Tag Archives: Haiti earthquake

More context for Haiti: Clay Shirky on the Sichuan quake of 2008

In his epilogue to Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky recalls the role of social media in reporting the Sichuan earthquake of May, 2008, and its aftermath.  These pages (293 ff.) are valuable for what they analyze and what they portend.  Below is a brief excerpt.

The one big lesson from the Sichuan quake is that there is never just one big lesson.  Truly complex events have complex causes and complex ramifications.  There are many threads to this story:  the effects of social cables of various thickness running between the world’s regions, of Small Worlds networks as a natural amplifier of news, of the former audience committing acts of journalism in the quake zone, of the hybridization between professional and amateur media, of the tension between citizen desire for openness and governmental desire for control.  All of these are connected pieces of the story, and although they are all patterns we have seen in the world before, their operation during the Sichuan quake was at a scale and level of intensity that dwarfed even the response after the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami.  An event like the quake and its aftermath highlights how ubiquitous, rapid, and global social media has become, but it also accelerates the pace of that change, because once people adopt social media in an unusual situation, they are much likelier to integrate it into their everyday lives.

Increased options for communication in groups don’t just mean we will get more of the patterns we already recognize; they also mean we will also get more new kinds of patterns.  More is different, even for people who understand that more is different, which explains in part our persistent difficulties in getting technology predictions right.  (297-8)

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@andersoncooper returns to Haiti


 [For purposes of narrative coherence, this sequence of tweets is best read chronologically, i.e., bottom to top. – Ed.]

From ac: and no one’s struggle to live should go unnoticed as well. 38 minutes ago from web

From ac: I guess I came to remind myself of that. No one deserves to die in silence… 39 minutes ago from web

From ac: demands a place on the news nightly, but it should. There is more happening here than ten missionaries in jail… 39 minutes ago from web

From ac: sealed into a crypt. It’s not the kind of misery that makes for headlines perhaps, and clearly it’s not the kind of sorrow that… 40 minutes ago from web

From ac: Twenty five people were shoved into old crypts in a city cemetary today. We watched the remains of a mother and her son being.. 40 minutes ago from web

From ac: of thousands of people. The homeless are everywhere, the hungry are as well. They are still finding bodies all the time. 41 minutes ago from web

From ac: ..of the earthquake. To say things are getting better here is probably technically correct, but it’s still miserable for hundreds 41 minutes ago from web

From ac: on a daily basis – it’s an odd disconnect, and it doesn’t feel right. Later this week is the one month anniversary of the 42 minutes ago from web

From ac: truth is, it felt very strange. When you know something monumental is happening so close to our shores, and yet you don’t see it.. 43 minutes ago from web

From ac: the streets of port au prince. They know a lot more about exhaustion than I ever will. I spent last week in new york, but the.. 44 minutes ago from web

From ac: and the truth is, I left because I needed a break. That’s not the kind of thing you can really tell someone who is living on.. about 1 hour ago from web

From ac: have left as well. I don’t really know what to tell them. I was here for more than two weeks immediately following the quake.. about 1 hour ago from web

From ac: No one I’ve seen today in port au prince has asked me that. If anything people here ask why I left, and why so many other about 1 hour ago from web

From ac: I was asked to write a blog about why I wanted to come back to haiti. I’m not really sure how to answer that question…. about 1 hour ago from web

From ac: I blogged this yesterday, but wanted to send it as a tweet as well, sorry if you’ve already seen it…. about 1 hour ago from web

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John Berger: “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other”

 A post on current.com on the aftermath of (and run-up to) the earthquake in Haiti prompted one reader to cite John Berger:

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.


There is no specific citation provided, though the unsparing language could be drawn from any number of Berger’s works over the past decade.  Its pertinence to Haiti is self-evident.

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More context for Haiti: the Lisbon earthquake, 1755

As it turns out, Wikipedia has a substantive entry on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, an event that I have been using as a reference point for reflection on the Haiti instance:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake   Even cursory research into the Lisbon quake and its multiple impacts can provide some historical and practical context for the seemingly incomprehensible events unfolding in Haiti. 

