventured close: “Without disaster the world forgets God,” warned the Rev. Johnstone Myers to the congregation of the Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago.
Piersel. Illinois
State Journal,

3/31/1913 p 2

Rev. Alba C. Piersel of the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Springfield, Illinois, reinforced that message. In a sermon titled “Deity and Disaster, or Christ and Calamity” (the inspiration for the title of this post), Piersel declared: “Man is prone to overestimate…himself.  …Striding the streams with cities and towns, establishing squatter sovereignty on their banks, denuding the plains of forests, making dams to stand the strain—all of this brings disaster in its train” because in overestimating himself, man underestimates God. 

“God is still supreme,” Piersel reminded his listeners, and “God speaks from His pulpit in the great disaster or calamity,” reminding humanity “in flame, or flood, or tornado—‘Be still and know that I am God’.” The lesson, he asserted, is “[n]ever to be presumptive toward God.” “Suffering and sorrow are for punishment, or for perfecting” although, he hastened to add, “It is not to be presumed that those who suffer so in our recent widespread disasters are wicked.”

Other pastors disagreed. “God never hurt anybody in the whole history of the world just to show that he is great,” objected the Rev. Frederick E. Hopkins, Park Manor Congregational Church in Chicago. “The doctrine that God hated Nebraska, Ohio, and Indiana with such hatred that he could find no way to satisfy it except by such a calamity would make more infidels…in one week…since man began to believe…”
Hayes, Hopkins,
and Myers.
Chicago Tribune

3/31/1913 p 3

The Rev. F. L. Hayes of the California Avenue Congregational Church in Chicago ventured to place some blame: “It was not God who brought the destruction of the floods but the carelessness of men. The lack of the proper building of bridges, the insufficiency of protection in the making of reservoirs, the indifferent inspection are the responsible causes. The law of the flood must be met by the law of the high ground. …It is the love of God that gives us the fire and the water to be our servants, but as masters they become tyrants.”

“The Ohio flood was not sent by Providence as a punishment,” declared the Rev. R. J. MacAlpine from the pulpit of Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Cleveland. Instead, “[t]he Creator seems to permit his works in nature to take their complex course, without respect of persons or circumstances. We should, therefore, learn the ominous lesson that, so far as is humanly possible, we must…impregnably defend ourselves against [nature’s] most sudden violence,” such as locating cities well back from lowlands or erecting other protections “by all the power of human genius.”
Plain Dealer

3/31/1913 p 14

“Many say the tornado is the wrath of God upon his people. I cannot see it that way,” stated the Rev. Nathaniel McGriffin at the Lowe Avenue Presbyterian Church in devastated Omaha, Nebraska. “God…permits the forces of nature to be in motion.” But he drew the line at putting faith in the works of man as an adequate defense. “The tornado shows us the futility of man’s power, ingenuity and invention. Man builds mighty works, but nature’s slightest demonstration may overwhelm them.”

In McGriffin’s view, “No more important lesson is taught in this terrible crisis than that…Man in the flesh is crushed, but his spirit is inconquerable. See it rise out of the ruins and set about the task of rehabilitation. …But let us get the full force of this lesson and recognize that this inconquerable spirit…has come down from above, the spirit of God, eternal and unchangeable, which vanquisheth not and is not bowed down. It comes to still the tempest and repair the wreck.”
McGriffin. Omaha Bee 3/31/1913, p. 10

Speaking to a congregation of 1,000 at the First Methodist Church in Omaha, some of whom were dressed in mourning black crepe, the Rev. M. B. Williams urged that “God can do wonders with those who will but trust in Him.” His sermon, “A Voice in the Storm,” was based on Mark 4:39–40, from the account of the disciples in a boat with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee being terrified when a storm blew up with high winds and surging waves. “And He [Jesus] arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, ‘Peace, be still.’ And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. And He said unto them, ‘Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?’”

Omaha Bee
3/31/1913, p. 10
Meantime in Omaha, the Omaha World-Herald reported a tragic drama among the rubble left marking the path of the tornado: “From out of a brick pile that once had been a building, but was torn away on one side and boarded up like a rough shed, came the sound of a pipe organ and anthems of praise, devotion and thanksgiving.” That was the congregation inside what remained of Trinity Methodist Church. From nearby piles of debris came the “rat-tat-tat” of the carpenter’s hammer and the rasping noise of the saw.

Yes, thanksgiving. For despite the death and destruction, so many were thankful that they and their loved ones were still alive. Despite the fact that the parish of St. Cecilia’s Church suffered the heaviest losses than any  other Catholic congregation in the city of Omaha—15 houses demolished and another 50 seriously damaged—Father Daniel Harrington offered a mass of “thanksgiving that so many were spared from the destruction of the tornado.”
St. Cecilia’s. Omaha Bee 3/31/1913, p. 10


©2018 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Desperate Medicine

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Disastrous Year

2017 was a record year for natural disasters. Many were floods. What now?

