Requiem for a City: Mexico’s Impending Earthquake

For days, the sirens never stopped. The ambulances came screaming down the Paseo de la Reforma, the sound preceded by cars packed with young men waving red flags, honking horns, demanding passage. The ambulances went by in a rush. And then more came from the other direction, cutting across town on Insurgentes, grinding gears at the intersection. In the ambulances you could see doctors, nurses, tubes, bottles, a dusty face with an open mouth and urgent eyes. And then they were gone, heading for one of the hospitals in the great injured city of Mexico.

“Somos los chingados,” a man named Victor Presa said to me, standing in the crowd in the Plaza of the Three Cultures in the district called Tlatelolco. We are the fucked. Presa, 41, a tinsmith, didn’t know if his wife and three children were alive or dead. He lived with them in the 13-story Nuevo Leon building of the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco housing complex (one of 96 buildings erected in the ’60s to make up the largest public housing development in the country). When the terremoto hit at 7:19 on the morning of September 19, Victor Presa was coming home with friends. “We were up all of the night. Yes. I don’t have work, you understand? Still, no excuse. I was out, yes, we were drinking, yes … ”

The residents of Nuevo Leon had been complaining for eight months to the project’s officials about the dampness of the concrete, seepage of water, unrepaired fractures, the feeling of instability. The housing bureaucrats ignored them. And at 7:19 a.m., when Victor Presa was still almost a mile from home and thick with pulque, the building seemed to rise up, swayed left, then right, then left again, and all 13 stories went over, reeling down, slab upon slab, concrete powdering upon impact, pipes and drains crumpling, steel rods twisting like chicken wire. Within the gigantic mass, smashed among beds and stoves, sinks and bathtubs, among couches and cribs, bookcases and tables and lamps, ground into fibrous pulp with the morning’s freshly purchased bread, boxes of breakfast cereal, pots of coffee, platters of eggs, bacon, tortillas, there were more than a thousand men, women, and children.

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“Somos los chingados,” said Victor Presa, sore-eyed, his hands bloody, voice cracked, smoking a cigarette, staring at the ruins, as a small army of firemen, soldiers, and residents clawed at the rubble. A woman kept calling for a lost child: Ro-baiiiiiiir-to, Ro­baaaaaiiiii-irrrr-to. The scene seemed almost unreal; surely some director would now yell “cut” and everyone would relax, the calls to the dead and dying would cease, the special effects men would examine their masterpiece. But this was real all right, and Victor Presa stared at the building, summoning whatever strength he had left to join the others who had been smashed by what was being called El Gran Chingon. The Big Fucker.

“This was all we needed,” said an exhausted, hawk-nosed 24-year-old doctor named Raul Tirado. “Things were bad enough. Now this, the catastrofe. Pobre Mexico … poor Mexico.”

Before the catastrophe was the Crisis, always discussed here with a capital C, a combination of factors that were at once political, economic, social. The $6 billion foreign debt. The incredible $30 million a day that leaves Mexico just to pay the vigorish to the banks, never denting the debt itself. The accelerating slide of the peso (for years, 12.5 pesos were pegged to the dollar; last week you could get 405). The collapse of the price of petroleum. All these were intertwined with a wide-ranging cynicism; a loss of faith in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has ruled Mexico without interruption since 1929; contempt for the obesity of the state, where almost four million Mexicans are employed by federal, state, and local governments out of a total work force of about 20 million; despair at the monstrous growth of Mexico City and its transformation into a smog-choked, soul-killing crime-ridden purgatory; fatalism about the daily, hourly arrival of more and more and more children; and above and below everything, touching every level of the national life, persisting in the face of exposure in the press and President Miguel de la Madrid’s oratory about “moral renovation”: the rotting stench of corruption.

“There will be a Mexico when this is finished,” said Dr. Tirado. “But if they only clean up the physical mess, then we are doomed.”

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So the cranes will soon arrive to remove the top four floors of Continental Hotel on the corner of Reforma and Insurgentes, but neither the building nor Mexico will be easily healed. In 1957, when an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale rolled through the city, killing 51 people, the Continental was a year old, a proud new member of the Hilton chain, with a blue-green mosaic mural rising from street level to the roof. That quake split the mural and fractured the building, but repairs were made and business went on. There were only 3.5 million people in Mexico City that year, and the city brimmed with optimism. But Hilton’s name was long ago removed from the building, and the mural torn away, and when I walked around the corner to Calle Roma to look at the aging weather-stained edifice from the rear, the top floors seemed to have been mashed by some gigantic fist. Business there will not go on. Not after El Gran Chingon. Across the street from the Continental there’s a statue of Cuauhtehmoc, the valiant Aztec prince who fought Cortez after Montezuma had failed; Cuauhtehmoc survived 1957 and survived September 19. But his pollution-blackened face now seemed sadder than ever.

“There’ll be nothing there next year,” said a 31-year-old insurance executive named Maria Delgado, staring at the Continental. “Who would build there again? Who would grant insurance? Who would build in many other parts of the city?”

Walking the city in the days after the quake, much of the damage did seem permanent. On the corner of Hamburgo and Dinamarca, a gallery called the Central Cultural de Jose Guadalupe Posada had been compacted from five floors into two; the art work had been removed, the building cordoned off behind a string of sad dusty pennants, but it didn’t matter now: there was nothing left to steal. Across the street, rescue workers combed the rubble of an apartment building: cops, soldiers, doctors in Red Cross vests, university students, men with flat brown Indian faces, all lifting broken concrete, smashed furniture, calling for sounds of life, hearing nothing. Such groups would soon be familiar all over the ruined parts of the city, and they helped compile the statistics of disaster: nearly 5000 dead, another 150,000 hurt, an estimated 2000 trapped in the rubble, dead or alive. Some bureaucrats, afraid of permanently losing tourist business, rushed to minimize the effects of El Gran Chingon; Mexico is a large city, they said (it sprawls over 890 square miles); only 0.1 per cent of its buildings were destroyed. And that was true.