Here are a few excerpts from the Wikipedia entry on “1755 Lisbon earthquake,” which includes endnotes and a list of references that are also of interest. 

Travel time map for the tsunami waves of 1 November 1755 

In 1755, the earthquake struck on the morning of 1 November, the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day.  Contemporary reports state that the earthquake lasted between three-and-a-half and six minutes, causing gigantic fissures five metres (15 ft) wide to appear in the city centre.  Survivors rushed to the open space of the docks for safety and watched as the water receded, revealing a sea floor littered by lost cargo and old shipwrecks.  Approximately forty minutes after the earthquake, an enormous tsunami engulfed the harbour and downtown, rushing up the Tagus river, “so fast that several people riding on horseback…were forced to gallop as fast as possible to the upper grounds for fear of being carried away.”  It was followed by two more waves.  In the areas unaffected by the tsunami, fire quickly broke out, and flames raged for five days…. 

Shocks from the earthquake were felt throughout Europe as far as Finland and North Africa, and according to some sources even in Greenland and in the Caribbean.  Tsunamis as tall as 20 metres (66 ft) swept the coast of North Africa, and struck Martinique and Barbados across the Atlantic.  A three-metre (ten-foot) tsunami hit Cornwall on the southern English coast.  Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, was also hit, resulting in partial destruction of the “Spanish Arch” section of the city wall…. 

The royal family escaped unharmed from the catastrophe; King Joseph I of Portugal and the court had left the city, after attending mass at sunrise, fulfilling the wish of one of the king’s daughters to spend the holiday away from Lisbon.  After the catastrophe, Joseph I developed a fear of living within walls, and the court was accommodated in a huge complex of tents and pavilions in the hills of Ajuda, then on the outskirts of Lisbon.  The king’s claustrophobia never wanted, and it was only after Joseph’s death that his daughter Maria I of Portugal began rebuilding the royal Ajuda Palace, which still stands on the site of the old tented camp.  Like the king, the prime minister Sebastiao de Melo (the Marquis of Pombal) survived the earthquake.  When asked what was to be done, Pombal reportedly replied, “Bury the dead and heal the living,” and set upon organizing relief and rehabilitation efforts.  Firefighters were sent to extinguish the raging flames, and teams of workers and ordinary citizens were ordered to remove the thousands of corpses before disease could spread.  contrary to custom and against the wishes of the Church, many corpses were loaded onto barges and buried at sea beyond the mouth of the Tagus.  To prevent disorder in the ruined city, the Portuguese Army was deployed and gallows were constructed at high points around the city to deter looters; more than thirty people were publicly executed.  The Army prevented many able-bodied citizens from fleeing, pressing them into relief and construction work. 

Executions in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake. At least 34 looters were hanged in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster.

The king and the prime minister immediately launched efforts to rebuild the city, hiring architects, engineers and organizing labor.  In less than a year, the city was cleared of debris.  Keen to have a new and perfectly ordained city, the king commissioned the construction of big squares, rectilinear, large avenues and widened streets – the new mottos of Lisbon.  When the Marquis of Pombal was asked about the need for such wide streets, he is said to have replied:  “One day they will be small.”


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The earthquake in literature: the example of Kleist

She had a feeling, which she could not suppress, that the preceding day, despite all the misery it had brought upon the world, had been a mercy such as heaven had never yet bestowed on her. And indeed, in the midst of this horrifying time in which all the earthly possessions of men were perishing and all nature was in danger of being engulfed, the human spirit itself seemed to unfold like the fairest of flowers. In the fields, as far as the eye could see, men and women of every social station could be seen lying side by side, princes and beggars, ladies and peasant women, government officials and day labourers, friars and nuns: pitying one another, helping one another, gladly sharing anything they had saved to keep themselves alive, as if the general disaster had united all its survivors into a single family.

Instead of the usual trivial tea-table gossip about the ways of the world, everyone was now telling stories of extraordinary heroic deeds. Persons hitherto held to be of little consequence in society had shown a Roman greatness of character; there were countless instances of fearlessness, of magnanimous contempt for danger, of self-denial and superhuman sacrifice, of life unhesitatingly cast away as if it were the most trifling of possessions and could be recovered a moment later. Indeed, since there was no one who on that day had not experienced some touching kindness or had not himself performed some generous action, the sorrow in every heart was mingled with so much sweetness and delight that (she) felt it would be hard to say whether the sum of general well-being had not increased on the one hand by as much as it had diminished on the other.

Heinrich von Kleist, “The Earthquake in Chile”

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Haiti earthquake coverage: Guardian editorial

Haiti: Disaster beyond magnitude

It is all too easy, seeing the appalling scenes from Port-au-Prince yesterday, to forget America’s historic debt to Haiti, scene of the first successful slave revolt, which defined the destiny of Africans in the New World. The establishment of the first black independent state had tangible consequences. It denied Napoleon his foothold in the Caribbean and led him to sell New Orleans and the Louisiana territories to Jefferson. But, for as long as anyone can remember, Haiti has been treated as a basket case where corruption, gang violence and natural disaster combine to drag the country backwards. Now an earthquake may have killed up to 50,000, and rendered 3 million homeless. No one can prevent shallow earthquakes, but the consequences of this one have been made catastrophic by Haiti’s condition.

The French saddled the nation with debt, the Americans with cheap rice imports in the 1980s; 98% of the land has been deforested, destroying watersheds, creating soil erosion and impoverishing agriculture. Self-serving Haitian elites have just spent three months getting rid of Michèle Pierre-Louis, the first effective prime minister the country has had for years. The roots of the rural exodus and exponential growth of jerry-built shanty towns lie deep, but as the first arriving international aid teams looked round in desperation yesterday for the flickering signs of a functioning state, it was brutally clear why they were not going to find any. The policemen were too busy rescuing and burying their own families to patrol the streets. Even if the physical symbols of state, like the buildings of the presidency and parliament, had stood their ground, it is doubtful what help they could have given to their own people. The institutions they represent have never been far from collapse. Before Tuesday’s 20 seconds of unbearable shaking, natural disasters had resulted in over 18,400 deaths between 2001 and 2007, and four storms and hurricanes in September 2008 carried away another 1,000. In other words, Haiti is not just the unluckiest country on the planet. This rate of mortality is anything but natural, particularly if you compare it to Cuba’s record in dealing with a similar procession of killer storms and floods.

Too many untested claims have been made about the capacity to build states around the world. But Haiti is surely one failed state on Washington’s doorstep that US power is in a unique position to help right now. Haiti requires not just a massive international relief operation, with bodies piling up in the streets and fresh water a scarcer commodity in Port-au-Prince than money. It requires a sustained, long-term international effort to get its flattened institutions functioning. Too often in the past after such disasters, international relief has filled the void of a functioning state, and when the spotlight of the world’s attention moves on, so too has the focus blurred. This time has to be different.

Maintaining law and order will be an immediate priority. The longer millions of survivors wait in the streets for help to come, the more likely it is that despair will turn to rage and ­Haitians will take matters into their own hands. Gang violence was curbed in Cité Soleil, the biggest urban slum, only after a concerted effort at arresting the gang leaders was made between the police and the UN mission. But it was never eradicated in other slums like Bel Air and Martissant, and it does not take much, as the food riots in 2008 revealed, to spark fresh waves of unrest. Barack Obama, the former president Bill Clinton and the secretary of state Hillary Clinton all know Haiti well. For them, it is not a far-off exotic land. When the president said yesterday that America will stand by the ­people of Haiti in their hour of need, announcing a $100m aid package and dispatching an aircraft carrier and relief ships, there was every reason to believe him. But this has to be a commitment which if necessary lasts years.

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Montaigne on the perpetual earthquake

Le monde n’est qu’une branloire perenne.  Toutes choses y branlent sans cesse:  la terre, les rochers du Caucase, les pyramides d’Aegypte, et du branle public et du leur.  La constance mesme n’est autre chose qu’un branle plus languissant.  Je ne puis asseurer mon objet.

Montaigne, Essais III, 2.  Cited as the epigraph to “The Quaking of Presentation” in Werner Hamacher, Premises:  Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan.  Stanford University Press, 1996, 261.

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