In 1755, a massive earthquake struck the city of Lisbon, Portugal, reducing much of the city to rubble and killing close to a third of the city's population. Yet as devastating as it was to Lisbon, the earthquake's effects reached far beyond the city's borders.
For Enlightenment philosophers, the quake was a metaphysical event, prompting them to question the role of God in natural disasters. Voltaire included the earthquake in his novel Candide, attributing the devastation to an indifferent nature rather than a divine plan, while Rousseau wrote that the Lisbon's dense urban center and multistory buildings had exacerbated the quake's impact.
The earthquake was also the ﬁrst disaster in which the state took on the responsibility of mobilizing relief eﬀorts and developing a reconstruction plan for the aﬀected area, prompting a broader reevaluation of the obligations of the state to its citizens in times of crisis.
These reactions marked the rejection of a religious view of disasters in favor of a view of disasters as secular, scientific, even predictable events. And if disasters could be predicted, the thinking went, then people and governments bore some responsibility to anticipate and mitigate their worst effects.
Yet two and half centuries later, we still struggle with the idea that we can do something to prevent catastrophes like Lisbon from occurring. Few would agree with Pat Robertson's suggestion that the recent earthquake in Haiti was the result of a "pact with the devil," but many more would describe disasters as "Acts of God" without deeply questioning our role in mitigating their worst effects.
To be sure, we cannot prevent buildups of tectonic stress along fault lines or hurricanes swirling off the Gulf, nor can we always pinpoint the moment that disaster will strike. But we can predict vulnerabilities with a large degree of accuracy and do a great deal to reduce the impact of the disasters that inevitably occur. So why do we keep sending checks to charity to clean up afterwards instead?
Haiti, for example, was known to be at risk for a major earthquake due to the build-up of stress along the fault line upon which Port-au-Prince sits. Haitian officials were also aware of the city's risk, but did little to address its vulnerabilities. Acknowledging the imminent risk of a city-shattering earthquake, the chief of Haiti's Bureau of Mines and Energy confided to Le Matin, "better not even to talk about, there's no need to panic. But it would be a catastrophe."
It's hard to blame Haitian officials for focusing their limited funds and capacity elsewhere and hoping for the best. The tendency to push disaster mitigation to the back burner is widespread even in wealthy countries, and it's particularly pronounced in poor countries like Haiti, where daily needs are so pressing as to subsume long-term concerns almost completely. But as we saw last week, a disaster that strikes an unprepared city can reverse years of hard-won progress.
Although natural disasters are incredibly effective fundraisers--both Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami spurred record billions in donations--disaster relief is one of the least effective forms of aid. Most donations arrive too late for emergency relief; in-kind donations are often mismatched to the needs on the ground and can be a logistical headache, as the bottlenecking of aid deliveries in Haiti demonstrates; and donations tend to drop off sharply after the initial period of relief, leaving communities to struggle through the long, slow process of recovery with diminished international support.
Even the amount we give is determined less by the needs on the ground than we like to think. People give emotionally, and so we give more when disasters strike places we know and care about: donations are higher, for example, when disaster strikes a place where American tourists vacation. The U.S. government, on the other hand, is more calculating, but not always based on an assessment of need; rather, it is more likely to give aid, and to give more, when a country hit by disaster is central to U.S. interests.
On the other hand, disaster mitigation--for example, retrofitting buildings or restoring natural barriers like wetlands--is extremely cost-effective, but receives much less funding. A report by the World Bank and U.S. Geological Survey, for example, shows that $40 billion in disaster prevention expenditures could have reduced the damage done by natural disasters around the world throughout the 1990s by $280 billion, a sevenfold savings rate. Yet disaster relief aid continues to drastically outstrip aid given to help vulnerable countries strengthen their defenses.
As the extent of Haiti's devastation continues to unfold, it would be wise to think not only about how to best respond to the tremendous need for food, medical care, and shelter in the immediate future, but also about how to support Haiti's long-term recovery in a way that anticipates and prepares for future disasters. More broadly, aid agencies, governments, and NGOs would do well to direct more funding towards support for disaster mitigation in vulnerable countries.
We do the poor no favors by giving record amounts after disasters occur while ignoring the evidence for how we can prevent natural occurrences from becoming truly catastrophic. It's a mark of compassion that we give so generously when we hear about the havoc wreaked by an earthquake or a tsunami, and we should do what we can to relieve suffering when necessary. But if we truly wish to put an end to the scenes of death and despair that fill our television screens when disasters occur, we must guide that compassionate impulse with the scientific view of disasters that emerged from the ruins of Lisbon 255 years ago.