15 January, 2010

EARTHQUAKES: Why Haiti? Answering the unanswerable question

"And so the Devil said, 'OK it's a deal.' "
By Jorge Reyes

On November 1 1755, a terrible earthquake approaching magnitude 9 destroyed the city of Lisbon, in Portugal. It has since come to be known by historians as the Great Lisbon Earthquake. For ten long minutes, the inhabitants of this important and bourgeoning European city seemed as if it was being witness to the end of the world. Seeking refuge many citizens of Lisbon who were fleeing the fires, the smoldering burning choking heaps of smoke and had hoped to save themselves had taken refuge aboard ships docked in the city's port. Right after the fire, though, a tsunami of huge tidal waves followed taking them all down to the bottom of the sea without as much as a whimper. These turn of events didn't escape the attention of the superstitious, the catholic church.

Right after the earthquake, pandemonium set in almost immediately. Who wouldn't? Thousands of corpses lined the streets of Lisbon, bloated and putrefying under the sun. Estimates of the death toll neared 100,000 people. The destruction caused by the fire still threatened many of the few remaining buildings, though they all posed great structural dangers and they were inhabitable, so the people camped out in the streets. The port had ceased to exist. There was no commerce to speak of. Society, it seemed, was reverting to a state of brutal desperation. No wonder that historians call this the most destructive earthquake in history.

When the Prime Minister of Portugal, a man named Pombal, was asked what he intended to do he is rumored to have said: “bury the dead and heal the living.” There was no time to waste because all of a sudden life seemed to be subsisting almost if by a miraculous thread that could snap at any moment. So the government of Portugal did what any modern person in his position would do, come up with a plan to rebuild Lisbon.

Immediately a search-and-rescue plan was put in motion. The hapless victims and the innocent were prevented from fleeting the near-destroyed city and, instead, were rounded up and used to rebuild their city. To avoid an imminent plague, the corpses were placed on barges and buried at sea. The Portuguese Army, an integral part of the reconstruction project, publicly executed over thirty people convicted of being looters. Pirates were kept at bay. A stock full of grains was rationed and distributed to the people. Equally important, the weekly newspaper was published without missing a single edition, an amazing feat during times of widespread illiteracy.

Years later a new city seemed to have been erected atop the old, as if by a miracle. But it wasn't a miracle. It was hard work, diligent planning, and the mechanisms of a bureaucratic, yet enlightened, government.

By today's standards, all the measures implemented by the Portuguese government seem very modern. You'd be surprised to know, however, that they were heavily criticized by the church, something that unfortunately doesn't seem to have changed in modern times.

Right after the 7.0 Haitian earthquake of January 12, 2010, the American Christian televangelist, Pat Robertson, said that Haitians need to have “a great turning to God.” He went on to say in his TV show, the 700-Club, that “something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it.” But Robertson didn't stop there. He embellished on what he meant: “They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact of the devil. They said 'we will serve you if you will get us free from the prince. True story. And so the Devil said, 'OK it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.”

Robertson has his historical counterpart. After the Lisbon earthquake, an Italian man named Malagrida challenged Pombal publicly hoping to derail the rebuilding of the city. Instead of seeking common ground, Malagrida called upon the people of Lisbon to fast and pray, after all, what was important was not to save earthly life which was transient and sinful, but to save souls. As he said in one of his sermons: “It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin.” In Lisbon, it wasn't the Haitians that were blamed for the earthquake but the Jesuists.

I, personally, happen to agree with both of those religious cranks, though for totally different reasons. Haiti does seem to be cursed on all levels-- historically, economically, and geographically. For starters, it is a very poor nation, the poorest in the western hemisphere. On average, Haitians earn less than a dollar a day. There is no middle class. The majority families live in adject poverty, while a very minuscule minority belong to the high class. Politically, Haiti's history has been beset by a tiddle wave of civil wars, brutal dictatorships, political corruption and murderous gangs. To add to this seeming curse, Haiti's geography hasn't helped it one bit. In less than twenty years it has seen Tropical Storm Gordon (1994), Hurricane Georges (1998), Tropical Storm Jeanne (2004), Hurricane Dennis (2005), Tropical Storm Alpha (2005), Hurricane Wilma (2005), Hurricanes Fay and Gustav (2008).

A friend of mine from Haiti, Paule Romulus, asked me the question I hear the most: “What does God have against the Haitian people? First we were brought to Haiti in shackles, and then the rest of our history has been just as miserable.” Good question, of course, but one that doesn't answer the issue at hand, which is “to bury the dead and heal the living.”

What we do know about natural events are just the facts, and the facts don't lend themselves to explain anything outside the natural world. Providence, god, or bad karma is just not part of the question and, in fact, should remain totally outside our explanation of what is happening in Haiti. However, what is at issue and what is important is how we, as members of the world community, will respond to this and other disasters. An international mobilization and quick response to solving some of our most pressing problems, despite where these may happen, is what's crucial in Haiti from this moment forward. The choices we make in Haiti and others is what will ultimately decide the type of world we want to leave behind: one alien and hopeless or one that is left off better as a result of our human intervention. That's why Pombal in 1755 was such an important historical figure and why Pat Robertson in 2010 is such a dangerous man.

Yet, the nagging, unanswerable questions remains-- why the carnage? And that question, to paraphrase my friend Paule's, can never be answered by mere mortals like us.


Anonymous said...

Pat Robertson is an idiot. I wonder why FCC doesn't pull his TV license and send his ass packing?

Anonymous said...

Robertson may be an idiot but ideas have importance and whatever he says a lot of people are going to believe him. You may argue that these people are on the fringe of society, but you'd be surprised how normal, decent and honest they are yet believe in him.

Anonymous said...

Gods mill grinds slow but sure...................................................