The earth is shaking

November 1st, 1755. All Saints Day. At 9.30am the earth rocked for ten minutes, a quasi-perfect nine on the Richter scale. A gigantic quake destroyed all of downtown Lisbon, in the wake of which a massive tsunami flooded the valley between the hillsides of Bairro Alto and Alfama, both celebrated in The India Road. That valley is today the main avenue of Lisbon, the Av. da Liberdade. It is to the city what Fifth Avenue is to New York, or the Bund to Shanghai. After the twenty meter tidal wave came a raging blaze, sparked by the candles and lanterns used for rescue and vigil, the fires lit for cooking, care, and confort.

The epicenter was southwest of Sagres, where Henry the Navigator is famed to have built his school of navigation. The quake was much more severe in the Algarve, and, as I have previously noted in these pages, the tsunami wave travelled all the way up the Guadalquivir river to Seville and damaged the Torre del Oro.

As you may have guessed, I’m concerned today with the repetition of history. Back in the mid-eighteenth century news travelled pretty slowly, and international aid was non-existent. I’ve been in two major earthquakes, both of which did relatively little damage.

In November 1875 the USS Gettysburg discovered a bank and a series of seamounts in the Atlantic, 120 nautical miles southwest of Sagres. The area, named Gorringe in honor of the captain, is a cauldron of seismic activity. On February 28th 1969, almost 40 years ago to the day, the good captain’s ridge erupted in anger, delivering to Lisbon a quake of magnitude 7.3 on the Richter scale. For me it was a revelation. When I got to school a few hours later, the class bully, who went by the apt name of Bloodworth, was crying his eyes out in fright. It was one of my enduring life lessons: courage comes in different shapes and forms.

Just last month, Capt. Henry Honychurch Gorringe did it again: a week before Christmas, Lisbon rocked to the tune of a Richter grade 6.1 symphony. I woke up violently just before 01.40 am. Not from the tremor, but just after, from my daughter calling from London wondering if things were ok. Facebook and Twitter had done their work, and people in faraway lands were calling relatives and friends in Portugal within minutes.

Since the tragedy last week in Haiti, the social networking platforms have once again surprised many people, providing very fast reactions and connections, posting pictures of the missing and the found, and illustrating that even if from day to day they can seem banal, in times of crisis they can form a key bridge between the helpless and the helpful. The internet itself lives up to the dreams of its founders, and of DARPA, which funded it as a post-nuclear communications system, designed to survive the wasted ruins of the infamous Mutually Assured Destruction. With an acronym of MAD, how can we not see echoes of Dr. Strangelove lurking in the shadows… 

The earthquake in Haiti is one of many that took place over the last decade, hitting across all continents. As an example, Kashmir in 2005, Sichuan, 2008, and Haiti last Tuesday, have at least three things in common: they were all high on the Richter scale, between 7 and 8; they all resulted in widespread destruction of buildings; and consequently, they all had fatalities ranging in the 50,000 to 100,000 range (Haiti is still counting).

A quick look at the major quakes of the XXIst century shows a bipolar picture. Tragedies like L’Aquila killed 300 people. Other tremors, though higher up the scale, killed very few. The ones I experienced in Portugal were victimless.

Risk maps can be (and are) drawn up, using geological data such as proximity to fault lines, monitoring of seismic activity, and probabilities based on past events (Gansu, in China, had three enormous earthquakes between 1920 and 1932, with a combined death toll of 310,000). Those maps can be combined with human geography: population and construction density, time of day and year, holidays, all these and more will play a part. If an earthquake hits Lisbon between 6pm and 8pm on a regular working day, most office blocks will be empty or emptying, and most apartments and houses will not be at full capacity. A lot less people are vulnerable in cars and buses.

How can we predict earthquakes? As the Jewish astronomer José Vizinho from The India Road would say: we can’t.  Yet. What we can predict, with the excellent tools provided by materials science, is the level of casualties to be expected per region and quake strength. All these natural disasters with a huge human toll have one thoroughly unnatural element as a root cause: the tragedy brought about by shoddy building. It is the combination of corruption and fraud, leading to mortally dangerous building materials – concrete with insufficient steelwork, or masquerading as a sandcastle. When the piled bricks of poverty give away to multi-story deathtraps, signed off by dubious inspections, it comes as no surprise that at the first strong gust the house of cards comes tumbling down.

In Haiti, it didn’t just bring down the peons, the face cards came crashing down too, when it brought down the presidential palace.

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