NASHVILLE — By now you’ve probably seen photos of the apocalyptic flooding in Middle Tennessee’s Dickson, Hickman, Houston and Humphreys Counties on Aug. 21, though it’s understandable if you scrolled right on past without really looking. There’s a déjà vu quality to such images. Cars lifted by some unstoppable force and returned to earth cattywampus. Houses at odds with their foundations, or just gone. Holes where roads used to be. The debris field of a bombing.
At least 20 people died in Middle Tennessee, and entire communities were wrecked beyond all recognition. If you let yourself think about the survivors, the pictures will break your heart.
“These are people we know. These are people’s families that we know,” Sheriff Chris Davis of Humphreys County told WPLN’s Damon Mitchell. “These are people that we grew up with.” The places that were nearly flattened by the flooding are small towns, or close-knit communities that can’t rightly be called towns, and nearly every family there is broken by loss. Many people lost everything they own.
If the pictures break your heart, it’s the stories that will kill you. The teenagers who went outside to take pictures and then watched as one of their own was carried away by a wall of water that came out of nowhere. The father trying to hold on to infant twins, or the mother trying to hold on to her toddler, powerless when the muddy water claimed them anyway. People frantically trying to help their neighbors, too many of them losing their lives in the process.
Middle Tennessee is covered in forests and fields and laced with creeks and rivers whose names are made from poetry: Trace Creek, Tumbling Creek, Piney River. Southern states are among the most vulnerable to climate change and — owing to our habit of electing climate change deniers to public office — among the least prepared to weather its ravages. But thanks to its location and biome, Middle Tennessee is better positioned to weather a changing climate than most other places in the South. If it isn’t entirely insulated from the consequences of a warming climate, so far it has mostly been able to tolerate them.
Then 17 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours, smashing the daily rainfall record and turning bucolic crawdad creeks into tsunamis. Before the rain began to fall, a flash flood watch mentioned the possibility of four to six inches of rain. Not 17.
The flooding in Middle Tennessee has not yet been explicitly linked to climate change — such studies take time — but the general pattern is already clear. In much of the United States, the kinds of rain events once called “hundred-year floods” are happening within months of each other.
President Biden has approved a disaster declaration for Humphreys County, freeing up federal funds for rebuilding. There are several ways for people who live outside the affected communities to help, as well — contributing to the fund set up by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, donating money or needed items through the American Red Cross or the Community Resource Center, or giving directly to people in need via the many, many GoFundMe campaigns.
But even before any of these forms of assistance were in place, community members were already helping their neighbors survive. Churches converted gyms and Sunday school classrooms into shelters. People turned their front yards into de facto donation hubs. Local restaurants are cooking donated food and offering meals for free.
This is the flip side of that confounding Southern insistence on “freedom” that you keep hearing about. It’s the thing that rural people do best: They tend to their own. If they have two of something, they give one to somebody else. If they have one of something, they break it into two and give half away.
And that’s why the hatred that inevitably erupts on social media, or in the comment sections of news reports, is so galling. It’s a constant refrain whenever something terrible happens in the South: a clamor of voices telling us we deserve to suffer because we don’t believe in climate change, because we are too stupid to vote for leaders who do. Such vitriol is never directed at the victims of climate disasters in other regions of the country.
The point is that people are suffering. And if their leaders and pundits insist that climate change is a hoax? If their own lives have never given them any reason to question that pronouncement? If even now they are skeptical of outsiders coming in to tell them that this kind of tragedy will keep happening, and happen more often? The answer is not to tell them that they deserve the terrible things that happened to them.
Instead of engaging in what a progressive, small-town friend of mine calls “misplaced schadenfreude,” we need to learn to talk about climate change in a new way, one that isn’t so politically charged. And we can start, as climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe notes, by making it personal.
That means starting with shared values. “The most important thing to do,” Dr. Hayhoe says in her TED Talk, is “to start from the heart.” We can’t start with data, she says, and we sure can’t start with accusations. We can start with what we share: “Are we both parents? Do we live in the same community? Do we enjoy the same outdoor activities: hiking, biking, fishing, even hunting? Do we care about the economy or national security?”
Some Republican leaders are beginning to recognize that climate change is not a phenomenon they can deny forever, but most elected leaders here can still avoid the subject because doing so is not yet a political liability. Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, professes not to know how climate change affects rainfall events like the one his state has just endured. “Why that occurs, I don’t know the answer to that,” Mr. Lee said at a news conference. “I would guess there are those that do, but I’m not qualified to answer that. I don’t know what caused it.”
Clearly, the conversations cannot begin soon enough.
You’ll forget you ever heard of Humphreys County, Tenn., long before the people of Humphreys County have recovered and rebuilt. Already new images of devastation are coming in from Louisiana, but even the most harrowing of those photos won’t capture the true destruction and pain that Hurricane Ida is bringing as it moves through the state and beyond.
These tragedies will be front-page news again and again and again as the earth continues to warm, and a great many of them will have datelines from rural communities in the South that you’ve never heard of — tiny places where people are hurting but still working hard to help one another survive. They will not need your judgment. What they will need is your compassion.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”
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