The San Juan Daily Star
How earthquakes test our souls and our governments
By Bret Stephens
In every life, there are a few indelible dates: the birth of a child, the death of a parent, a national tragedy such as 9/11.
An indelible date for me is Sept. 19, 1985.
I was an 11-year-old boy living in Mexico City, in a car on my way to school, a few minutes after 7 a.m. Suddenly the road began to sway. The car swerved from one side of the road to the other. It felt as if we were flying. This went on for nearly three minutes.
At school, a rumor had spread that the downtown had been flattened. My father liked to get to his office there around 7. I spent the morning in a panic.
The earthquake had a magnitude of 8.0. It killed at least 5,000 people, though the real death toll was probably much higher. A terrifying aftershock the next day measured 7.5. For comparison, the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake was a 6.7 and lasted less than 20 seconds.
The quake that shook Turkey and Syria on Monday was a 7.8 and didn’t stop for about two minutes.
The scenes emerging from Idlib, Aleppo, Hatay, Iskenderun and other devastated cities are awful. They’re especially emotional for those with their own memories of major quakes.
Twenty years after the Mexico City earthquake, I went to Pakistan to report on the U.S. relief effort for the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, in which an estimated 86,000 people were killed.
On my first night in Islamabad, a minor quake that lasted a few seconds jolted me awake in the middle of the night, and I jammed myself under the bed. As I lay there, in a sweat, memories of Mexico flooded back.
The next morning, I got a ride in a Pakistani helicopter to what had once been a small city called Balakot, in the North-West Frontier province. From its population of 50,000, it had lost 16,000 in an earthquake that lasted less than a minute. It looked like pictures of post-atomic Hiroshima; only a few buildings remained standing among the flattened ruins.
Earthquakes are always said to be “natural” disasters. It’s a misleading term. The real disaster is almost always human-made, often in the form of poorly constructed homes and buildings with insufficient rebar and other structural supports, followed by incompetent crisis management in the aftermath of the catastrophe.
In Pakistan, the shoddy construction was mainly a function of poverty. In wealthier Mexico, which on paper had stringent building codes dating back to the aftermath of previous quakes, the reason tended to be government corruption.
After the quake, it became impossible to ignore that privately built office towers and homes stood unscathed while government-built and operated hospitals, ministries and schools lay in ruins. The quake exposed the rot, structural and moral, at the heart of Mexico’s quasi-dictatorial, development-oriented regime.
It also didn’t help that the Mexican government refused foreign aid in the critical early hours after the disaster. Nationalism and false pride have no place in a disaster. The government’s incompetence enraged many Mexicans previously resigned to keeping their distance from politics. That rage led to the creation of civil-protest movements, and campaigns for better governance. It isn’t simple to place the origins of Mexico’s transformation into a true democracy, but Sept. 19, 1985, may well be the right date. Good things can emerge from the most tragic circumstances.
Maybe that will be true for Turkey as well, particularly if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responds to the emergency with his usual ham-fistedness and paranoia. He faces crucial elections in the spring and was already presiding over a country facing a nearly 60% inflation rate. It won’t be surprising if he uses the three-month state of emergency he declared to bully his way to yet another term. If the Turkish government’s response is not efficient and effective, if Erdogan seems out of touch, the quake could be his downfall, too.
I have even fewer hopes for Syria, where there’s no limit to the cruelty that Bashar Assad is prepared to inflict to keep himself in power. Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said all aid must be funneled through the government, which should be a nonstarter given Assad’s reputation for corruption. Other means will be needed to help devastated Syrians.
A final earthquake memory: In Balakot, I had a chance to listen to some of the schoolkids who had survived the quake but lost their families. It was hard to hold back tears in the face of their composure. Now I think of the children who this week lost their parents — or, just as heartbreakingly, parents who lost their kids.
Even in the age of Ukraine and other disasters, can we still muster a sustained sense of charity and compassion to help, intelligently, in the long recovery that lies ahead?
Around noon on that September day in 1985, my mother came to my school and took me home to my dad’s embrace. To this day, I think about how very lucky we were, and ache for so many who were not.