Tag Archives: earthquake

Wrath of God or Natural Disaster–Earthquakes Past and Present

Those of us who live in California are always conscious of the threat of earthquakes. It is not that we walk around in fear, but the idea that one could occur is always lurking in the back of our minds. And now comes the massive 7.8 earthquake in Nepal! The pictures of crumpled buildings and of people camping out on the street are a vivid reminder of what can

Rescue during the Lisbon earthquake 1755

Rescue during the Lisbon earthquake 1755

happen. All the threats of crime and terrorism pale beside the scope of what natural forces can bring about. But through the centuries people have  had a hard time accepting the ideas that our lives, hopes and dreams can be overturned merely by natural forces that are not directed at us. As I read the news reports I started wondering when people began to acknowledge how little control we humans have over nature and began reading about earthquakes.

The Lisbon quake, more than 250 years ago was a kind of turning point in how Europeans and Americans viewed the causes of natural disasters. When the earth shook and Lisbon, the magnificent capital city of Portugal, started falling in ruins, the attention of the world was captured. The Lisbon quake was probably the first worldwide—or at least European-wide global calamity. Earlier disasters, from the volcano at Pompeii to the Great London fire, had been of interest mostly within the country or region where they occurred. But by 1755, Europeans had become internationalized. They traded with other countries, exchanged ambassadors, and understood that disasters could spread damage from one country to another. What people could not understand, or didn’t want to understand, was that they had no control over these destructive forces.

The first reaction among many people was to blame Lisbon itself for the tragedy. If only people had led virtuous lives, God would not have punished them by sending an earthquake. John Wesley, the English Methodist preacher wrote:

Woe! To the Men on Earth who dwell,

Nor dread th’Almighty Frown,

When God doth all his Wrath reveal,

And showers his Judgments down!

A century or two earlier the religious reaction might have been accepted and prayer and fasting become the only solution to the damage, but by the 18th century, philosophers had begun to ask other questions. Perhaps God wasn’t regulating everything that happened on earth. Perhaps there were forces that could not be controlled by prayer and repentance. Thoughtful men and women became divided on the causes and appropriate responses to unforeseen events. For the first time a number of governments throughout Europe began sending aid and supplies to Lisbon rather than just advice about purifying the city. George II of England encouraged the House of Commons to send 100,000 pounds to “send such speedy and effectual relief, as may be suitable to so affecting and pressing an exigency.” It was the beginning of international disaster aid which has since become such an important part of the world scene.

Voltaire

Voltaire

Portugal was lucky to find a leader, the Marquis de Pombal, who brought order to the city and supervised its reconstruction. One of his most surprising innovations was to send out a questionnaire asking people to tell the government exactly what they had seen and experienced during the quake. So, in a way, he was the founder of survey research as well as seismology

Culturally, however, it was perhaps Voltaire who stamped the earthquake most firmly on the consciousness of the world. He turned from the optimism of his early days when he accepted Alexander Pope’s belief that “Whatever is, is right” and became a skeptic. His story Candide has delighted readers from that day to this and in recent years as a drama it has been produced in theaters throughout the world.

There is so much to be said about the Lisbon earthquake and the lessons the world learned from it. One book that recounts the story vividly is Nicolas Shrady’s The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. It is available in many libraries as well as on amazon.com and it will give you a lot to think about.

Candide (cover art by Rockwell Kent)

Candide (cover art by Rockwell Kent)

Now that the earthquake has hit Nepal, we can at least be thankful that international response and help came immediately. Volunteers from many countries have converged on Katmandu and the surrounding area to help victims. The damage to individuals and families can never be undone, but at least the world has learned to care and not to judge.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Earthquakes and other disasters

The San Francisco Bay area was hit by a strong earthquake this morning, well, halfway through the night at 3:20 AM while most of us were in bed. I woke up wondering what was happening and found myself lying in a bed that seemed to glide gently back and forth as if a giant mother was trying to soothe a child by rocking its baby carriage. The movement seemed to last for several minutes, but it surely was less than one minute. Then everything stopped. There was no sound inside or out, no dishes falling off shelves, no books shaken out of bookcases, and no one in the street raising an alarm. I turned over and eventually drifted off to sleep.

We were lucky this time, but no one knows when the “big one” might hit the area and destroy lives as well as property.Later, of course, the news came about greater damage in the city of Napa as well as injuries, although most of them not very serious. It seems as though the only upside to a natural disaster is that it reminds us that the “disasters” we often spend our time complaining about are pretty trivial.

All week I’ve been feeling sorry for myself because

San Francisco City Hall after 1906 earthquake

San Francisco City Hall after 1906 earthquake

my computer broke down. Not only did I have to wait to get repairs and new parts, I also had days of worry about whether I had lost any of my precious files. Yes, I make backups, but I always worry that I could have forgotten some, or that my backups would be corrupted.Yesterday I finally did get my computer back and all the files had been copied on a new hard drive. Life is back to normal and I can get back to work on my book—the second volume of the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series. If only all problems had such good resolutions.

The earthquake was a reminder of how many real disasters—ones affecting hundreds of other people and not just me—are lurking on the borders of our lives. Nature’s indifference to human beings, the constant stream of droughts, earthquakes, floods and tornadoes is a never ending source of disaster. Add to that the human disasters of wars and violence and it’s easy to see what a dangerous world we live in. The only hope is to try to keep our own troubles in perspective, focus on our work, and help other people when disasters hit them. We can all summon courage to face the future and its disasters if we keep in

Abraham Lincoln and his young son

Abraham Lincoln and his young son

mind what Abraham Lincoln said: The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time. And anyone can cope with just one day.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized