Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Observations on the Human Condition

I watched with horror as the events unfolded about Port-Au-Prince, Haiti after the earthquake hit. It brought my thoughts back to another time and place: 1972 in Managua, Nicaragua to be more precise - when another people that could also ill afford the devastation of an earthquake were hit. At the time of the Managua quake I was a graduate student and my thoughts were to, in some way, help the people of Managua. I thought of somehow getting on a plane and travelling down there and doing whatever I could to help save lives.

I had previously worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross ten years earlier in Mexico City. I initially worked as an ambulance attendant and I had dealt with typical urban trauma events caused by accidents, human brutality and disease. I had even worked in a rescue effort when an earth slide had buried a community of poor Mexicans. We worked side by side with the fire department and other rescue workers, scratching at the dirt, trying to find people trapped in their homes under that horrible mountain of dirt. I remember, all too well, pulling young, lifeless bodies from the rubble and trying desperately to get them to come alive, performing CPR. We never revived most of the victims. Seeing the children die hurt the most. They were so innocent, what had they done to deserve the fate of being born into a community of people who lived in substandard housing on an unsafe hillside.

I didn't go to Managua at the time of the earthquake. I was already married and I had two very young children. I inquired and was advised that I would not really be welcome there -- that only professional rescue workers should go at that time. Roberto Clemente, the well known major league baseball player, gathered supplies and chartered a plane to take to Nicaragua, his plane crashed and he died on his way there. What a shame. The tragedy of Managua quieted down and the press stopped reporting so much about what happened there shortly thereafter.

I went in Managua for the first time in 1976 -- three and a half years later. I was on a mission sponsored by IBM to provide assistance to the Universidad Nacional de Managua. Upon arriving at the airport in Managua I was taken to the Intercontinental Hotel. The hotel is high on a hill. From that hill the terrain slopes downward toward the shores of Lake Managua a few miles away. The city of Managua spreads out between the hotel and the lake. I cannot convey the magnitude of the damage to the city that I saw from my window in the hotel. The grid of the city streets were all there. I could see only two buildings between the hotel and the lake that were still standing, and that also included as far as the eyes could see to the left and the right. Every other building was completely demolished. However, it wasn't until I decided to walk from the hotel to the lake that I realized the true enormity of the devastation. You cannot fathom how minuscule we are compared to the powers of nature until you confront a natural disaster event such as the aftermath of an earthquake. And to put it in perspective, I was not there during the intense period just after the quake. It must have been horrific.

I wanted to comprehend the relationship in size of the Managua earthquake of 1972 and the Port-Au-Prince earthquake and to other earthquakes as well. It turns out that when an earthquake occurs in the ocean it many times causes a tsunami. So, I looked up tsunamis also.
The following is a partial list of the most devastating earthquakes and tsunamis that I could put together from a quick Google search. It does not include volcanic explosions, pyroclastic flows, floods, hurricanes, fires, viral and bacteriological diseases, plagues or other disasters, natural or man made:

Lituya Bay, Alaska 7/9/1958 NA Tsunami 1720 ft.
Upper Egypt 7/5/1201 NA 1,100,000 killed
Offshore Chile 5/22/1960 9.5 1655 killed
Anchorage, Alaska 3/27/1964 9.2 9 killed
Andreanof Islands,
Alaska 3/9/1957 9.1
Kamchatka,USSR 11/4/1952 9 no deaths
Offshore Sumatra,
Indonesia 12/26/2004 9.1 227,898 killed
Offshore Equador 1/31/1906 8.8 500-1500 killed
Rat Islands, Alaska 2/4/1965 8.7 none reported
Northern Sumatra,
Indonesia 3/28/2005 8.7 1300 killed
Lisbon, Portugal 11/1/1755 8.6 60,000 killed
India/China Border
Tibet 8/15/1950 8.6 780 killed
Alaska 1957 8.6 none reported
Kamchatka,USSR 2/3/1923 8.5
South Sumatra 2007 8.5 21 killed
Kansu, China 12/16/1920 8.5 200,000 killed
Offshore Samoa 9/29/2009 8.3 34? killed
San Francisco,
California 4/18/1906 8.3 700 killed
Japan 9/1/1923 8.3 143,000 killed
Mexico City, Mexico 9/19/1985 8.1 9,500 killed
Tangshan, China 7/27/1976 8 255,000 killed
Chile 3/3/1985 8
Chile 7/30/1995 8
BengKulu, Indonesia 6/4/2000 7.9 N/A
Border 1/26/2001 7.9 20,000+ killed
Gölcük, Turkey 8/17/1999 7.6 17,000 killed
Nantou, Taiwan 9/20/1999 7.6 1,800 killed
New Britain, PNG 11/16/2000 7.3 N/A
Loma Prieta,
California 10/17/1989 7 62 killed
Haiti 1/11/2010 7 200,000+ est.
Armenia, USSR 12/7/1988 6.8 25,000 killed
California 1/17/1994 6.8 60 killed
Kobe, Japan 1/16/1995 6.8 5,530 killed
Managua, Nicaragua 12/23/1972 6.2 9,800 killed
Agadir, Morocco 1/13/1960 5.9 12,500 killed

The Port-Au-Prince quake is quite significant, both in magnitude, the amount of human life lost and physical destruction. The Managua quake seems minor in comparison.

As a counterpoint, while I was in Managua I had occasion to meet with Anastasio Somoza, the infamous and brutal dictator who ran that country like it was his private estate. While there, I noticed that most people were always looking over their shoulders in fear of being overheard while they were talking to me. They were afraid that someone from the government, or an informer, might be listening, even though the conversation was of no real consequence. Somoza was assasinated in Paraguay in 1980, after being deposed by the Sandanistas in 1979.

After looking at the list above I have a hunch that more individuals were killed by war and as a result of totalitarian regimes, just like Somoza's reign, just since the beginning of the 20th century than all the natural disasters of all time combined. I haven't done any rigorous calculations yet to support this hypothesis though.

So, the issues that I see are as follows:

First, while there is a tremendous outpouring of empathy and aid by peoples from around the world for the victims of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, how come, when a man made disaster, like a war, or a despotic ruler's tyranny occurs, we just don't see the same response? Are the victims of man made disasters somehow not worthy of the same empathy? Were the victims in Sudan and Rwanda and Nicaragua somehow not worthy of our empathy and aid? Is there something we can do now, so that when one of these horrific man made events occurs, we are prepared to actually do something on a coordinated basis for the good of humanity?

Second, while we cannot predict where or when the next disaster will occur, we can predict that they will continue to occur in the future on a fairly regular basis. We, in the United States, presumably have an emergency response system (FEMA) which is designed to provide for just such contingencies (except it seems we blew it for hurricane Katrina). Wouldn't it make sense to have an organization like the UN coordinate global preparedness among its member nations to allow us to get a leg up on catastrophies like the earthquate in Haiti?

I'd like to hear what you think. Please post a comment on your thoughts.

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