“Bury the dead and feed the living”

Lessons From Lisbon: An Opinion 

by | Dec 30, 2007

The earthquake and tidal wave depicted in a dutch print 1755: o grande terramoto de Lisboa. Artwork: Lisbon: Público and Fundação Luso-Americana.

“Bury the dead and feed the living.” These were the words attributed to Portugal’s pragmatic, all-powerful first minister, the Marquês de Pombal, as he contemplated the damage wrought by one of history’s most devastating natural disasters, the earthquake that struck Lisbon on November 1, 1755. Estimated by scientists today to have been close to 9.0 on the Richter scale and followed by a tsunami, the earthquake killed thousands and leveled much of the city.

Pombal’s famous order was just the first part of a comprehensive disaster-relief strategy, detailed in a 1758 book of measures he took, here called providencias. Though it purported to heap obsequious praise on the monarch, King José I, theProvidencias reads more like a manual for emergency response. The true object of its praise, of course, is Pombal himself, who was responsible for implementing the strategies it outlines.

These eleven providencias are not a bad set of rules to follow after any catastrophe, and the dates of the statutes that initiated them—as well as Pombal’s unmistakable signature—almost defy belief in light of the belated response to Katrina: on November 2, the day after the earthquake, Pombal ordered the disposal of dead bodies to prevent plague. Speedy distribution of food and a freeze on grain prices to prevent hunger and price-gouging were ordered on November 3. Subsequent days saw the sick and injured taken care of, inhabitants restored to their city, troops sent to maintain the peace, and measures taken to prevent thefts and punish criminals. Before the end of the week, Pombal was already making plans to rebuild the city.

Naturally, some historians contest the veracity of Pombal’s lightning-quick response, wondering if the tales of daring assistance were simply invented, or at least greatly exaggerated, in order to buoy his popularity and influence in Portugal and abroad. It is difficult to believe that the occupational forebears of disgraced FEMA director Michael Brown could have acted with such haste and efficacy. But newly discovered documents at Harvard’s Houghton Library confirm that Pombal’s self-praise was well deserved: a mere two days after the earthquake, with large sections of Lisbon still ablaze and the royal family camped out in tents at their summer palace, Pombal was busy promulgating measures to ease the city’s turmoil and provide for its reconstruction. The Houghton documents include three drafts of decrees to control grain prices, with annotations and corrections in Pombal’s hand.

The example of Lisbon in 1755 contrasts sharply with the inadequate response to Katrina some two-and-a-half centuries later. Failures that sparked outrage in New Orleans—such as looting, bodies in the street, and inadequate temporary housing—all might have been dealt with quickly and effectively had a FEMA official run through the checklist provided by Pombal’sProvidencias. Not all of these rules are immediately applicable to the present day, of course, and many were aided by Pombal’s ruthless and absolute exercise of power: looters were summarily hanged on street corners, while special permission was obtained from the Archbishop of Lisbon to carry decomposing corpses out to sea and dump them in the ocean without funeral rites in order to avoid an outbreak of plague. And one measure that could probably be ignored by FEMA was “collecting the nuns, who were wandering around the city, and putting them back in the cloisters.”

Still, the basic strategies used by Pombal to restore order and sanitation could have been readily employed by FEMA in the aftermath of Katrina. Indeed, many of those who attack the agency stress the fact that it did not adhere to a simple set of rules.

Since Katrina, FEMA has heard enough criticism to last it until the next disaster. What it and other disaster-management agencies need now are constructive solutions. Pombal’s show that effective disaster relief can be accomplished without fourteen-page responsibility flowcharts or 1400-page procedural manuals; the volume is thin enough to read on the flight to the next disaster site.

Already Americans may have difficulty recalling the thoughts of desperation and disbelief that many of us felt as we witnessed the inability of a nation equipped with all the marvels of the 21st century to cope with such a disaster. It is providential that this new documentary evidence, confirming the speed and efficacy of the response to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, has surfaced at such an opportune moment. The current FEMA director might wish to pay some heed to this centuries-old example and tack a modern version of the Providencias up on the office billboard.

Winter 2007Volume VI, Number 2

Adam N. Khedouri is a senior in Sociology at Harvard College.

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