A beautiful, cosmopolitan metropolis with unique architecture at the heart of a thriving commercial empire and a muscular and expanding international power is struck by a flood that destroys most of the city and takes thousands of lives. Up to 85 percent of the city, which had been organized into “parishes”, is destroyed. In the chaos that follows civil order breaks down and looting and disease are rampant. Fires rage for days. Desperate residents flee to refugee camps. The army is mobilized. As rebuilding begins important lessons about urban planning and understanding ecological hazards are applied. The city is reborn, but may never attain its former grandeur.
New Orleans in 2005? Yes. And also Lisbon in 1755.
A better analogy to Katrina and its aftermath than the oft-cited Asian tsunami is the Lisbon Earthquake. That cataclysm also involved a horrific flood, but in a more developed part of the world. Mid-18th century Portugal was at the center of global commerce and politics. The scope of that tragedy shocked Europeans who were then in the midst of the Enlightenment. It reminded the intellectual class that wealth and the self-confidence that comes with growing scientific sophistication are as nothing compared to the power of nature.
Lisbon caused a horrified Voltaire to write Candide, a bitter response to the philosopher Leibniz’ metaphysical conclusion that this must be “the best of all possible worlds.” Many questioned their faith. Portugal was led to look inward, stalling its quest for empire.
Some of the consequences of that disaster provide interesting, even hopeful clues to the way human society can manifest its resiliency. For example, one result of the Lisbon earthquake was a greater appreciation for the role of government in crises, as order was forcefully restored and the reconstruction of Lisbon was undertaken. The lesson the populace drew was not that the idea of government was wrong, but rather they came to see that certain government officials were competent and some were not. Resentment against the old, comfortable aristocracy took hold and new leaders installed.
It is too early to tell what lesson Americans will draw about their government from the failure of institutions in the first week following Katrina. Perhaps the political process will produce legislators who redirect public policy toward a more prudent balance of public interests as against those of industries like real estate development and gambling enterprises. The design of Lisbon was changed to be more accommodating and less over-crowded, with large squares and straight avenues replacing narrow streets.
Another outstanding question is whether Katrina will lead to a greater appreciation of science as one source of guidance in public affairs. Leaders of scientific organizations have recently expressed concern that evidence is taking even more of a backseat to ideology in this administration than is usually the case in Washington. Similarly, perhaps an appreciation of the importance of expertise in such highly sensitive positions as disaster management, rather than political cronyism, will prevail. Instead of turning their backs on science after the earthquake, the Enlightenment philosophers saw it as the best hope for the intelligent management of a risky world.
Like all analogies this one is far from perfect. However important New Orleans is to the region, it’s not the national capital. About a third of Lisbon’s resident’s died, and there was no warning of the wall of water that struck the city. Also, the issues of race and poverty that have been so apparent in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina were not at issue in Lisbon. In comparison, we are a long way from knowing how the ripples of Katrina will make themselves felt. As we begin to take stock of the consequences of the New Orleans flood, the Lisbon earthquake should remind us that political spin is no match for natural forces that can change the course of history.
Jonathan D. Moreno is Kornfeld Professor and Director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His new book is entitled “Is There an Ethicist in the House?” (Indiana University Press).