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But you couldn’t minimize what happened to the people who’d been directly affected. On Calle Liverpool, a blue moving van from Romero’s Mudanzas was parked in front of Shakey’s Pizza y Polio, loading furniture from a damaged apartment house; in middle-­class areas, moving vans were part of the scenery, like salvage boats after a shipwreck. A few doors down, the tan cement skin had peeled off the facade of another apartment house, revealing cheap porous concrete blocks underneath. On Calle Landres, two buildings to the right of the Benjamin Franklin Llbrary tilted to the side like drunks in a doonvay; cops warned pedestrians not to smoke because there was gas in the air. At the corner of Landres and Berlin, tinted windows had been blown out of a building, its walls sagged, the street was piled with broken glass and rubble; but in one window you could see the back of a spice rack, its jars neat, orderly, domestic, suggesting life in a place where nobody would ever live again.

The contrasts from one block to another, one building to the next, seemed baffling. Why did this house survive and that one collapse? Of the more than 450 colonial-era buildings listed with the Mexican equivalent of the landmarks commission, not one had been destroyed. But more than 100 new government-owned buildings had fallen, including three major hospitals and many ministries; hundreds of others (including many schools) were mortally wounded. Fate bad never seemed more capricious. But every Mexican I spoke to offered the same basic explanation and it had nothing to do with God, faith, subsoil erosion, fault lines, the Cocos Plate, or the superiority of the 19th century to the 20th. Their answer was simple: corruption.

“Today, more than ever, it has been shown that corruption is a very bad builder,” said the Committee of 100, a group formed last March to combat the environmental disasters of Mexico (its members include writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz, artists Rufino Tamayo and Jose Luis Cuevas). “It is no casual thing that the historic center of the city, made to last, has survived the two tremors …”

Senator Antonio Martinez Baez, a professor emeritus of the National Autonomous University, said that corruption was widespread in the building industry, particularly in the 1970s, when Mexico was booming with oil money. Martinez Baez said the corruption involved more than government bureaucrats, who looked the other way when shoddy materials were used; it included contractors, engineers, building owners and their intermediaries, usually hustling lawyers.

“They should not be allowed to clear these areas until a thorough examination has taken place,” said an engineer named Rafael Avellanor. “Concrete, steel, everything must be tested, measured against the original specifications. And then the guilty should be jailed for murder.”

Corruption is, of course, one of the oldest, saddest Mexican stories; didn’t Montezuma first offer Cortez a bribe to go away? But corruption doesn’t explain everything. If the earthquake toppled many modern buildings, if it seemed a horrible act of architectural criticism to enrubble the Stalinoid fortresses of the permanent bureaucracy, well, El Gran Chingon also rolled into Tepito.

And while the camera crews faithfully assembled each day at the Children’s Hospital, at the Medical Center, at the Juarez housing project, where dramas of rescue and redemption were played out with touching regularity; while cameras for three hours followed Nancy Reagan in her yellow jacket and professionally concerned mask; while journalists sought out Placido Domingo, bearded and dusty in the ruins of Tlatelolco, working alongside ordinary citizens, searching for four of his lost relatives “until the last stone is lifted”; while cameras at the airport recorded the arrival of volunteers and aid from 43 countries; while all of that was happening, almost nobody went to Tepito.

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There seems always to have been a Tepito in Mexico City; it’s perhaps the city’s oldest slum, maker of thieves and prizefighters and entertainers. For most of this century, the Tepito poor have crowded into tiny dollar-a-month, one-room flats in vecindades (apartment houses assembled around damp central courtyards, described in detail by Oscar Lewis in The Children of Sanchez). They built houses for themselves too, of scraps of wood, homemade brick, parts of cars, discarded advertising signs. Boys from Tepito became toreros and football players; they went to the great gym called Baños de Jordan and fought their way onto page one of Esto or Ovaciones, the city’s daily sports papers; at least one, Raton Macias, became a champion of the world. Some became musicians and worked in Plaza Garibaldi, not far away, singing, playing horn or guitar for lovers, tourists, and each other in the Tenampa Club or the Guadalajara del Noche; some became cops; a few went on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers; many ended up a dozen blocks away in the notorious Black Palace of Lecumberri, the city’s major prison, until it was torn down a few years ago.

The women of Tepito had harder lives. They married young, bore children young, suffered young, died young. Most were faithful to the code of machismo, imposed upon them by the men; those who violated the code often ended up in the pages of Alarma, a weekly crime journal that specializes in the mutilated bodies of the dead. Too many became prostitutes, working in the three famous callejones, or alleys behind the Merced marketplace, alleys so narrow that men stood with their backs against the rough walls while the women sat on stools and performed for a dollar. They started there when young, las putas de Tepito, and many ended up back in the callejones when old. Along the way, perhaps, there were stops in the houses and cribs of Calle de Esperanza (now lost to reform), or if they were pretty enough, smart enough, tough enough, they’d move up to the dance halls on San Juan de Letran, or the more expensive whore houses beyond the Zona Rosa, where the politicians and generals arrived each night with their sleazy cuadrillas. They might hook up with a married man and be installed in a casa chica. Some went off to the border towns. But they were always men and women “de Tepito,” a phrase said with the tough pride of someone from Red Hook or the Lower East Side.

And now, a few days after the earthquake, Tepito was gone. In the cerrada of Gonzales Ortega, all of the houses were destroyed. Vecindades were in rubble along Brasil Street, on Rayon, Jesus Carranza, Tenochtitlan, Fray Bernadina de Las Casas, Florida, and Las Cardidad, all the way to the Avenida del Trabajo. This had always been a barrio whose true god was noise. A mixture of blasting radios, shouts, laughter, rumors, deals, quarrels, jokes, screaming children, imploring mothers, furious husbands. You could hear young men playing trumpet in the afternoons. You could hear lovers careening into melodrama, while dealers hawked contraband radios, hot jewelry, used clothes, drugs.

Now Tepito was silent except for one lone radio somewhere, playing a tinny mariachi tune. A drunk of uncertain age, grizzled and dirty, sat on a pile of broken brick, talking intensely to himself. A tinsmith poked at the ruins of his shop, a small boy beside him looking grave. An old man who had run a small antique record store trembled as he looked at his smashed collection. “I have great treasures here. Jorge Negrete. Carlos Gardel. Lara. Infante. Treasures. Of the old style. Ahora … ”

Ahora. Now. Now the men, women, children, and dogs of Tepito had moved by the thousands to the open spaces around the Avenida del Trabajo. They had improvised tents. They’d formed teams to search for water. Old women had set up charcoal mounds to boil water and cook. Together, they consoled each other, fed each other, cursed at politicians, cops, fate, God. They passed along news: the Bahia movie house was wrecked (“Ay, chico, where will we go now to get fleas?”) and on San Juan de Letran all six stories above the Super Leche cafeteria had collapsed, killing many people having breakfast (“Cuatey the coffee killed more …”) and more than one hundred government buildings had been wrecked, including the Superior Court, with all the city’s criminal records (“There is a God …”). They joked, as most jokesters do, because they are serious men.

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“We want to go home,” said a white-haired wood finisher named Jesus Torres. “But we have nowhere to go … ”

He was standing with a crowd of men among the tents. Someone said that the government estimated the homeless at 35,000. Torres said, “That means there must be one hundred thousand on the street.”

A young man named Eloy Mercado arrived with a copy of Esto. A story in one of the back pages said that Kid Azteca was among the missing. When I first came to Mexico in 1956, to go to school on the GI Bill, Kid Azteca had been fighting since the 1920s. He had been the Mexican welterweight champion for 17 years, an elegant boxer, good puncher, and in his forties he kept having one six­-round fight a year to extend his record as the longest-lasting Mexican fighter in history. Now he and his two sisters were missing in Tepito, perhaps dead. Jesus Torres shook his head: “He’s not dead.” An old man leaned in, his face dusty, teeth stained with tobacco, smelling like vinegar. “You know how to find Kid A’tec’? Go in the street and start to count to 10. Then he’ll get up …” He and Torres laughed, two men as old as the lost Kid Azteca who had managed to remain true to their origins. Somos de Tepito, hombre

So to experience Mexico after the earthquake, you had to go to Tepito too. You had to go to the corner of Orizaba and Coahuila, where seven bodies were spread across the sidewalk, packed in plastic bags of ice, waiting for hours for ambulances too busy with the living. You had to smell the sweet corrupt odor that began to drift from collapsed buildings. You had to hear the sirens: always the sirens.

You could also see Mexico after the earthquake in the baseball park of the Social Security administration, where more bodies lay under blue plastic tents, waiting for identification. In other times, a team called the Red Devils played here. Now a somber line of men and women waited patiently for admission, searching for their dead, while bureaucrats in the third base dugout compiled their mournful lists. The corpses were photographed and fingerprinted and those that were not identified were wrapped in plastic bags and taken away.

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Some were taken to the Cemetery of San Lorenzo Tezanco, and this too was Mexico in the autumn of 1985. Those who bad lost their names along with their lives were given numbers: Cuerpo 127, Cuerpo 128. About 20 gravediggers chopped at the weed-tangled earth. More people came to look at the bodies, and many brought flowers. The unidentified were buried in a common grave. Presiding over this rude democracy was a white-haired, white-bearded priest named Ignacio Ortega Aguilar, who gave the blessings and offered the prayers. On the fifth day after the earthquake be told a reporter: “With this tragedy God bas placed all of us in the same condition. In only a few minutes, while the earth shook, God permitted us to understand who he is and who we are. Today we know that we are owners of nothing.”

And to know Mexico after the earthquake, you had to listen to the sound of rage. There was rage in Colonia Roma, because some cops were demanding a 500 peso mordida to allow residents past barriers with cars or moving vans; rage at unconfirmed stories of cops who had looted wrecked apartments or pried wedding bands off the fingers of the dead; rage at flower sellers who tripled their prices outside cemeteries; rage at tienda owners who doubled and tripled the price of food, and at men who sold water among the almost two million who had none at all; rage at the makers of coffins, who jacked up their prices (some donated free coffins, too). In Colonia Roma I saw a man who had rescued hundreds of books from the ruins of his apartment sitting among them on the sidewalk.

“The rest has no value,” he said, his voice trembling, angry. “Only these. These I love.” He touched the books, some of them in expensive leather bindings. “But when my brother-in-law came to help me take them away, the police said he would have to pay 1000 pesos. I insisted no! I asked for a supervisor. Nothing! So I will stay here. I hope it doesn’t rain. But I’m prepared to die here before paying them anything.”

One morning I walked to Calle Versalles, where I’d lived in a friend’s apartment with my wife and daughters one winter in the ‘6os. The street was blocked at both ends by rifle-toting soldiers, while rescue workers chopped at the ruins of the old Hotel Versalles. Mattresses jutted from the rubble at odd angles. Men used plastic buckets to pass along the broken brick, plaster, concrete to waiting trucks. The house where we had lived was intact, with a lone broken window on the third floor. But the Versalles, across the street, was gone, along with the building beside it and another one at the corner. I showed a New York press card to a soldier who shrugged and passed me through the lines. The smell was then richer, loamier, the sweet sickening smell of putrefaction,

Suddenly everything stopped. Workers, soldiers, firemen called for silence. A body had been found. A middle-aged woman. Her jaw was hanging loose, hair and face bone-white from broken plaster, tongue swollen, eyes like stone. Her pale blue nightgown had fallen open. A man in a yellow hardhat reached down and covered her naked breasts. Mexico.

