PORT ARTHUR, Texas — The church was empty, except for the piano too heavy for one man to move. It had been 21 days since the greatest storm Wayne Christopher had ever seen dumped a year's worth of rain on his town, drowning this church he'd attended his whole life.
He had piled the ruined pews out on the curb, next to water-logged hymnals and molding Sunday school lesson plans and chunks of drywall that used to be a mural of Noah's Ark. Now he tilted his head up to take in the mountain of rubble, and Christopher, an evangelical Christian and a conservative Republican, considered what caused this destruction: that the violent act of nature had been made worse by acts of man.
“I think the Lord put us over the care of his creation, and when we pollute like we do, destroy the land, there's consequences to that,” he said. “It might not catch up with us just right now, but it's gonna catch up. Like a wound that needs to be healed.”
Jefferson County, Texas, is among the low-lying coastal areas that could lose the most as the ice caps melt and the seas warm and rise. At the same time, it is economically dependent on oil refineries that stand like cityscapes across the community. Residents seemed to choose between the two last November, abandoning a pattern of voting Democratic in presidential elections to support Donald Trump.
Then came Hurricane Harvey. Now some conservatives here are newly confronting some of the most polarizing questions in American political discourse: What role do humans play in global warming and the worsening of storms like Harvey? And what should they expect their leaders to do about the problem now?
“It's a Catch-22 kind of thing. Do you want to build your economy, or do you want to save the world?” said Christopher, who, like most people in Jefferson County, believed that global warming was real before the storm hit. Post-Harvey, he thinks the president's rejection of the scientific consensus is no longer good enough.
Climate change doesn't create hurricanes. But most scientists agree that warming and rising seas amplify storms that form naturally, feeding more water and intensity as they plow toward land.
Trump has referred to climate change as a hoax, and his administration has worked aggressively to undo policies designed to mitigate the damage. He announced his intention to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and has dismantled environmental regulations.
In Jefferson County, as the downpour from Hurricane Harvey stretched into its second day, Joe Evans watched from the window of his home and an unexpected sense of guilt overcame him: “What have we been doing to the planet for all of these years?”
Evans, a Republican, once ran unsuccessfully for local office. He ignored climate change, as he thought Republicans were supposed to do, and he voted for Trump. But he's now frustrated with what he describes as the “conservative echo chamber” that dismisses global warming instead of trying to find a way to apply conservative principles to saving both the Earth and the economy.
“I haven't put so much thought into it that I want to go mobilize a bunch of people and march on Washington,” he said. “But it made me think enough about it that I won't actively take part in denying it. We can't do that anymore.”
A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll finds 63 percent of Americans think that climate change is happening and that the government should address it, and two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the way Trump is handling the issue. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, said most resistance she hears is not with the science but with proposed solutions that mean government regulation.
John Sterman, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, said addressing climate change will lead to gradual job losses in the fossil fuels industry. But communities have lost a dominant industry before, and those able to diversify can prosper. Jefferson County could look to the renewable energy industry, he said. Texas already produces more wind power than any other state.
But some who lost everything to Harvey remain steadfast in their support for Trump's environmental agenda.
Wilton Johnson doesn't believe that humans have been around long enough to cause so much damage it would make bad storms worse.
“We need to be responsible human beings to the Earth, but at the same time we shouldn't sacrifice the financial freedoms,” he said. “I just don't think we should look at two storms and say, ‘We're ruining the Earth! Shut the plants down!’”
There have always been storms on the Gulf Coast, and it's always been hot. Wayne Christopher remembers frying eggs on the sidewalk when he was a boy. But the region has warmed about two degrees in his lifetime, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and average annual rainfall has increased by 7 inches.
“The sea keeps moving in — water rising, land disappearing or eroding or whatever you want to call it — it's happening,” said Christopher, who is 66 and retired from the railroad.
He wants the president he helped put in office to take the threat of global warming seriously. But like many others here, Christopher is not pushing to stick with the Paris agreement or other global coalitions because he's not sure it's fair that the United States should invest in clean energy when other countries that pollute might not. He worries that could cause job losses and forfeit a slice of American sovereignty.
For weeks, he and his wife have been gutting Memorial Baptist Church. Even before the storm, it was so hard to make ends meet the church canceled a $19,000-a-year flood insurance policy just two months before Harvey hit. Now it could cost $1 million to rebuild, meaning the church may never be rebuilt at all.
So when Christopher's granddaughter came by to help them, found the piano in the otherwise empty sanctuary and started to play, he was overcome with grief.
“In my head I was thinking the whole time, this could be the last time that piano is played inside the auditorium,” he said. Then she started to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound ...”
“It did something to me,” he said.
Both he and his wife believe President Trump has a responsibility to look at the destruction Harvey left them with and act accordingly.
“It does make me wonder if he looks at global warming as a real harm,” he said. “Because you can make all the money in the world here. But if you don't have a world, what good is it going to do you?”
- Poll finds many Harvey victims saying they still need help
- A protest in Trump Country brings home nation's race divides
- Immigrant hurricane victims turn to churches amid fear
- House heads toward passage of Harvey aid bill, debt hike
- Houston's businesses inching back to work as waters recede
- Harvey began with raging winds, but its legacy will be water
- As floodwaters recede, Houston officials look to recovery
- New Orleans' Katrina challenges may hold lessons for Houston
- Authorities brace for wave of hurricane-related fraud
- Gas prices surge higher as drivers rush to fill their tanks
- Houston-area floodwaters recede but dangers still loom
- Harvey tests political opposites in Texas' Abbott, Turner
- Medina County natives involved in Harvey efforts
- Western Louisiana in crosshairs as Harvey moves back to land
- Forecast brings hope as new shelters open, death toll rises
- Posts, tweets spread widely as the Harvey missing are sought
- Pair of 70-year-old dams protecting Houston overflow as a result of Harvey
- Amid Harvey floods, Houston chief worries 'how many bodies?'
- Most Harvey flood victims uninsured, face big bills alone
- Battered by Harvey, Houston braces for even more flooding
- Trump meets and tweets as Texas governor praises Harvey response
- Harvey regains tropical storm strength in Gulf of Mexico