Haiti and Us

Even unavoidable cataclysms can be mitigated. Pretending we have time won't make us safer.

Haiti school collapse 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Haiti school collapse 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Nature plays no favorites. It occasionally lashes out with colossal fury at rich and poor alike. On Monday a 6.5-magnitude temblor shook Northern California, delivering yet another warning to one of the world's most affluent regions.
But when disaster strikes one of the poorest nations on earth, as it did Haiti just one day later, with the awesome devastation of a 7-magnitude quake, the tragedy becomes all the more overwhelming.
Haitians, whose country is among the least developed anywhere and nearly 90% of whom endure extreme poverty, are no strangers to suffering. Their ramshackle shacks, rudimentary infrastructure and flimsy social organizations are no match for far less than the catastrophic forces unleashed upon them this week.
Their misery has been exacerbated unimaginably and their plight cannot but tug hard at our heartstrings. We hope medical and rescue teams from faraway Israel can help alleviate even a little of the pain of at least some victims.
WHETHER WE regard nature's might from a religious or secular-philosophical perspective, the inescapable conclusion is that no matter how far mankind progresses, we are inevitably reminded of what minuscule features we constitute in the greater scheme. Despite our technological bravura, we still can do little to countermand what forces beyond our control decree. Blows such as those inflicted upon Haiti appear to beg platitudes about humanity's hubris.
That said, calamities intensified by a given society's idiosyncratic circumstances mustn't breed smugness here. If anything, Haiti's acute misfortune ought to remind us that we face menaces of our own, which are by and large routinely ignored, notwithstanding political lip service - like the recent government pledge to gear up to quake hazards.
By sheer coincidence Tel Aviv this week has been hosting the International Preparedness and Response to Emergencies and Disasters (IPRED) conference under the auspices of the World Association for Disaster Medicine. IPRED aims to provide a platform for networking and sharing lessons from mass casualty events.
Col. Bella Azaria, in charge of the IDF Home Front medical preparedness on the community level, noted at the conference that in the past year no fewer than 1,500 small earth tremors were registered in northern Israel alone, and that every century or so we expect a major quake which can potentially kill hundreds and maim thousands.
She reminded us that Israel directly flanks the Afro-Syrian fault line, where two tectonic plates rub against each other. The Dead Sea and Jordan Valley are the physical manifestations of that rift in our country.
Geologists warn us that an above-7-on-the-Richter-Scale quake is probable sometime within the next 50 years. It can happen any day and, if of a particularly destructive magnitude and lethally close, no part of the country would be safe.
Committees aplenty have been set up and compiled detailed recommendations on how to shore up existing structures and prepare for what could come again; bad though it was, the 1927 quake wasn't the "big one," the once-in-a-millennium mega-event which experts judge we are due to experience soon.
The last such massive event occurred in 1033. We are infinitely more densely populated nowadays and hence incomparably more vulnerable.
But talk and even blueprints aren't action. New building codes aren't enough, especially when we have no guarantee that they are strictly enforced. Neither is it of any use to tell the public that pre-1976 structures are riskiest.
It's another thing to survey all existing buildings and suggest to residents what can feasibly be done to quakeproof them. But obviously, even merely dispensing practical advice costs money - to say nothing of retrofitting old structures.
It's only natural for us to dwell on pressing crises - of which Israel suffers no shortage - and put off consideration of doomsday scenarios. It's the norm for elected governments to emphasize the immediately urgent and spend their finite resources on the here-and-now.
In Israel, however, frugality may not be synonymous with prudence. Even unavoidable cataclysms can be mitigated. They tend to be worst where the least care is taken a priori to preserve life. Pretending we have time won't make us safer.