Hurricane Irma, and a year of colossal environmental disaster in the US

What’s the story? 

After creating havoc in Central America, the massive Hurricane Irma tore across Florida in the USA, causing huge damage. It came less than two-weeks after the devastating Hurricane Harvey, which struck other parts of the US including Texas.

What’s happening?

Even before Hurricane’s Harvey and Irma hit the USA in late August and early September, 2017 had already been an abnormally terrible year for environmental disasters in the country. Federal experts estimated that by the end of July, a mix of flooding in California, hailstorms in Colorado, an abnormal freeze in South Carolina and six other major events had cost the country at least £1bn in damage and loss of industry.

None of these events came close in scale however to Harvey, which caused large scale flooding in cities including Houston, where many had to flee their homes. And in Hurricane Irma, a separate weather system which emerged just a few days later, America had yet another natural disaster which dwarfed all that had gone before in 2017.

The huge increase in environmental disasters is – according to all but the fiercest deniers – inextricably linked to man-made climate change. The Donald Trump administration is not known for its fondness for environmental protection – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which is responsible for climate tracking and protection, has lost over $1bn in funding – but the scale and frequency of these disasters may force the President to reconsider.

Climate change isn’t the only factor in the damage caused by these extreme weather patterns however. Another reason for the scale of the devastation is that people have spread – for reasons of economic necessity – into areas of greater risk, specifically floodplains and coastal areas. As the US population increases, those with lower incomes have had to move into parts of the country with greater flood and hurricane risks. The impact of this is then worsened further by the fact that it’s impossible to buy flood insurance in many of these areas. So not only are poorer people the most likely to be affected, it’s also very possible that they will permanently lose everything from such events.

It’s easy to focus only on the damage caused in the US by extreme weather. Before making land in America, Irma had caused untold damage in the Caribbean, killing at least 28 people. It’s the biggest Atlantic storm in a decade, and not only caused massive destruction in major nations such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, but destroyed or damaged almost every building on the tiny island of Barbuda. Reconstruction on the island will cost an estimated $100 million dollars, and while many agencies, governments and even celebrities have pledged to help, the real concern is whether we’re now seeing a climate shift that means such disasters will become unsustainably common.

What have others been saying?

The Guardian’s Joanna Walters has analysed the impact of 2017’s major US environmental disasters – before Harvey and Irma are even taken into account.

The BBC’s Paul Blake and Laura Bicker reported from the small island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, to reveal the scale of the devastation in the Caribbean as a result of Irma.

Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen was heavily criticised for not throwing open the doors of his enormous building to accommodate flood refugees. Joseph Hartropp on Christian Today unpacks the criticism of the church leader, writing after Osteen did indeed turn his church into a flood relief centre.



Natural and climate-related disasters are – in insurance terms at least – often described as ‘Acts of God’, as if the almighty spends his time deciding to cause havoc on earth as some sort of sport. Of course this idea is completely incompatible with a Christian view of a God who loves his creation – and especially humankind. Like all questions of suffering however, it’s difficult to reconcile why God ‘allows’ the world to break down and demonstrate its imperfection in this way (for a discussion of this, see my recent article for Christian Today). Perhaps the most insightful passage on this issue is Romans 8:19-23, where Paul describes a world where God is no longer in control, and which is ‘groaning as in the pains of childbirth’ to be renewed and made perfect again at Christ’s return.


Much was made of Joel Osteen’s apparent refusal to open the doors of his Houston-based Lakewood church, but in fact the flood conditions outside the former sports stadium made it impossible for the building to be accessed, let alone opened. Once the Harvey-inflicted floods did subside, the building was turned into a flood relief centre. This approach, replicated by many churches right across affected parts of the world, allows the church to imitate and echo the nature of God himself, who the Psalmists repeatedly refer to as ‘shelter’, ‘refuge’, ‘hiding place’, ‘shield’ and ‘covering’. The Old Testament also talks about ‘cities of refuge’; places in the ancient world where people could seek sanctuary and a new beginning. These were a kind of foreshadowing of the hope of new life that would be offered by Jesus, but they’re also a practical illustration to the modern church that our world needs places of comfort and hope for those who have lost everything and need a new start... and that we can offer them.

Points for prayer

  • Pray for the island of Barbuda, and for other similarly-devastated islands including St Martin, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands. Pray specifically for safety and against the spread of disease; pray also for a speedy and well-funded relief effort.
  • Pray for the continuing rescue and clean-up operations in the USA, that money and other resources will be used well, and that the emergency services will be protected throughout.
  • Pray for the church in the USA and other affected nations, that they would step up to meet need wherever they find it, and be proactive as a place of refuge and recovery for those who’ve lost their homes, jobs or even family.

Author Bio

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Martin Saunders

Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s Deputy Chief Executive. A former editor of Youthwork magazine and the founding Editor of sister-title Childrenswork, Martin is a popular speaker and the author of various books including ‘Youth Work From Scratch’. He lives in Reigate, Surrey with his wife Jo and their four children.