During the industrial revolution in America, Paterson attracted worldwide attention and fame. Here the first cotton duck cloth for sails and the first continuous sheet paper were manufactured. Here Samuel Colt produced his first firearms and John Holland, the first practical submarines. The Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works, centered here in Paterson, built more than six thousand steam locomotives for railroads around the world. Paterson became the world's center for the production of silk.
Paterson rose to glory on the crest of the 90-mile Passaic River. The river gurgles along its circuitous route. Meandering through rural and suburban northern New Jersey, it makes its way through town and city before emptying in Newark Bay, all the while welcoming herons and gulls along its shores and its mudflats and oarsmen on its waters. Its water, rushing to the 77-foot tall Great Falls in the city’s center, creates the second largest waterfall by volume east of the Mississippi.
French-born Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who designed the layout of the streets of Washington, D.C
, engineered raceways and mills along the river. He formed this country’s very first system to use the Passaic River’s extensive waterpower for manufacturing purposes. Water diverted from the Passaic River powered the industrial mills along its route. Thus, harnessed and tamed, the Passaic River became a source of great life and great wealth for Paterson.
Most recently, the Passaic River unleashed its destructive force. Roused by Hurricane Irene and then again by tropical storm Lee, the Passaic rose to the highest level since 1903. It measured 13 feet above flood stage, overflowing and flooding the city. Roads were destroyed. Bridges shut down. Homes devastated. Businesses closed. Churches damaged. Traffic stopped. Residents displaced.
As one of the most destructive disasters in recent history, Hurricane Irene paralyzed transportation and travel all along the east coast. Airports closed. Thousands of flights cancelled. Trains stalled. Tourists stranded. Electricity lost. Initial estimates place the damage in the wake of Irene along the eastern seaboard at anywhere from $7 to $13 billion. Paterson, Wayne, Totowa, Little Falls, Morristown, Denville and Lincoln Park join the many towns and cities that need time to rebuild.
When confronted with a disaster of such magnitude, we instinctively turn to God for some explanation. Almost forty-four percent of Americans see God’s hand in natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados. God created the world and still sustains his creation with his power. We question, hoping to find where the hand of God is present in these calamities.
The world is finite and imperfect. In his wisdom, he has placed us, the summit of his creation, on a planet with its shifting tectonic plates and changing weather patterns. Natural events such as hurricanes and landslides, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes remind us that we are not in control. Natural disasters, like the many diseases that afflict us, are part of the warp and woof of the imperfect world in which we live. As St. Paul says, “All creation is groaning in labor pains even until now” (Rm 8:22).
When God created Adam and Eve, he blessed them, saying: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion…” (Gen 1:28). In conquering diseases, in advancing agriculture, in protecting the environment and in predicting weather patterns, we are living out that original blessing. God has placed the world into our hands. He trusts us to use our intelligence to become less vulnerable to the inevitable natural disasters that happen.
We may still question and ask where God is in all of these disasters. But we should not expect to find a complete answer this side of heaven. In the words of St. Paul, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Rm 11:34). We may not be able to figure out why God allows certain things to happen. But this does not mean that we cannot find God even in disasters.
During the rescue and rehabilitation phase after Hurricane Irene, I visited two shelters. I spent some time speaking with some of our Paterson residents who had been displaced. With just the clothes on their backs, some medication and a few other possessions in hand, they had left everything else behind. Gone was their security. Washed away their control of their own future.
Each person whom I met recounted how they had fled their homes for safety and how they lost their belongings. As they told their story, I was amazed at their serenity and calm. No complaints. Just gratitude and hope. I listened more than I spoke. I received more than I gave. What sustained them and gave them peace was the knowledge that God was with them.
God indeed was with them in the love and the concern of so many good and selfless people. Red Cross workers had come from around the country to help them. These workers were on the scene even before the hurricane struck, poised to give relief to the thousands affected by the storm. Catholic Charities, St. Joseph’s Hospital and many church-based volunteer groups also poured into the city, bringing comfort and relief to weary residents. Those with no place to go found a warm welcome in the shelters set up at Eastside High School and School 24.
While nature may be unrelenting and indifferent, the human heart is not. And there God is revealed even in the midst of disaster. There, where all is lost, God is found.