Wall Street Journal
JANUARY 16, 2010
Rising From the Ruins
Natural disasters have been engines of development and economic growth
throughout history. Kevin Rozario on the lessons of past catastrophes, and why
Haiti might be different.
The Great Fire of London, 1666.
The earth shuddered. According to an American observer, "every Building rolled and jostled like
a Ship at Sea; which put in Ruins almost every House, Church, and Publick Building, with an
incredible Slaughter of the Inhabitants." Fires broke out all across the city, and the river rose 20
feet, breaking its banks and engulfing the lower elevations. It was Nov. 1, 1755, and without
warning, Lisbon, capital of the Portuguese empire, became a wasteland. Earthquake, fire and
flood left 15,000 people dead (reports at the time mistakenly put the number at 50,000); 17,000
of the city's 20,000 homes were destroyed.
Although food, medicine and water has yet to reach most of Haiti's people, the cities are filled
with stoic determination but the threat of violence looms in the air. Video courtesy of Fox News.
The scale of the calamity shocked the Western world. It demanded a response, and an
explanation. Aid arrived from many nations; explanations were harder to agree upon. Clerics in
this Age of the Inquisition described the calamity as an act of God, a judgment for the sins of the
people. Fashionable thinkers attempted to explain the earthquake as a blessing in disguise, part of
God's benevolent design wherein everything happened for the best.