Before a 6.3 magnitude earthquake destroyed Nicaragua’s capital in 1972, leveling all but five of the city’s major buildings and claiming some 10,000 to 20,000 lives, Managua was once known as the hippest and liveliest city in Central America.
That all changed in one night.
Thirty-seven years later, Managua remains a squat and un-centered expansion of urban sprawl with only one building that reaches higher than 10 stories. What was once the heart of the historical downtown remains a virtual ghost town, with several crumbling buildings left half-standing among the weeds and broken concrete, like scars that will never heal.
The clock on the cracked steeple of the old cathedral, which stands defiantly like a fossilized skeleton from a bygone era, still shows the hour 12:35, marking the time of death when the earthquake struck.
In total, 541 city blocks in Managua were destroyed or irreparably damaged and had to be leveled afterwards.
The 1972 quake was not the first to destroy Managua. The city was previously destroyed by a quake in 1885 and then again in 1931. But it wasn’t until after the ’72 quake that scientists realized there are five active fault lines running through the city, making it one of the most seismically active areas in the region – so much so, that there was brief talk in the mid ’70s about relocating the capital to Masaya or Carazo.
Almost two generations later, the psychological scars from the 1972 quake remain as deep as the physical ones.
“People watched as their houses fall down around them; they are still traumatized,” said Managua quake survivor Olga Rivera, 79. Nicaraguan sociologist Cirilo Otero said there’s still a collective fear of earthquakes in Managua, and people “still panic every time there is a temblor.”
In addition, Otero said, there was a collective “loss of identity” for many older Managua residents who lost their homes, neighborhoods, friends and family – leaving them with only clouding memories of the past. “Managua was such a beautiful place,” Rivera remembers wistfully.
For most of Haiti’s extreme poor, Port-au-Prince was never a beautiful place even before the massive earthquake destroyed it on Jan. 12.
In some ways, relief experts say, the 7-magnitude quake helped to expose the tragedy that already existed in the overcrowded capital of the hemisphere’s poorest country.
“The earthquake was like an x-ray that shows what was there to begin with,” said Michael Delaney, director of humanitarian assistance for Oxfam America.
In other words, he said, last week’s earthquake has helped bring attention to the humanitarian disaster that has existed in Haiti long before the buildings fell.
Delaney said the challenge in Haiti is not to rebuild what once existed, but to construct something that has never existed there: a viable country.
“The stuff we are putting up as early response to the earthquake is better than what was there before,” Delaney said. “For example, we are building an emergency water cistern in a community that didn’t have potable water or electricity to begin with. It’s like we are starting from scratch.”
Delaney said the situation in Haiti is an opportunity to fix a country that was broken in the first place.
“The goal is not to rebuild what was there, rather to break the model that stymied development beforehand,” he said.
The Evolution of Aid
Delaney said humanitarian aid is completely different now than it was 10 years ago.
For example, he said, the response to the 1998 Category 5 Hurricane Mitch in Honduras was a logistical mess. Relief workers, he said, “overran the ports with containers filled with old clothes, unlabeled canned goods and donated sweaters and blankets – for people living in the tropics.”
Delaney said the ports were so cluttered they couldn’t get valuable water-filtration systems and other more urgent aid into the country.
Today, he said, people are starting to realize that the best way to give aid is to donate money, which allows the organizations to respond faster and buy local supplies to help stimulate the economy.
Though Delaney acknowledges that donors are always concerned about the risks of corruption and profiteering when making cash donations – “the case of Somoza in Nicaragua after the earthquake in 1972 is always a fear in the back of people’s mind” – he insists there is much greater accountability and scrutiny now than in the past.
Plus, he said, the degree of the tragedy in Haiti “transcends worries” about local political issues.
Need for Continued Change
Looking beyond Haiti, there is a desperate need to institutionalize global humanitarian relief efforts for the next tragedy, Delaney said. He says the “major flaw” of the humanitarian aid system is that it is based largely on charity and the ability to drum up support for certain causes, rather than more calculated factors.
Another problem, Delaney said, is “donor fatigue.” In other words, many relief efforts are directly tied to peoples’ attention spans.
“There is a relation between the ability to keep eyes on an emergency and the length of response we can commit,” Delaney said.
For example, he said, last November’s Hurricane Ida was one of the worst storms to slam into El Salvador in the past decade, killing more than 120 people. When it was thought Ida could make it all the way to the United States, it became a story in the media. But the story died when the storm did, and the damage to El Salvador wasn’t given any play in the press, deterring volunteer relief efforts, Delaney said.
The Oxfam relief expert said the evolution of humanitarian aid has evolved similarly to the history of fire response.
“First come the bucket brigades, then the volunteer fire hall, and then an institutionalized fire department that is focused on preparedness,” he said.
Unfortunately, he added, in the case of global humanitarian relief, “We are just beyond the stage of bucket brigades.”
The Vibrating String
Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, a geophysicist and author of the book “Earthquakes in Human History,” has developed what he calls a “vibrating string” theory to explain the long-term effects that a major earthquake or other type of natural disaster has on a population.
He said when the string of an instrument is plucked, it first reverberates at a high amplitude but a short wavelength, and as sound dies the amplitude fades and the wavelength extends.
Such in the case in an earthquake, he said. The first impact is the immediate destruction and the fires that ravage the city; but as time goes on other long-term effects are felt, such as illness and disease, economic devastation, political upheaval and lingering family trauma.
“There isn’t anything you can think of that isn’t impacted by a major earthquake,” de Boer told The Nica Times in a phone interview this week from WesleyanUniversity in Connecticut, where he works as a science professor.
In the case of Haiti, de Boer predicts, the outlook is “very, very bleak.”
He said the population is too large and the food and water resources too few to support the country.
Although Haitians are a historically resilient people, de Boar warned that this crisis is not one that people will be able to dust themselves off from after clearing the rubble and burying the dead.
The figurative string, he said, will continue to vibrate for decades to come.
Even in Nicaragua, de Boer said, the reverberations of the 1972 earthquake can still be felt.
“I look at Nicaragua’s political situation today, and I see that the string is still vibrating like hell,” de Boer said.