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Nothing had prepared me for Avenida Juarez. In the old days, this was one of the city’s great streets, a busy hustling thoroughfare. Turning into it from the Reforma, the Hotel Regis was on the left, along with a movie house, a pharmacy, the huge Salinas y Rocha department store. On the right was the Del Prado hotel, with one of Diego Rivera’s finest murals inside. Past the Del Prado was a mixture of shops, both elegant and tacky, silver stalls, handicraft shops, book stores, restaurants. In the distance, there was the great green space of the Alameda park, with its baroque red shoeshine stands, and the Palacio of the Bellas Artes beyond. In the 1950s, I went out with a woman named Lourdes who worked on this street, and for years afterwards I thought that one form of heaven would consist of the Avenida Juarez on a Saturday afternoon, with a new book or a newspaper in hand and a shine on my shoes and a nap in the grass of the Alameda park.

On this day, the old avenue was a shambles. It was as if some brutal general, bored with the tedium of a firefight, had called in an airstrike. The Salinas y Rocha store was now a giant shell, blackened by fire. Across the street, the Del Prado was closed (a Mexican reporter told me the Rivera mural was intact) and so were all the shops and restaurants. Three huge buildings leaned at a precarious angle. The street was packed with soldiers, sailors, doctors, nurses, reporters, and all attention was on the Regis.

The old hotel lay in a huge jagged mound; all 367 rooms had been destroyed. And I thought about the novel of Mexico City written by Carlos Fuentes in the 1950s, called (in English) Where the Air Is Clear. This was another city when he wrote his book, but Fuentes had premonitions of its ferocious future. One of his major characters was a revolutionary gone bad, an industrialist named Federico Robles.

But not he, he moued straight toward what he saw coming: business. 
the spot which will remain the center of style and wealth
in the capital: the ‘Don Quixote’ cabaret of the Hotel Regis …  

They were still at the Hotel Regis when I was there in the ’50s, the models for Federico Robles eating with Fuentes’s other great character, Artemio Cruz, laughing and drinking with all the other “robolutionaries” who came to power with President Miguel Aleman in ’46. They sat in booths or at small dark tables, heavy-lidded men dressed in silk suits and English shoes, graduated at last from tequila and mezcal and pulque to good Scotch whiskey, while their chauffeurs parked outside and the blond girls waited in the casas chicas on Rio Tiber. They were the men who made the present horror: the choked decaying capital, the failing banks, the greedy cement companies, the porous hotels. They invented Acapulco (with Aleman their leader), added Zihuatenejo, Cancun, Ixtapa, providing oil and shelter for the pampered bodies of the north. They were men who were all appetite. They ate the forests, they swallowed the rivers, they sucked up water from beneath the surface of the city and the regurgitated cement. In the end, under presidents Echeverria and Lopez Portillo, they ate Mexico.

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But even in the ’50s, when they still could be seen at the Hotel Regis, there were some who sensed what was coming. In Fuentes’s novel, a journalist named Ixca Cienfuegos says:

“There’s nothing indispensable in Mexico, Rodrigo. Sooner or later, a secret, anonymous force inundates it and transforms it all. It’s a force that’s older than all memory, as reduced and concentrated as a grain of powder; it’s the origin. All the rest is a masquerade …”

In a way, that secret anonymous force arrived at 7:19 on the morning of September 19, fierce and primeval. And now the Regis, along with so much else, was destroyed. Most of the men from the Don Quixote bar are gone too, dead and buried, the profits of old crimes passed on to their children; they stand now only as examples to the hard new hustlers of Mexico. There will never be statues of these men on the Paseo de la Reforma, but there are monuments to them all over the city: mounds of broken concrete and plaster, common graves in Tezonco.

And while many of the dead remained unburied in the week after the earthquakes, jammed among the slabs of the fallen buildings, everyone talked about the future. Mexico will never be the same again: the phrase was repeated over and over again in the newspapers. There were calls from the left and right for investigation of the corruption that led to the faulty construction of so many new buildings; there were demands that Mexico decentralize the government, sending many ministries to other cities; there were suggestions that the ruined sites be converted into parks, to allow some green open spaces for Mexico City to cleanse its lungs. Some insisted that Mexico would have to postpone its payments on foreign debt until after reconstruction.

And there were a few published reminders of another eartliquake, far to the south, that had led to the eventual overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. That 1972 earthquake killed thousands too. And when the generosity of the world sent money, supplies, medicine, clothes to Managua, Somoza and his gang stole it. The great fear of some Mexicans is that the same massive robbery will happen here, that the endemic, systemic corruption will absorb most, if not all, of the money that should be spent on the people of Tepito and Colonia Roma, on the survivors of Tlatelolco and the Juarez housing project and all the other ruined places of the city. If that happens, Mexico will not require agents of the Evil Empire to provoke the long-feared all-consuming revolution. ♦

Environment From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The 10 Most Likely Real-Life Catastrophes

Previews of Coming Disasters

Catastrophe is in the air: the sense of it is almost palpable. It is our entertainment, our fear, our fantasy, our future. We have come to expect calamity as a matter of course.

Apocalyptic ages before us be­lieved in the end of the world, but then it was a question of man’s damnation and God’s will. Nobody carries signs today saying “Repent, the End is Near” — they don’t need to. So what else is new? we’d say. There is something frivolous about our rapid change from confidence into fear of our scientific accom­plishments, in our swing back to Original Sin, even in our safe en­joyment of film spectaculars like “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno.” We seem to accept the immanence of catastrophe yet at the same time refuse to take it serious­ly.

Perhaps that’s because we lack experience. It used to be said that Americans didn’t understand war because their homeland had never been ravaged by one. A broader generalization is that we have been mostly spared from catastrophe. Disasters — explosions, plane crashes, ship sinkings, major fires­ — we’ve had aplenty, but never a mor­tal blow. Consider the casualty fig­ures in what have become our legendary calamities, like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 which killed from 452 to 700 people or the Johnstown flood which claimed 2200. That the numbers look big is a dead giveaway.

