The subject of today’s column was to be what I term the ‘Naipaul desperation’. However, everyone will currently have a story about where they were and what they feared in the moment of the terrifying earthquake we experienced in the afternoon of Tuesday last.
Do we appreciate how powerless we were? The wealthy and the powerful may “tumble down and in the dust be equal made” with the victims of the regular abuses of power.
“There is no armour against Fate” writes the poet in Death the Leveller, the poem from which the above quotation is drawn. However, in some situations, humans are able to try to cheat fate. Not so with earthquakes.
Hurricanes, for example, are preceded by warnings, which permit preparations for flight or shelter, strategic placement of drinking water and food and the huddling together of family members. Warnings of the likely intensity of the strike in terms of categories ‘1’ to ‘5’ are also given.
When I heard, shortly after last Tuesday’s earthquake, that it was of a 7.2 magnitude at its centre in nearby Venezuela 140 miles across the Gulf of Paria, and was a 6.9 in Trinidad, I simply could not understand how buildings had not immediately come crashing down.
I knew that, in recent times, Haiti had crumbled and I also recalled pictures of a collapsed cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand after earthquakes of ‘7’ and high ‘6’ magnitudes. In my tourist days I learned that an ‘8-plus’ magnitude quake destroyed Lisbon, Portugal and killed one quarter of its population in 1755.
The morning after our event, I heard our best known expert, Dr Joan Latchman, saying that the extent of damage is related in part to the depth of the earthquake. By then I had refreshed my memory from sources available on the internet.
The massive death and destruction in Haiti in 2010—also on a Tuesday afternoon, for the information of the superstitious—was not simply the result of the 7.0 magnitude. A report from the BBC put the epicentre’s proximity to Port-au-Prince as 10 miles and the depth as just 5 miles.
Those factors in Haiti, namely closeness to the surface and to the epicentre: “ensured the destructive forces were at the most intense. Shaking tends to be greatest directly above the source. In this case the epicentre was only 15km from the centre of the capital Port-au-Prince, which therefore suffered very heavily.”
There was also reference in the BBC report to the use of “damping systems” in buildings in the earthquake zones of industrialised countries. As all the usual platitudes of “wake up call” and “improved building codes” echoed through the week, it might now be useful to hear something about what these damping systems are and whether building construction in our country provides anything like that.
These other earthquakes tell us that our merciful escape did not depend only on the magnitude numbers ‘6’, ‘7’ or ‘8’. There are strong elements of fate or karma. Contemplation of the uncertainty inherent in these two elements, to which all categories of citizens are subject, should induce less arrogance and more humility.
I think of New York City when I raise the value of recognising our luck and our mortal fragility.
When I resumed visiting the city, after a lull, it seemed a gentler place than I remembered. Crime had decreased and friends there tell me that the city became gentler after 9/11, driven by its residents placing a value on supporting each other.
It seems also that, as re-building lower Manhattan focused on more residential and less business space and there was also a boom in tourism, many New Yorkers turned more outward from themselves.
It can hardly be said that VS Naipaul, recently deceased, turned outward from himself. Why are some people clinging to the fact of his birth in Trinidad as a validation of us as a people?
A better remedy for our insecurity would be sustained investment in our vibrant culture, which would help to build world renown and self esteem, instead of gallerying a person’s fame after it has been justifiably earned but we have been persistently disowned?