Books: report from a living planet

Natural disasters prove that the world is active and changing. In four literally earth-shattering events related in Terra, Tim Radford sees how often humans choose not to learn from catastrophic events.

Terra: Tales of the Earth
Richard Hamblyn
Picador, 2009

In May 1960, government scientists in New Zealand picked up signals of a catastrophic earthquake in Chile, and warned of a seismogenic tsunami or tidal wave that could destroy the coastal towns of the low-lying Bay of Plenty, thousands of miles across the Pacific. As the New Zealand Herald’s district reporter for Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty, I jumped into my little Morris 1000 car and drove to the coast.

There was a tsunami, but it missed New Zealand. It raced northwards and slammed into Hilo in Hawaii, where it killed 61 people who had misunderstood or ignored the warnings — or even deliberately headed for the shore to watch the great wave. It also badly injured 282 people, washed away whole streets that had been rebuilt after a catastrophic tsunami in 1946, and in all caused an estimated US$50 million of damage. The tsunami carried on across the ocean at the speed of a jet plane and the next morning claimed 140 lives in Japan.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning System, the first of its kind in the world, had failed but, says Richard Hamblyn in this compelling book, the real problems were not technological, but psychological. “People were simply not scared enough of tsunamis, in spite of the islands’ well-documented history of regular seismic assault.”

That is the thread that runs through this thoughtful account of four famous episodes of natural disaster. People were either so scared they didn’t know what to do, or not scared enough, or they ran in the wrong direction, or they were terrified by the wrong agency. Each event was the trigger for another advance in the understanding of planetary machinery, but although societies learned from each episode, they didn’t learn enough.

The earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 was thrice catastrophic: sudden and severe shaking destroyed buildings; a seismically generated tsunami swept in from the sea; and fires everywhere in the rubble turned into a firestorm. The monarchy retreated into religious panic (at that time, such events were interpreted as the judgment of God) but Portugal’s first minister, the Marquês de Pombal, reacted with admirable speed, energy and firmness. The Jesuit theologian who denounced the rebuilding of Lisbon because (he said) God had willed its destruction was executed for blasphemy and sedition, but Pombal seems mostly to have followed his own advice: bury the dead, and take care of the living.

Pombal also ordered the first systematic survey of the pattern of destruction, in the belief that the findings might reveal a natural explanation. A seismic fracture zone off the coast of Portugal is now called the Marquês de Pombal Fault.

In 1783 a colossal volcanic eruption of Laki on the mid-Atlantic ridge directly or indirectly claimed 9,000 lives in Iceland, and for months filled the air over Europe with a mysterious dry mist of sulphurous particles that discoloured the skies and blighted the summer harvests. This, too, puzzled and alarmed citizens but it was a different kind of terror: not the sudden, dislocating panic linked to a violent earthquake, but a widespread fear fuelled by lack of explanation.

Benjamin Franklin — and it sometimes seems that you cannot read about 18th-century science without meeting Franklin — was then America’s envoy to Paris, and the first to conjecture a plausible explanation. He proposed a link between atmospheric pollution and climate, and even offered a volcanic eruption as a possible cause.

Hamblyn’s third case is one of the world’s best-known and most-studied eruptions, when the island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait exploded in 1883, causing a blast that could be heard nearly 4,800 kilometres away, and sending an atmospheric shockwave seven times around the planet. His fourth case study is the tsunami that swept away Hilo on April 1, 1946.

Each horrendous event stimulated yet another step in the systematic attempts to understand why such things happened, and how they might be confronted. What emerges most powerfully from this beautifully written, richly detailed and brilliantly judged book, however, is how much we so often choose not to learn from such events.

Earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis are inevitable manifestations of a living planet. They don’t necessarily kill. Buildings kill, as do ignorance and the breathtaking civic and government incompetence exposed by such events. Despite international declarations of good intention, many schools and hospitals in the developing world have not been built to resist tremor; young surfers in Hawaii have been seen heading towards the beach after a tsunami warning; and the response of authority after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar (Burma) in 2008, was shameful. “First the hurricane — then the disaster”, said a graffito in New Orleans.

But who am I to talk? In 1960, I too drove to the coast, hoping to watch a great wall of water come sweeping in. Sadly, to appreciate fully the utter, devastating dislocation, the confusion that accompanies a great earthquake or catastrophic eruption, you have to be there, and by the time you have got the message, the chances are that you too will be among the dead.

Tim Radford served on the UK committee for the International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction 1990-2000.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Limited, 2010