‘Twas the night before a regular Sunday morning on an ordinary weekend in October of this odd-numbered year in a small southern state that has had a complex history from its beginnings in 1776 as one of the thirteen original colonies known as the United States of America . Since that time, the state of South Carolina has survived countless catastrophes including hurricanes and other natural disasters outside its control and unnatural ones like the infamous Sherman’s March in the Civil War which turned entire cities of the state into ashes and destroyed rural areas that were the foundation of an agrarian economy maintained by slave labor in the nineteenth century. Some historians claim this devastation was a retaliation against the state for firing the first volleys at Fort Sumter that ignited the War Between the States. A complex history, indeed.
In June of 2015, a young white gunman from Columbia walked into a prayer meeting at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston on a Wednesday night, was invited to participate in the small gathering, stayed for an hour and then shot and killed six women and three men who were having a Bible study and praying together. Following his capture a video he made earlier showed the racism that motivated this despicable act, a racism symbolized by the Confederate flag he revered. It was an opportunity for the darkness and sadness to overwhelm the people of Charleston and the rest of the state that shared the sorrow of the massacre. It was an opportunity for people of ill will to act out inappropriately with aggression and hostility.
Instead, people of good will in this state and around the nation responded by offering comfort to those who mourned, corporate prayers for the grieving and a groundswell of support for the removal of the Confederate flag that had flown on the grounds of the State Capitol for more than fifty years. Twenty-four days after the Charleston shootings Governor Haley and members of the state legislature removed the flag to a museum where it belonged.
On that ordinary Sunday morning two weeks ago my little dog Red and I walked downstairs from the upstairs bedroom around 5 o’clock for his ritual morning constitutional. We expected Chelsea who guarded the downstairs at night to join us, and she got up from the sofa to go outside when we passed her in the living room. I opened the back door and flipped on the spotlight so that we all wouldn’t trip going down the steps. The three of us stood in the doorway and stared.
A deluge of water was falling from the sky…I had never seen anything like it in my almost seventy years. My immediate thought was the words to an old tune from my childhood: “Didn’t it rain, children? Rain all night long – didn’t it rain?” From what I could see, our back yard was a tiny lake, and my dogs had no interest in swimming. I turned off the light, closed the door and went back to bed.
That was the beginning of what I named the Flood of Fifteen. As the rains continued for days, lakes and rivers within our city overflowed and spilled into neighborhoods five minutes from our house, dams broke, roads vanished, nineteen people lost their lives and thousands of vehicles, homes and their contents were destroyed by raging waters that local meteorologists somehow determined were the worst this state had seen in a thousand years.
Gigantic trees were uprooted because of the soil saturation around them, and they fell onto power lines that had already been buffeted and broken by the flood waters. Water mains broke – the water supply for entire counties threatened and basic necessities like food and shelter for our displaced neighbors and friends became the focus for survival. Candles and bottled water were the first items to flee from the shelves of any stores that could re-open in the first week after the rains stopped.
When our electric services were restored, we watched the local news all day long, and the images were both mesmerizing and frightening. These weren’t pictures of hurricanes in far away places like Haiti. No, these houses were on Burwell Street or off South Beltline Boulevard – they were people who lost everything they owned in a twenty-four hour time frame, and they lived right around the corner from us. Businesses we had patronized for years were gone, literally demolished. For the second time in four months it was an opportunity for the people of South Carolina to drown in the darkness of an overwhelming disaster.
Instead, the candlelight of human connection flickered and then burst into flames as the waters receded, and once again people of good will prevailed. The bravery of our first responders and the leadership of our city, county and state governments quickly made a difference in beginning a recovery to some sense of normalcy. Churches, schools and other community groups pulled together to care for the displaced and disheartened as the sunshine returned, and we were not alone. Teams of volunteers from across the country left their homes to offer support to South Carolinians in need. Neighboring states helped tremendously while President Obama designated the state a disaster area, and FEMA teams were on the scene as soon as they could safely travel to us.
Maya Angelou speaks to issues of resiliency in her own life in one of my favorite poems, and I am reminded of her words as I consider the events of recent days.
Just like moon and like suns,
with the certainty of tides,
Just like hope springing high,
Still I’ll rise…
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise,
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear, I rise.
I believe we shall rise.