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A real earthquake in terms of victims occurred on Jan. 24, 1556, in Shensi Province, China: 830,000 dead, mostly in landslides. In Cal­cutta, in 1737, an earthquake and a cyclone teamed up to take 300,000 lives. Floods? If the Mississippi overflows its banks there is much lamentation and discomfort but not as much as there was along the Yangtze in 1887 when almost a million people perished. Nor let us for­get Noah. Dr. Reid Bryson of the University of Wisconsin believes that the story of Noah is  based on a Sumerian folk hero who lived 5300 years ago in the lowlands of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers and that rains and flooding were so extensive and long-lasting as to change the face of Sumerian society.

At many times over the centuries it must have seemed to those in the middle of nature’s tantrums that whatever the world was made for, it wasn’t people. Three cyclones — or hurricane-type storms — struck what is now Bangladesh in 1965, killing almost 60,000, but that was only a prelude to the cyclone of 1970 that took 225,000, mostly by drowning. It also destroyed the rice crop at har­vest time, contributing to uncounted deaths by starvation. Nature has lost none of its punch. (The 1970 Bangla­desh storm may not have been the worst there. An 1876 cyclone killed between 100,000 and 400,000.)

Those who happily slight science and technology, whose idea of pro­gress is the natural food shoppe and the “Whole Earth Catalog” might ponder what are horribly called disease vectors. The “Black Death” or bubonic plague is thought to have killed 25 million in Asia and Europe in 1340s, three million in 1898-1908 in China and India, and two million more in India in the 1920s. There were four major outbreaks of cholera in Europe during the 1880s with many millions dead — almost one million in 1831 alone. Smallpox in Brazil killed three million in 1560 and Cuba lost a quarter of the world’s population, and the influenza pan­demic of 1917-1919 may have been the single greatest catastrophe in histo­ry, killing perhaps 30 million world­wide and 548,000 in the U.S. Note that the number of humans existing was smaller when these epidemics occurred, and that they claimed statis­tically large portions of the popula­tions.

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A particularly eerie affliction struck down whole districts of Western Europe and England in 1200 A.D. A grain fungus grows in continuously wet and mild weather, as then oc­curred, and a few blighted grains in a sack are sufficient to cause a disease called St. Anthony’s fire, which, despite its romantic name, causes convulsions, abortion, the hands and legs to turn black until fingers and toes fall off, and eventu­ally death. But if the blighted grain is stored damp, and there is no other choice, a by-product is produced which we know as LSD. People in other words went to the grave “high.”

Think of that! There they were, extremities turning black and fall­ing off, then dying without under­standing what was killing them or why they had what must have seemed a mystical experience to boot. Surely, they would have asked what was going on. Disease was hardly understood — and certainly tripping wasn’t. In this condition you would, would you not, ponder the mood of the Almighty?

Not today. Today we are causally minded — we understand the reasons for things (or think we do), which may be why we have ceased to believe in and need God, once the all-purpose reason. Understanding confers on us the gift of foresight, the ability to reason in front, to anticipate at least a little of the future. That is a brand-new tool, and per­haps some of the seers and sages who employ it err on the side of pessimism and overstate the hazards ahead. Nonetheless, possible catastrophies predicted far outdo those of the past, either because the population is larger or because man­made dangers have been added to natural ones. Some of these conceiv­able events would directly threaten human survival, and we are right to worry. The question is whether we worry enough. Let us give form to a dozen of what might be calamities to come.

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Probability: Uncertain
Possible Magnitude: Elim­ination of mankind.
Timetable: ?

Wars, since they are intended to kill, usually fail to be counted as catastrophes. But in the past, wars, no matter how devastating, always ended sooner or later and normal life resumed until the next one. This is no longer true: at least four kinds of warfare could alter planetary conditions for some time to come, perhaps forever so far as humanity is concerned.

Of the four, three are too familiar to need explication — chemical, bio­logical, and nuclear (reducing the ozone layer, increasing radiation, perhaps depleting atmospheric oxygen) warfare. The fourth, using the environment itself for hostile pur­poses, is potentially the most dangerous. Dr. Edward Teller has said that weather war would be the “last” war, meaning that there might be nobody left to fight the next one.

As brought out in 1974 Senate hearings under Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, the U.S. practiced weather warfare over the Ho Chi Minh trail from 1967 to 1972. The weapon was cloud-seeding and the objective was to soften road surfaces, cause landslides, wash out river crossings, and maintain damp soil for long periods of time. Apparently the program achieved suc­cess, for rainfall in some areas increased 30 per cent or more, with subsequent declines in North Vietnamese traffic. (The Soviet Union has accused the U.S. of having tried to tamper with the weather in North Vietnam too, but we have denied it.)

But the rain-making in Asia was primitive alongside more sophisti­cated possibilities of weather war: “aiming” hurricanes; causing rain to be acidic to knock out equipment; forming or intensifying fog; starting fiery cyclones called “fire storms”; producing earthquakes; detonating atomic devices in the ice pack which, falling into the sea, would cause massive tidal waves; manipulating electrical properties in the atmosphere so as to interfere with normal electrical processes of the brain and bring about disorientation and derangement; inflicting ditto on the enemy’s navy with oceanic vibrations; breaking a window in the ozone layer which would intensify hard, ultra-violet radiation on enemy territory, perhaps destroying all forms of life and turning the land into a desert. Such warfare might be slow­ and insidiously difficult to detect. Weather warfare should not be dismissed lightly: Jacob A. Malik, the Soviet ambassador to the UN made a speech there in 1974 warning of the dangers.

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Probability: good
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead
Timetable: Immediate future.

Much impressive data shows that the world’s climate is becoming  colder of itself, after a time of ex­ceptional warmth. Periods of greater or lesser cold have, of course, been normal throughout history. This new cold, however is different in two vital ways. First, the favorable growing conditions that existed between 1900 and 1910 in­creased the food supply and en­couraged the vast population increases that occurred in places like South Asia. The coming cold would mean heavy rains in the northern temperate zones, reducing the food supplies, and subtropical drought further reducing it. Casualties from famine would be immense.

Second, and even more ominous, man has been changing the atmosphere. From power plants, mills, autos, furnaces, slash-and-burn farming (practiced in most places on earth ), even from millions of feet tramping on dry soil, particles are thrown into the air forming what is called a “particulate cloud.” This cloud, virtually world-wide, blocks incoming solar radiation sufficiently to add to the cooling already underway, with the result of a further decline in mean annual temperature. A drop of only 4-5° F. (2° C), believes Dr. Bryson, foremost proponent of the cooling hypothesis, would be sufficient to initiate a new Ice Age.

Probability: Fair to good
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead to elimination of mankind 
Timetable: 25 to 250 years.

Will the world end in a shiver or a sweat? Another harrowing view holds that the long-term trend is toward heat — far too much of it.

Man-made heat is still only a frac­tion of that received from the sun but is growing exponentially and may become a pollutant that must be reckoned with. According to Dr. Thomas F. Malone. Director, Hal­comb Research Institute, Butler Uni­versity, we may face one of the major policy decisions of all time. “I refer to the limited capacity of the biosphere to absorb heat … Simply put, the concentration of heat discharged into the atmosphere may turn out to reach a high enough val­ue within the next hundred years that we will have to place restraints on the population, on the population distribution, or on the energy con­sumption per person. The policy im­plications for the world, and in par­ticular for our nation, which has such a high consumption of energy per capita, are obvious.”

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According to one calculation, man-made emitted heat will equal absorbed solar heat in 250 years. Mean annual temperature will then have risen from the present 58° F, to 190° F, a level incompatible with human life as we have known it. But as Dr. Robert Heilbroner points out, time may be shorter than that be­cause of sharply rising energy use (meaning heat) and increasing pop­ulations that will need more energy still.

Nor is this quite all or it. Atmo­spheric carbon dioxide is also increasing because of the burning of fossil fuels. CO2 has an important role in the “heat budget,” as it’s called, because it prevents heat from escaping into space, a beneficial function so long as there isn’t too much heat and too much CO2. If man-made heat became an impor­tant factor, and a dense CO2 blanket prevented it from escaping, global heat could rise rapidly, especially if the cooling period ended. In that kind of world, it might be against the law to light a match.

Probability: Highly uncertain
Possible Magnitude: Elimination of all life
Timetable: Starting now

About 20 miles up in the stratosphere hangs a thin layer of ozone that absorbs ultra-violet radiation from the sun and makes life on earth possible. Scientists are deeply concerned that man could destroy this vital shield with nitrous oxides from sub and supersonic aircraft, from the space shuttle, from nuclear explosions or even nitrogen fertilizer. At the moment, the number one hazard is thought to be chlorofluromethane (Freon), a million tons of which are manufactured a year for use as the propellent in aerosol cans and as a refrigerant. Eventually this gas drifts up and destroys ozone. Best estimates say that the Freons already released will deplete the ozone shield three to six per cent. A reduction of only five per cent would cause 8000 new cases of skin cancer a year in the U.S. If the ozone layer were further destroyed, results could include widespread cancer, the disruption of agricultural produc­tion, reduction of the oxygen supply (through the killing of phytoplankton in the ocean), plant and animal mutations, and a global desert.

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Probability: Uncertain
Possible magnitude: Elim­ination of higher forms of life  
Timetable: For the global catastrophe, 40 years minimum.  

The well-known doomsday clock on the cover of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” stands at nine minutes to midnight. When created, this clock ticked away the likelihood of atomic warfare between major nations. Now it must measure as well the potential threat from a starving Third World nation that has acquired nuclear power, and from accidents among the 24,000 breeder reactor nuclear power plants that will be required to provide all the world’s primary energy a century from now. Under present conditions, with nuclear power plants constructed under U.S. safety standards, the “maximum credible” accident, ac­cording to a 1957 AEC study, would kill over 3000 people, injure 40,000, and quarantine agriculture over a 150,000 square mile area. But the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club predict 120,000 people killed or made seriously ill. The probability of such accidents in­creases with each plant that is built. The combination of threats from accidents and deliberate acts in han­dling the 15,000 tons of plutonium required for 24,000 plants is so great that the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Philip Handler, has warned: “Somehow, the world must skip the breeder reactor and go from petroleum and coal — liquid, gassified, and solid — to fusion and/or solar energy or it is inconceivable that the human race will avoid a worldwide calamity on so large a scale as to jeopardize the continuing future of our species.”

Probability: Remote
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead
Timetable: Any time

Epidemic diseases, man’s greatest killers, remain possible, though we think of them as part of the past. New strains of influenza, for example, can occur and vaccines are only marginally effective and probably couldn’t be produced in time to help against a mass outbreak. Further, amid the famine and collapse of the social order many forsee in parts of the world, preventive measures might not be implemented and mil­lions could perish.

An utterly new man-made virus for which no immunization or cure existed, would be a graver menace still. From working with DNA, a molecule that stores and transmits information, scientists have come to believe that genetic engineering, though filled with hopeful possibilities for curing genetic diseases and deficiencies (or even make possible, say, human beings with chlorophyll in their skins who could take energy from the sun, like plants) could lead, by accident or design, to a new incurable disease. So serious is this possibility considered that, last July, pioneers in the field, through the National Academy of Sciences, asked for a voluntary world-wide ban on aspects of DNA research because of its “unpredictable ef­fect.” This February, DNA researchers will meet to try to find a solution to their problem (This may be the first time in history that scientists accept restrictions on the freedom of research other than ex­perimentation with humans.)

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Probability: 100 per cent
Possible magnitude: 560,000 deaths plus
Timetable: Any time

Out of the 100,000 earthquakes a year, a few will be major. The only question is where they happen and how many die.

