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by William H. Benson

December 6, 2012

     John Bradbury, a Scottish naturalist, came to the United States to float down the Mississippi River and collect botanical specimens. On December 15, 1811 he tied up his boat at Chicksaw Bluffs—the site of the the future Memphis, Tennessee—and retired for the night. At 2:15 a.m., he was awakened because the earth was shaking. Bradbury said that “All nature seemed running into chaos as wild-fowl fled, trees snapped, and river banks tumbled into the water.”

     Four aftershocks quickly followed, and then two more actual earthquakes shook the earth on January 23 and February 7, 1812. These quakes killed few, if any, mainly because of the sparse population in Arkansas and Missouri then. One can imagine the destruction if another earthquake equal in magnitude struck Memphis, Tennessee today.

     With larger human populations covering the Planet Earth, earthquakes now are deadly. Buildings collapse killing the occupants therein. Gas lines break causing fires, and if the quake occurs at sea, giant tsunami tidal waves flood the coastal lands for miles inland. 

     Japan’s recent earthquake struck on Friday, March 11, 2011. The floor of the Pacific Ocean, at a point 43 miles east of Japan’s coastline, was suddenly shoved upward, in what is called an “undersea megathrust earthquake.” With a magnitude of 9.03 it triggered a tsunami that caused immense property damage, swamped a nuclear reactor, and drowned 19,334 people.

     Haiti’s earthquake occurred on Tuesday, January 12, 2010. Its epicenter was 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, and its magnitude was only 7.0, but it killed between 220,000 and 316,000.

     Nearly as many were killed on Sunday, December 26, 2004 when another undersea megathrust earthquake triggered a tsunami that propelled a series of waves that washed ashore in Indonesia, the Sumatra Islands, Thailand, and India. This 9.3 magnitude earthquake killed 230,000.

     Then there was the earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska on March 27, 1964 that shook buildings and homes for nearly four minutes, killing 143 people. That quake reached a magnitude of 9.2.

     The worst natural disaster in United States history occurred in San Francisco on Wednesday, April 18, 1906 at 5:12 a.m. Some 3000 people lost their lives, and the quake destroyed 80% of San Francisco’s buildings and homes. Fires turned the city into a burning inferno.

     The Lisbon earthquake struck on November 1, 1755, All Saints Day, at 9:40 a.m. Its epicenter was 200 miles west of Portugual’s coast out in the Atlantic, but the quake destroyed Lisbon, killing perhaps as many as 100,000 people.

     Then there are the natural catastrophe’s above earth’s surface. Just days ago we witnessed the incredible power that Hurricane Sandy unleashed when it struck New York and New Jersey, bringing with it high winds and floods. It is only natural that human beings crouch in terror whenever they hear of such disasters, wondering when their turn will come.

     People react differently to disasters. Some journalists will spiel off wild predictions. Last Sunday in the New York Times, James Atlas predicted, “Whether in 50 or 100 or 200 years, there is a good chance New York City will sink beneath the sea.” Really? Why make such a statement without offering proof?

     Others will blame the gods. The 1811-1812 earthquake “reinforced the evangelical religious notion that the end of the world was at hand.” Others will forecast future disasters. A character named Iben Browning predicted that another earthquake would occur on December 3, 1990 again in Arkansas and Missouri. The public was sufficiently alarmed, and so people stockpiled food, water, and batteries. Now it is called the Great Non-Event of 1990.

     The thinkers write novels. The Lisbon earthquake so disturbed the French writer, Voltaire, that he wrote Candide, or Optimism. In this rollicking satire, Voltaire has Candide’s instructor, Dr. Pangloss, teach the young Candide that “things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end; they must necessarily be created for the best end.” Candide goes out into the real world and experiences endless misfortunes. He walks through Lisbon days after the earthquake flattened the city. Through it all, Dr. Pangloss preaches that “this is the best of all possible worlds.”   

     In Candide Voltaire is objecting to the German philosopher Liebnitz, who argued that “our universe is the best possible one that God could have created.” Voltaire knew, and we know that it is not the best possible world. Earthquakes and tsunamis kill innocent people. Bacteria and viruses kill children. Old people suffer from arthritis. Cancer strikes young and old. House flies torment us.  

     We may live on this planet, but we do not rule it. Earth moves and acts according to its own rules that are far removed from our own interests. What human beings do best is adapt to whatever Earth tosses at us. After a flood and after our house collapses, we rebuild. We kill houseflies, and we find cures for diseases. We strive to make this planet more comfortable, in spite of the earthquakes.