I am distrustful of television, since it often creates a false reality. When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989, I was out of town. The images shown on CNN made it look as if the whole city was in ruins. I was terrified about what had happened to my family and friends. It was only when I carefully watched the endlessly looped images of destruction that I realized that only three areas had been hit, albeit hit horribly badly: the Marina District, the Oakland freeway, and a one block area in downtown. Yes, a section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed; and, yes, houses in the Sunset District had sustained some damages; and yes, people were without power and incredibly frightened and had things broken in their homes and offices, but it was not the 1906 style conflagration the media tried to present.
I resented the media hysteria, but understood it. TV is a purely visual animal, and you need good visuals. The buildings that didn’t fall down make for bad TV.
All of which gets me to Haiti. I’ve been sitting a little bit on the sidelines with this one. Yesterday’s print stories were rather vague in terms of casualties and, as always, I doubted the visuals. It’s becoming clear, though, that the earthquake was one of devastating proportions. In a city with expensive building codes, it might have been bad; in a city built in as haphazard a manner as 17th Century Lisbon, it’s proving to be every bit as disastrous as that fabled quake.
If you would like to help out the Haitians, the Anchoress has complied a long list of charitable organizations. Also, a friend whom I greatly respect has been urging contributions to a Haitian based organization called Beyond Borders. Given Haiti’s long-standing structural problems, I have no doubt that vast amounts of the relief money will simply vanish, never to be seen again. Nevertheless, in a country that poor and damaged, anything that gets through to the people is going to be a good thing.
UPDATE: It turns out that this quake wasn’t unexpected, at least if one was paying attention.
UPDATE II: Pictures from the scene. And, rickety special effects not withstanding, this scene from the 1936 movie San Francisco is as good an imagining of a big earthquake as any I’ve seen (starting about 1 minute in):
It’s very obvious to those familiar with pictures taken immediately after the earthquake that the film’s special effects people relied upon them closely as a guide.
Here’s original footage of San Francisco after some of the clean-up had already begun: