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Pombal for head of FEMA

October 23, 2005

Here is why I’d like to see news media hire history majors instead of “Journalism” majors – it would give them perspective on current events:

Modern disaster relief traces back to Lisbon, Portugal in 1755, when that city was flattened by an estimated 8.7 earthquake and tsunami on All-Saints day.  Essentially still a medaeval city, Lisbon was so thoroughly destroyed that the king simply fled,  never again to live under a solid roof.  The monarchy never fully recovered from the disaster.

New Scientist magazine describes what happened next:

It was left to the king’s practical chief minister, the bewigged aristocrat Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (later the marquis of Pombal) to take control. Reportedly, when the king asked, “What shall we do?” Pombal answered, “Bury the dead and feed the living.”

If Lisbon was the first modern disaster, Pombal was the first to implement modern disaster relief. Concerned about the spread of disease from decomposing bodies, he had the tens of thousands of corpses put on barges that were taken out to sea and sunk. He charged the army with delivering food to the city. To prevent looting and to keep people from fleeing into overcrowded areas, anyone entering or leaving the city required a pass. He gave judges the power to convict, sentence and hang looters on the spot. To prevent profiteering he fixed food prices, removed taxes on fish and took possession of all construction materials. Ships were not allowed to leave the harbour with goods that might be needed for the relief effort. Although the homeless population now lived in tents, Pombal made it illegal for landlords to evict their tenants, so that people could eventually return home. He also demanded that the clergy stop preaching that the “end of days” was near…

Pombal went on to direct the rebuilding of Lisbon:

With the immediate situation under control, Pombal quickly began developing a plan for rebuilding. Most of the city’s churches, the customs house, opera house and royal palace, along with all their worldly art and treasures, were gone. Pombal called in architects and engineers to provide him with plans for a new Lisbon … their suggestions ranged from abandoning the ruins and building the city elsewhere to rebuilding it the way it was or rebuilding it in the same place but on a grid of wide streets and open plazas. Pombal decided to combine the last two, making certain that all the buildings in the Baixa, the central and worst-hit part of the city, would be built to new specifications.

Pombal and his engineer, Manuel da Maia, mapped out wide streets, traffic planning, and design standards that actually reshaped the economy of Lisbon from a royal city to a mercantile one, strengthening the middle class.  He set up commercial districts in the space formerly occupied by the destroyed palace.

Most amazing were the structural standards Pombal required: Lisbon became not only the world’s first planned community, but the first earthquake-proof one as well.  Using cutting-edge science, the new buildings were far tougher than the ones they replaced.  The walls and streets were made to prevent the spread of fire and allow quick movement of emergency services.

I’m especially fascinated by Pombal’s telling the clergy to knock off that “End Of Days” stuff.  (Emphasis mine) In Portugal in the 1700’s, that took steel cahones.  It’s a clue to his personality and his pragmatism.

I doubt if Pombal was a nice man.  It is doubtful if our present political process could put someone like him in charge of FEMA.  But I can dream, can’t I?

Categories: Geeky, History
  1. October 24, 2005 at 05:14 | #1

    Thanks for that little bit of perspective.  I’d never heard of Pombal before, and was only dimly aware of the Lisbon earthquake, but this makes me want to look up more information.  That’s one of the best things such a short essay can do.

  2. October 24, 2005 at 09:23 | #2

    i too had never heard of Pombal. This was a very interesting item.  Darn it DOF you may have just opened a new avenue of learning for me.  But where to start.

  3. October 24, 2005 at 23:01 | #3

    I’d heard of the Lisbon earthquake, but not of Pombal.  The irony is that, yes, it’s unlikely not only that someone like him would be put in charge of FEMA (could you imagine the FEMA chief walking into downtown New Orleans and saying, “Okay, raze everything from there to there, and here’s the new map to build to”), but that someone like him would ever get elected to a significant post in government.

    As Fisher Ames put it:  “A monarchy is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock and go to the bottom; a republic is a raft which will never sink, but then your feet are always in the water.”

  4. October 26, 2005 at 09:32 | #4

    I have always believed that the best possible government is a benevolant dictatorship. The problem with this kind of government comes when the dictator croaks and there is seldom an orderly trasfer of power.

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