During an All Saints’ Day mass in Lisbon in that fateful year, an 8.5-magnitude earthquake collapsed cathedrals, triggered a 20-foot tsunami, and sparked devastating fires that destroyed nearly 70% of the city’s 23,000 buildings.
The death toll was estimated between 10,000-50,000, leaving the center of a global empire in ruins, with losses equivalent to 32%-48% of Portugal's GDP at the time.
Never in the European history had a natural disaster received such international attention.
The “Great Lisbon Earthquake” had a resounding impact across Europe: Depictions of the earthquake in art and literature – the equivalent of today’s mass media – were reproduced for centuries and across several countries. Rousseau, influenced by the devastation, argued against large and dense cities in the wake of the disaster, while Immanuel Kant published three separate texts on the disaster, becoming one of the first thinkers to attempt to explain earthquakes by natural, rather than supernatural, causes.
In the years to follow, careful studies of the event would give rise to modern seismology.
Is it possible for the same sentiment to be applied by government leaders – leaders who have the privilege and responsibility to preside over some of the world’s largest and most dynamic cities, especially those that share a common challenge in terms of seismic risk? Metro Manila, the megacity of the Philippines, the seat of government, and the engine of the national economy, has been destroyed numerous times over the last 500 hundred years by earthquakes, and currently sits upon a fault that is overdue to move. Istanbul, with world-class cultural heritage sites treasured by all, also sits near major fault lines expected to move any day. Tokyo and Wellington, the heart of government, culture, and history, also share exposed locations close to major fault lines.
In Wellington, decades of work – including the current Get Ready week! – have aimed to prepare the city for the next “big one”; but compared to the burgeoning megacities of Manila, Tokyo, or Istanbul, it is a small hill to conquer. How do you prepare these megacities with population of up to 15 million people? According to Sir Hillary, the answer is simple, you need to take the decision to accomplish something extraordinary.
In September 2017, the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) through the Japan-World Bank Program for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Management in Developing Countries supported a knowledge exchange between Turkey and the Philippines focused on the challenge of building seismic resilience in megacities with high urbanization. For the World Bank, it was clear from the start that seismic risk is a priority on the Urban Resilience Agenda, when Johannes Zutt was able to explain to the visiting delegation the technical details of how base isolation is used to protect critical hospitals in Istanbul. The delegation saw impressive progress made by Turkey and Istanbul, from revised institutional frameworks, strengthened preparedness and response capabilities, and retrofitted schools and hospitals to adapted municipal e-services that ensure that the construction of resilient new buildings are approved fast and with the right safety checks. While massive seismic risk still exists within Istanbul, visible and concrete actions are also underway to improve the safety of its citizens.
“At 14:28:04 on May 12, 2008, an 8.0 earthquake struck suddenly, shaking the earth, with mountains and rivers shifted, devastated, and parted forever….” This was how China’s official report read, when describing the catastrophic consequences of the Sichuan earthquake, which left 5,335 students dead or missing.
Just two years ago, in Nepal, on April 25, 2015, due to a Mw 7.8 earthquake, 6,700 school buildings collapsed or were affected beyond repair. Fortunately, it occurred on Saturday—a holiday in Nepal—otherwise the human toll could have been as high as that of the Sichuan disaster, or even worse. Similarly, in other parts of the world—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Haiti, Ecuador, and most recently Mexico—schools suffered from the impact of natural hazards.
Why have schools collapsed?