1900 Galveston Hurricane, 8/8: Random Reflections to Wrap Up

By October 23, 2008

Since I’m writing and you’re reading this for free, I figure I can throw in some random stuff at the end just because.

On research I didn’t do: I did not pursue several potentially fruitful avenues of exploration. Some potential sources of documents include: other conferences and other missions; church headquarters, including Relief Society records; the Southwestern States Mission newsletter, Truth’s Reflex (I am not aware of any extant issues from the latter half of 1900); and church units in the storm’s later path.

On unpacking expectations: It has been interesting to try to separate my own experiences from those of my subjects. For example, two of the most significant elements of my post-storm memories are the smell of a “shaken” town and the look of a “stirred” forest. My adjectives quiver and blanch at the thought of painting those wretched olfactions, but none of the Elders mention them [1]. I surmise that without electric refrigeration or mandatory evacuations there was less food spoilage; that nineteenth-century observers lived far more exposed to odors than us; that there was little or no drywall; and that the Elders whose diaries I used simply did not encounter the worst smells. Similarly, the discrepancy between my reaction to forests with pine trees pointing directions other than up and the Elders’ comments is partially explained by my unstated expectation that the forestation patterns have not changed; where I expected Elder Brooks to be awed by the forest was actually a prairie at the time.

On work-crew safety orientation: A doctor addresses the crews, 2005: “I am an emergency room physician, and when I have nightmares, I dream of three-thousand white-collar workers with chainsaws—like we have today” [2].

On the frivolity of men’s sacrament shirt color: I have wonderful memories of a sacrament meeting where my shoes were caked in mud, my pants had holes, and we all wore yellow T-shirts. On the other hand, if you’re meeting in a window-less chapel without electricity, long-sleeve white shirts really do capture the camping lanterns better [3].

On the evil in my heart: As a child I remember flooding and storms as exciting. No school! Snakes in the house! Boats in the street! Splashing! I remember feeling disappointed when storms missed us. Now, I am cheered to the deepest, craggiest cockle of my unchristian heart when storms go elsewhere. Experience by itself does not necessarily make us better; I think agency and grace also play essential roles. I’m trying to be better.

On methodological reticence about the divine: I have, in these posts, deliberately avoided speaking of God. I consciously employed methodological naturalism and methodological skepticism: you wouldn’t believe me or wouldn’t read me if I kept bashing you in the head with my perceptions of heaven’s involvement. I have, however, frequently encountered what I accept as divine influence in my personal hurricane experiences. I find many of the evidences used in 1900 and after to label God’s hand to be problematic, but I identify thoroughly with the conviction that God was and is with us—“us” being both humanity generally and the church specifically. In particular, I have felt Him in the routinized relationships that get us into work crews and canneries and emergency preparation classes, on roofs and calling-lists, and behind wheelbarrows and chainsaws and hygiene kits. Hearts knit together, indeed.

As I sort-of argued earlier, much of the difficulty of the storm is in its emotional magnitude. Thus, after immediate physical needs, much of the value of relief efforts is emotional and spiritual. When I have felt overwhelmed by storms, few things have been more salutary than the sight of yellow shirts piling over the sides of a pick-up truck—or the call to join them in forgetting myself in service to others. Further, because of fatigue, sometimes keeping the eye of faith open to “find God’s hand” is too hard. Sometimes He makes it easier by dressing it in matching T-shirts and sending it out in large groups.

On the flip side, being weak-minded and strong-backed, I’ve worn that shirt more than once and was blessedly unencumbered by any sense of great mission. One person’s “so what are we doing this weekend?” is another’s angelic ministration. In fact, I’ve developed a suspicion about the utility of pathos. The scriptures seem pretty clear in portraying Jesus as feeling compassion, so I don’t want to take this observation too far, but when you’re up to your knees in muck in someone’s living room, slimed from hardhat to boots, shoveling nastiness out a window into a sweltering summer, every calorie you put toward feeling is putrescence still in the house.

But, then again, I just got through saying that the psychological uplift played a key role in the blessing. I observed that for every couple of muckrakers like me, there was also a saint quietly mourning with the residents. Maybe when it was my turn to be helped I just felt better because those thirty trees weren’t on my things-to-do list anymore. Maybe, at least for me, having the sense that fellowcitizenly saints feel and act with me is more important than the sense that they feel for me [4]. Maybe the reflective life is overrated.