UPCOMING TALK: “‘Deity and Disaster’: From the Great Easter 1913 Flood to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria” will explore how pastors in March 1913 sought to draw lessons from Ohio’s/Indiana’s/Nebraska’s deadliest tornadoes and floods, as well as how modern theologians have tried to make sense of the September 2017 calamities in Texas and Puerto Rico. (no reservations needed, no admission charge; DETAILS HERE)

This gif looks of approximately the right era
for the 1913 flood, but the actual year or flood
is not stated. Credit: GIPHY
2018 marks the 105th anniversary of the Great Easter 1913 storm system and flood—and the 15th year of my own research on it. But the multistate 1913 natural disaster had enduring consequences and has present-day significance, notably setting benchmarks for extreme future disasters. 2017 hammered the nation and its territories with multibillion-dollar disasters. The start of 2018 is an apt moment to reflect on last year’s tornadoes and floods, their consequences, and warnings for the future.
Damages from 2017’s natural disasters approached
$400 billion. Credit: Javier Zarracina/Vox

February: Decaying dams 
Rainfall heavier than that in a century deluged California, ending the years-long dry spell (although not the overall long-term trend toward drought) with floods and mudslides. So fast and hard did the rains fall that California’s Oroville Dam—highest in the nation—nearly overtopped, forcing use of the emergency spillway. But the torrents of water were so forceful they damaged the spillway, forcing evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from the town of Oroville below the dam in case the dam gave way. This close call at such a large dam was a major wake-up call to the rest of the nation, because California’s dam  infrastructure is far better maintained than that in most other states (see “Brink of Disaster?” and “Brink of Failure?”)
EF-3 tornado near Washburn, Illinois, on
February 28—one of several EF-3 tornadoes
that formed during the same outbreak
with the violent EF-4. Credit: Cameron Nixon 

Tornado outbreaks
2017 was one of the most active years for tornadoes since systematic records began to be kept in 1950, especially during the first quarter of any year. More than 1,500 tornadoes were reported in the U.S., of which nearly 1,400 were confirmed. Nationwide, they wreaked more than $5 billion in damage and collectively claimed 38 lives. Two of the most severe outbreaks were February 28–March 1 when 72 tornadoes spun up in just over 23 hours, including a violent EF-4 that traveled more than 50 miles from Perryville, Missouri, to near Christopher, Illinois. A week later, another 63 tornadoes afflicted nearly the same area during 9 hours on March 6–7.
Tally of costs of natural disasters in the U.S. (billions
of dollars) shows that Hurricane Harvey blasted
past Katrina as the nation’s most expensive.
Because this chart was compiled in September 2017,
it does not yet include the costs of Hurricane Maria
to Puerto Rico and elsewhere; Maria likely would
fall between Irma and Katrina. Credit:

Harvey, Irma, Maria
According to Statista, which serves the insurance industry, 2017 was the nation’s most expensive year for natural disasters. The damages from Hurricane Harvey dwarfed those from Hurricane Katrina, the previous record-setter—and thus also the damages from 1913, since 1913 likely edged out Katrina (see “Like A War Zone”). Indeed, after adding in disasters in Asia, Mexico, and elsewhere around the world, globally speaking, 2017 was the third most expensive year on record.

Portion of I-10 in Texas during Hurricane Harvey.
Credit: Getty Images/Vox
Since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September, power to about half the American citizens there has been restored, with estimates that others may not be able to turn on the lights until May. 

Hurricane Irma raging in the Brickell neighborhood of Miami.
Credit: Stephen Yang, Reuters

Lost in all the noise were some other amazing records set on a somewhat smaller scale—such as the record rainfalls in Missouri, Arkansas, and other states that dumped up to 12 inches of rain in 48 hours on April 28–30.

Damaged houses in CataƱo after Puerto Rico was slammed by Hurricane Maria. Credit: Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images in The Wall Street Journal

And the National Flood Insurance Program, which expired on September 30 but has been given several short extensions, has yet to be put on a permanent footing: Congress has until January 19, 2018 to act.
Record-breaking intense rain fell over some areas
afflicted by the 1913 flood—in some places
dumping up to 12 inches in 48 hours.
Credit: National Weather Service

Get thee behind us, 2017. With hopes that 2018 may be kinder and gentler to all…

©2018 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: 'Christ and Calamity'

PERSONAL NOTE: I am working on a major book project unrelated to the 1913 storm system and flood (it is to be a reference on 19th-century U.S. astronomical observatories). Because of the demands of that project, until it is completed, I am able to post installments to this 1913 research blog only about every other month. My long-range goal, however, remains: to write a definitive analysis of the full scale and significance of the 1913 national catastrophe. Please feel free to contact me regarding either project!

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.