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What if the Earthquake Happened Here?

haiti earthquakeThe aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti has remained in the headlines for good reason, and likely will for the foreseeable future. The loss of life, devastation and the unfolding nightmare of power outages, infrastructure destruction, rioting, looting and general anarchy are horrific.

We should be watching this disaster and learning from it, because while Haiti is an impoverished, third world country, people are people and the urbanization of Haiti mirrors that of the United States and other nations.Consider for a moment that a huge percentage of Haiti’s population live in urban areas, particularly Port-au-Prince, just as we do here in America, where only 2% of our population live on farms and provide the food for the rest of us.

This urbanization means most of us are dependent on others for our daily bread. That arrangement means we are vulnerable to disruptions in society, even if we are not directly affected.

Over the last century (and particularly the last half century), much of the world has moved away from a traditional Christian society. We’ve largely pushed our traditional values out of the mainstream. When times get tough, people think nothing of resorting to violence to take from others what they want or need. We see it in Haiti right now, with the riots and looting, we see it daily in the news where people around the world resort to vigilante justice, where the governments act as they wish, and we have seen it right here at home in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict and in New Orleans after Katrina.

We have to face the fact that we have a very thin veneer of civilization. We’re awfully comfortable here, and people act-for the most part-like they are civilized, but when that lifestyle is disrupted, all hell breaks loose.Your neighbor who might gladly lend a cup of sugar or flour when you’ve made a mistake baking a pie might be at your front door with a gun in an emergency, driven by his fear, hunger, anger, pain or just envy.

Elementary school teachers often use the phrase, ‘teach in the moment’ as a way of using current events as teaching opportunities. While we are praying for the Haitians and sending food, supplies or money to aid them, we should also learn lessons and incorporate this into our own preparations.

new madrid quake 1811

The Great Earthquake at New Madrid. A nineteenth-century woodcut from Devens' Our First Century (1877)

Consider for a moment that one of the greatest earthquakes in the history of the US occurred not in California, but along the New Madrid fault that runs along the Mississippi River.The quakes that occurred in 1811 and 1812 are considered the most intense intraplate earthquakes to hit the US in modern times. The quake was felt for over 1 million square miles, causing church bells to ring in New York and Boston.

The quake was so strong it caused the Mississippi River to run backwards, forming the Reelfoot Lake and forever altering the course of the Mississippi. In fact, the part of the river known as the ‘Kentucky Bend’ was formed by this earthquake.

Imagine how cities in this region, as far north as Chicago, to St. Louis, Memphis and dozens of other major cities within a few hundred miles might be affected today if a massive earthquake shook the ground under buildings that have not been built to earthquake standards. Even if cities were not razed to the ground, imagine the destruction across hundreds of miles of power lines, gas lines, bridges and interstates. Think of how your life would be changed if there were no power, no gasoline, and no trucks resupplying your grocery store for a few weeks.

The reality might be that our lifestyle is even more fragile than that of the Haitians. A people who are accustomed to suffering and deprivation are likely to respond better to hardship than a people who are used to having their every need (and most of their wants) met. Whatever the catastrophe might be, whether it is natural, economic, cultural or terrorist, we are one event away from a life changing event.

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