Two large cities located on faults are San Francisco and Tokyo. If a quake of the magnitude of the one that shook Alaska in 1964 (magnitude over 8.6, 20 times larger than the magnitude 8.3 of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) property damage has been estimated at $10 billion and casualties up to 250,000 and higher if Crystal Springs Dam broke, flooding San Mateo (this dam, however, sur­vived 1906), or if high-rise buildings performed poorly. The problem with San Francisco is that the fault has been locked: instead of slipping slowly, the fault and its “tribu­taries” have not moved since 1906 and a potential movement of 13 feet has been accumulated. By way of comparison, the 1923 Tokyo quake moved nine feet.

As for Tokyo, despite the quake that killed 56,000 in ’23, construction is not much different. The population is, being much larger, and, according to Japanese estimates, 560,000 plus could die in a big quake, espe­cially if (as is likely) a tsunami also occurred, flooding the extensive sub­way system and underground com­mercial development. (Tsunamis can travel at 600 mph; in 1923, one hit Japan twice, having crossed the Pacific and bounced back again.) At Tokyo, a major quake has happened at least once within every 69 years.

Japanese, American, and Russian scientists are all working on earth­quake warning systems, and these illustrate catastrophe problems rather vividly. Suppose the scientists were certain, which they are not, that such a system would work. Would anyone pay for it? And, if it were developed, what would be done? Would politicians, who might be long out of office when E-Day came, warn the public and begin precautionary measures now? Would the public credit scientists, especially as they couldn’t forecast the quake to the precise hour, day, week or maybe even month? Proba­bly not. Today, houses are built, and people live in them, right along the San Andreas Fault.

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Probability: 100 per cent
Possible magnitude: 1 million deaths
Timetable: Any time

High concentrations of populations in low-lying coastal zones along established hurricane paths add up to calamity. Dr. Neil Frank, head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, has estimated that a 40-foot storm surge in Bangladesh (all too possible) would kill one million.

In the U.S., too, terrible things could happen. A hurricane with a central pressure of less than 26 per inches, wind in excess of 200 miles per hour, and tides of 25 or 30 feet 30 feet could easily kill tens or thousands if it struck Miami with little warning. In the Tampa-St Petersburg area, planning officials estimate, as many as 100,000 could die in a major storm. Always, people are reluctant to evacuate an impending storm path until the last minute, figuring the hurricane will miss them or that they can ride it out. In this region especially, last minutemanship will cause tragedy because of the inade­quacy of roads leading to higher ground, much new housing which might not take the effects of flooding, and the advanced age of the popula­tion, making them less mobile.

Even if we could eliminate hurricanes we wouldn’t want to since hurricanes are important in terms of rainfall. Casualties, though, could be reduced with the proper land-use policies, construction codes, and so on. With cloud-seeding, hurricanes may yet be controlled. In the mean time …

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Probability: Almost a certainty,
Possible Magnitude: 50 million deaths a year
Timetable: This year? 

Although people have starved ­— and starve now in Asia and Africa ­— the world has simply never known famine on the scale predicted for the coming decades. It is completely outside our experience and almost beyond our imagination. Vast though they may be, the political, moral, and ethical questions that must de­velop from this catastrophe remain almost unexplored.

If there should be severe drought in 1975, Green-Revolutionist Norman Borlaug has estimated that as many as 50 million children would starve unless there were a world “food bank” available. In a normal, non-drought year starvation is a closely related cause for about half of all child deaths in the poor countries. (Famine deaths mean children)

In “Mankind at the Turning Point,” Mesarovic and Pestel divide the world into 10 regions with alternate scenarios for each. With severe but feasible adjustments nine of these regions can survive a decent standard of living assuming that food production keeps up with population increase: this is nowhere guaranteed. But for South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — formerly Ceylon) the prospect is gruesome. For this region alone, the following projections ap­pear reasonable:

  • In the next decade: five to seven million child death a year; 20 to 50 million during drought years unless world “foodbank” available.
  • In the second decade: eight to 12 million during normal year.
  • In the third decade: 20 to 30 million during normal years.
  • After: Decreasing fatalities because of population decrease; hence shortages considerably reduced.

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The tremendous calamity could be prevented or ameliorated if the birth rates were greatly reduced in these countries, but the probability of that happening is a virtual zero, short of the development and universal acceptance of a miracle contraceptive. In fact, the social disorganization that is likely to accompany the famine may make birth control harder to accomplish. Several decades of exceptionally favorable weather could change things too, but as we have seen the prospect is for more, not less, drought, and if the droughts were exceptionally severe the pro­jected numbers of dead would have to be upped. Besides, if famine were averted by increased food produc­tion, populations might increase still further, raising the specter of famine.

Ninety per cent of the world’s surplus grain is produced in North America and this grain could meet worldwide food shortages if a way could be found to pay for it. (The only feasible means, probably, of giving it away would be to socialize agricul­ture and sharply lower the American style of life, which seems unlikely.) But people thus saved from starvation will continue to bear children at the rate of 45 per thousand (compared to 17 per thousand in the U.S.) and by the end of the century, even under various optimistic assumptions, the Asian food shortage would be greater than the total North American grain production.

Triage, or simply letting those least likely to survive die, has been suggested as the best policy, but such an act, or lack of one, would certainly require a hardening or what moral sensibilities we have and an almost complete change in exist­ing ethics. Besides, triage assumes the chosen victims will meekly accept their fate, and that notion does not correspond with human nature as we know it.

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Probability: Good
Possible magnitude: Universal
Timetable: 20-100 years 

In a time perhaps not too distant the world might return to barbarism — or greater barbarism than it now displays — and if we do not classify such a future as a catastrophe then we lack all faith and pride in our civilization.

