Saturday 23 January 2010

Quakes in capital cities

The Haiti earthquake may be the deadliest ever to hit a capital city if the estimate of up to 200,000 killed is accurate. The Tokyo quake of 1923 killed about 150,000 in the Japanese capital and its port Yokohama, and about 1.9 million were made homeless, as up to 360,000 buildings were destroyed.

Within days, though, businesses and shops left standing had begun trading again, and seven years later, it was said that Tokyo had been restored with scarcely a single visible scar from the disaster. A plan to rebuild the capital at a new site, less vulnerable to earthquakes, was rejected.

The Lisbon earthquake of All Saints' Day 1755 struck a city that was then not just the capital of Portugal, but the hub of a great empire. As many as 90,000 people were killed, while thousands of buildings were flattened - much of the damage being done by the fires that broke out after the quake. The king put his prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, in charge of reconstruction, and Pombal turned his coach into an improvised office among the ruins, living on soup brought in by his wife as he got to grips with the crisis.

He posted guards at exits from the city to stop any able-bodied men from leaving, then pressed them into work on the clean-up, while he sent ships to all corners of the empire with the message that the capital was still open for business. Some, like the Jesuits, argued that the city should not be rebuilt as the quake was a punishment from God, but within a year the Marquis was constructing a new Lisbon with the big squares and long avenues that form the elegant heart of the city we see today, and which his statue surveys from the top of a tall column.

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