On finally shutting-up: The 1900 Galveston storm was big and affected many people. Like almost any name, “the 1900 Galveston Hurricane,” is problematic. Its consequences extended far beyond 1900, Galveston, or its “hurricane” status. Some of those consequences involved Mormons and the church. We have since endured many storms and will, I reckon, yet endure many more, throughout the world. Here’s to preparation, compassion, and relief—and to the careful storage of historical documents, which tend not to do well wet.
_________________

For links to other posts in this series, please see here.

[1] The three key components, to my knowledge, are rotting animals and food, sulfur-reducing bacteria associated with sheetrock, and upside-down swamps and marshes. One learned quickly to just duct-tape refrigerators closed and throw them away. Sheetrock is made of gypsum, which, in the presence of water, provides sulfur for sulfur-reducing bacteria, which produce hydrogen disulfide: rotten-egg smell. Swamps and marshes are full of biomass decaying and beneath lots of water, mud, and muck. A hurricane brings all the decaying to the surface, where it can undergo aerobic processes and where we can smell it—and the dead fish.

[2] This orientation was at the Williamson chapel (north of Vidor, TX), which sits on land formerly owned by the William Williamson family, among whom Elder Brooks was staying when the 1900 storm hit. The physician was Dr. Michael Crossley.

[3] To those who find normative import lurking behind every anecdote I say: A pox on both your houses.

[4] I hope it goes without saying that my reflections here are not intended to disparage other ways of dealing with life. As they say, YMMV. For an alternate example—with a felicitous Texas mission connection—see Janet at FMH: “I quite like it when people acknowledge the reality of my pain, let me whine/moan/sob/yell/sog, and then, without doing it in a desperate “let me fix you” sort of way, make me laugh Diet Coke out my nose.” BYODC.


Comments

  1. A first response after a quick read-through; hopefully more and better later: I believe Edje and Brigham Young would have gotten along very, very well.

    That, and “thank you” for this entire series. It belongs on anybody’s Best-of-the-Bloggernacle 2008 list.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 24, 2008 @ 12:24 am

  2. Edje,

    You’ve exceeded my expectations in the breadth of your coverage of this story, and the depth of your insight. Thanks for helping to bring this short incident in the life of my grandfather into much sharper focus.

    A quick note about compassion and those ubiquitous yellow T-shirts. When we had the severe flooding in the Lewis County/Centralia area of Washington state about a year and a half ago, our stake had the opportunity to assist in the cleanup efforts. I remember the smells, the sense of awe when I realized that the water marks in the house we were cleaning up were 20 feet above the river’s normal level, and the shock of seeing an extended family’s entire life being unceremoniously dumped into piles on the front lawn, sorted by “clean and keep” (a tragically smile pile), and “Throw away” (the big pile).

    But once we got our boots on, waded into the muck, and began shoveling and hauling and sorting, we forgot everything else and got focused on the work at hand. Working side by side with the family (a grandfather and two married sons all living on adjoining farms), the floods lost some of their tragic sense, and we lost ourselves in getting as much done as we could in a day. We laughed, they told family stories, and we shared bottled water and homemade sandwiches. It was only when we left, knowing we would be replaced the next day by another group of volunteers, that I saw again the tired lines in their faces, the weariness in their eyes, and the huge amount of work still left to do. I felt compassion before, and I felt compassion after, but in the midst of the work, I felt friendship and the utility of a hard work that needed to be done.

    Comment by kevinf — October 24, 2008 @ 10:37 am

  3. Many thanks, Ardis and Kevin.

    I think Kevin’s compassion before and after with hard-work during is a useful approach.

    Comment by Edje — October 24, 2008 @ 11:37 am

  4. Edge, you’ve done some excellent work. And I appreciate your thoughts here at the end.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 24, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

  5. Thanks, J.

    Comment by Edje — October 24, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

  6. Great series of articles, Edje. Are you planning to publish an article?

    Comment by Justin — October 24, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  7. Thanks, Justin. I have no immediate plans to publish—mostly because I don’t see how to make it happen without a lot of extra work that doesn’t fit into my near schedule. I’ll probably come back to it next year and give it another look.

    If you have suggestions I’d be happy to hear them.

    Comment by Edje — October 24, 2008 @ 1:50 pm


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