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Wall Street Journal on the history of urban disasters

Wall Street Journal on the history of urban disasters -...

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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. By KEVIN ROZARIO Grange r Collection 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. 1
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But the French philosopher Voltaire denounced both views. Could any survivor be expected to be consoled by the fact that "the heirs of those who have perished will increase their fortune; masons will earn money by rebuilding the houses"? He cared nothing for divine designs, his sympathy lay with the victims, and the only truly ethical response to the Lisbon earthquake was to act, to repair bodies and buildings, and to study nature all the better to protect ourselves against nature's harms. Like London after the great fire of 1666, cities had been rebuilt, and often improved, after past calamities. But Voltaire turned this into a modern moral imperative. A civilization worthy of its name should pay special heed to disasters, learn from the mistakes they revealed, and harness intelligence, science and sympathy to make a more secure world. This was the project of modernity. What he did not expect was that Lisbon would itself rise so triumphantly from the rubble. Employing the absolute power of the monarchy and the resources of empire, the Marquis de Pombal built a new metropolis with earthquake-proof buildings, wide thoroughfares and a sewer system. Merchants had braced themselves for businesses failures and the decline of their fortunes. But Pombal turned one of the worst natural disasters in European history into an occasion for modernization. The lesson was clear, and it was one that would resonate down through the centuries: With the right intervention, catastrophes presented extraordinary opportunities to make improvements.
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