Any calamity that placed more stress on the world’s delicately bal­anced social system might cause it to crumble altogether. Consider a rise in global temperature. The obvious answer would be to reduce the consumption or fossil fuels, but who would cut back? Suppose the U.S. issued a call for a worldwide energy-­use reduction of, say, five per cent. Third World leaders would inevitably respond, “Who, us? You use a third of the world’s energy as it is. You cut back.” They would tell us, further, that attempts on their part to curtail the output of energy would lead to 1000 guerrillas for every one that exists now, to the collapse of all even vaguely democratic Third World governments and eventually of the West, for how could democratic governments survive in a world of military-Socialist states?

Suppose further that our own gov­ernment then asked or demanded that we reduce energy use by per­haps 25 per cent, an amount large enough, at any rate, not only to decrease thermal output but to set an example for the rest of the world. Would Americans comply? Considering the resistance already met (including the President’s) to the most modest proposals for curtailing energy use, it appears unlikely. We might well expect a reaction far stronger, uglier, and more stubborn than that recently encountered by the attempt to secure racial balance in the Boston public schools — a simple social change by comparison. There might well be an armed insurrrection followed by a right-wing gov­ernment, itself doomed by global antagonsism.

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But it’s not necessary to conjure up a severe climate change to arrive at much the same result, for mass famine could do it. The rapidly increasing populations in the poor countries have less and less to eat. They do not get much help from the rich. (The U.S. recent contribution to Pakistan earthquake relief was $25 thousand, compared to Saudi Arabia’s $10 million.) Military govern­ments come to power and refuse to let their people starve while others remain relatively prosperous. They want their share even if what Heil­broner calls “wars of redistribution” or nuclear blackmail are required to get it. A nuclear bomb is hidden in a freighter in New York harbor and set to detonate at X harbor if 10 per cent of the national wealth isn’t pledged in time — a sort of Patty Hearst-SLA model. One way or another, national wealth would be redistributed inter­nationally.

It would not seem likely, in the general poverty of the world, that what we have known as Western civilization would long endure. Most of the proud accomplishments of bourgeois society would be seen as wasteful, expensive, and deeply un­fair, since it would not be the lot of Global Everyman to enjoy or even understand them. The skills and talents which would be permitted to exist would be only those narrow scientific and technical ones which directly and manifestly aid in human survival.

Rather than speculate endlessly, let us point to just one more possible consequence of massive famine. Suppose even looting the treasures of the rich proves to be insufficient medicine, as well it might for if the rich no longer have wealth, they cannot buy what the poor lands need to sell. We could reach a condition of steady-state anarchy: totalitarian nations everywhere, each engaged in continual attempts to raid and pillage others, no matter what their ideological stripe, just to get enough to eat, a sort of post-industrial Stone Age, in which nations would gra­dually break down as entities, fol­lowed by the collapse of regional governments and perhaps local ones. And this state would be steady, that is, it would last until … Oddly, this confirms a physical prediction of how the world will end. The universe, it seems, tries to break down the enclaves of order that represent so­ciety and indeed our world. The universe, it seems, will not be satis­fied until complete disorder is reached, and complete disorder, in these terms, is simply random par­ticles, all exactly the same.

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Now then, are you shocked?

No. Numbed, maybe, not shocked.

That is part of the problem. How can we have this doomsday con­sciousness and yet do nothing about saving ourselves until maybe too late? After all, at least some — in fact, most — of the coming catastro­phes could be avoided, or the con­sequences minimized, given battle plans and the will to carry them out.

One reason, perhaps, is that we don’t really take the future seriously, do not really believe that anything very severe will happen, or do not care: (Apres nous, a catastrophe.) If this is true, we must account for our present anxiety on other grounds. The psychologist Leon Festinger has developed the theory of “cognitive dissonance,” holding that the mind will always try to square antinomies. If people are already anxious, and can neither rationalize away or face squarely the cause of their anxiety, they will find something exterior to be anxious about, in order to achieve consonance. Thus the fear of future catastrophes is not anxiety-provoking at all but anxiety-justifying. What then really frightens us?

Certainly the economic and political-condition of the world cannot be reassuring, even for those who experience it as a purely national or personal malaise. Many may be heading downhill and it worries them. But let us focus on just one aspect of our present response to future catastrophe.

A sociologist, Charles E. Fritz of the National Academy of Sciences, specializes in disaster response. Contrary to the rusty canards about behavior, people act splendidly dur­ing a disaster or catastrophe, he says. With exceptions, of course, they don’t loot, flee the scene in panic, or become hysterical (as in the movies.) On the contrary, people pull together and quickly move toward the center of the trouble instead of away, and so on. Team spirit is such that they organize and rebuild fast, like Germany and Japan after World War II. There is, of course, psychological pleasure in such an effort. In Britain today there is a real nostalgia for the war, when Britons felt they had a collective purpose.

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This sort of response is so univer­sal as to amount to human nature. It is different, however, before the disaster, because then the culture operates. People cling to their cherished routines, habits, and be­liefs. They won’t recognize what’s in store, even when the signs are man­ifest showing what Fritz calls “a tendency to interpret disaster clues within a framework of normal ex­pectations.” The expectation we cherish most and the habit we most blindly stick to, is the ability to consume. We practice consumption like circus animals trained to dance, and without consumption what would we do, strive for, be?

So, we do not prepare for the storm because we would have to change our habits, our goals. And that is too hard and too painful. We know we should change and so, we are fright­ened. For unlike catastrophes of the past, the new ones demand foresight and preparation.

Given the nature of the challenges and the likely shape of our response left to itself, the finale seems more or less inevitable. Plato, in “The Republic,” theorized that only philosopher-kings were fit to rule. We shall have not a philosopher, but an ecologist king, a scientist! He will tell us what to do, direct our activities, supervise our habits, punish us if we refuse to obey orders. Perhaps a quondam freedom of speech will survive, or some foofaraw about voting, but down the road lies tyran­ny, however benign.

And after that? Will the last man on Earth please turn off the lights? ♦

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters