Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Opportunities Too Good to Miss: Earthquakes As Times to Change Things

As Milton Friedman noted during the Hurricane Katrina debacle, a crisis is a good time to get things done. He had in mind the dismantling of the New Orleans public school system—which was indeed accomplished—but crises can work the other way round too. President Obama’s right hand man Rahm Emmanuel recognized this when called the current economic mess a crisis too good to miss.

The Marquês de Pombal, Portugal’s great Enlightenment leader, saw that clearly after the devastating earthquake which leveled Lisbon in 1755. He used the opportunity to reform building codes and rebuild the city along rational and hygienic principles not employed elsewhere until Baron Haussmann’s projects for Paris nearly 100 years later. As I research my next non-fiction book (tentatively title The Portuguese Adventure: The Large Legacy of a Small Nation), I am amazed at what progressive thinking was going on in Portugal then. Is it possible that Italian authorities will be able to seize the sad opportunity the Abruzzi earthquake affords to reform building codes and investigate the reasons why so many new buildings suffered so much damage?

1 comment:

lagatta à montréal said...

Alas given the current régime I'm not very hopeful, no more than I was about Bush vs New Orleans. I've been reading up on this disaster; mostly in Italian of course, and the problem is not the lack of stringent codes for building in seismic zones but the utter lack of application.

Other than the student residence (Casa dello studente) there have also been modern apartment blocks that have collapsed).

A student movement is trying to raise funds and deliver them through their members in Abruzzo (there is a university at L'Aquila and another at Pescara, on the coast) since there is so much distrust of the authorities, because unfortunately there are terrible precedents about relief funds winding up in someone's pocket and disaster survivors living like internal refugees for years or even decades in temporary buildings.

Even the mainstream Left in Italy has been very timorous about needed reforms, unlike their counterparts in Spain and some significant forces in Portugal (I have a friend in Portugal who was very much involved in the pro-choice movement there).

I love Italy, but I'm very depressed about current prospects there.

I'm very interested in the rebuilding in Lisbon. They also did a remarkable job late in the last century of rebuilding after a major fire, as you know.