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The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina once again raises questions about the goodness and power of God. These are not easy questions, and not just any answer will suffice. If we are to understand how to think rightly about God and the storm, we must look to the testimony of Scripture.
In Job 37, Elihu, one of Job’s friends, speaks to him: “Out of the south comes the storm, and out of the north the cold. From the breath of God ice is made, and the expanse of the waters is frozen. Also with moisture He loads the thick cloud; he disperses the cloud of His lightning. It changes direction, turning around by His guidance, that it may do whatever He commands it on the face of the inhabited earth, whether for correction, or for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen.” [Job 37:9-13]
At the end of the book of Job, God rebukes three of Job’s friends for making inaccurate statements both about Job’s suffering and about God. Elihu, however, is not rebuked. Elihu spoke truthfully, saying to Job, in effect, “Look, you cannot take God out of this equation. You cannot say God is not in the storm. He is.” Throughout the Bible, but particularly in the book of Job, we are reminded that we simply do not have the option of saying that God is somehow not involved. If we say we believe in the sovereignty of God, we must believe that God is always and everywhere sovereign—even over the storm.
The playwright Archibald MacLeish wrote a work entitled, J.B., which was a modern rendering of the book of Job. In that play is the famous line, “If God is good, He is not God. If God is God, He is not good.” This is the equation many people are wrestling with today: If God is sovereign, and if He controls every atom and molecule of the universe, then how in the face of so many evils can modern human beings affirm that He is good? On the other hand, if we believe that God is good, then He must not be in control. He must not be able to keep these things from happening, and therefore, He is not the all-powerful God of the Bible. In the end, it is asserted, if God is God, then He is not good; but if God is good, then He is not God.
As Christians, we must be able to give a biblical answer to these questions. Unfortunately—but inevitably—there are several bad answers that have been offered in an attempt to handle these issues. One of the most common is this: “God is doing the best He can under the circumstances.”
In 1981, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner published a book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People? Kushner’s answer to his own question was that it is because God simply cannot help it. He cannot stop evil. Essentially, God is a God of limited power, doing the best He can under the circumstances, and therefore, we should just trust Him to do all He can to prevent evil. Of course, we might wish He could do better, but finally, there is only so much that God can do. When a person faces a dread disease or a storm, an earthquake, or a tsunami, his only course of action is simply to believe that God is doing the very best He can do and to know that God really could not have kept this from happening. After all, if God could have kept it from happening, He would have done so.
A second inadequate answer when we ponder God and the storm is to say, as some might, “Sure, God could have stopped this, but He did not do so because He has an evil intent. Our days are numbered, and He is going to get us all one way or another. Cancer for one person, an earthquake for another. Life in the end is meaningless, and God is like the Hindu deity Shiva, the Destroyer.”
Both of those arguments fall infinitely short of the biblical testimony. The God of the Bible cannot be described as “doing the very best He can do under the circumstances.” Nor can one read the Bible and seriously affirm that God is a God of evil. He is a God of love and of mercy, a God of holiness.
How then are we to put all of this together? In Job 37, Elihu reminded Job that God is in the storm. “With moisture He loads thick cloud; He disperses the cloud of His lightening. It changes direction, turning around by His guidance.” There really is no way to get around those words, is there? Last week, we saw the storm turn. We saw its direction change. And Scripture affirms unequivocally that “It does whatever He commands it on the face of the inhabited earth. Whether for correction, or for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen.”
In chapter 38, the Lord answers Job out of a whirlwind. Speaking to Job, He says: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who enclosed the sea with doors when, bursting forth, it went out from the womb; when I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and I placed boundaries on it and set a bolt and doors, and I said, “Thus far you shall come, but no farther; and here shall your proud waves stop? Have you ever in your life commanded the morning, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the ends of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? [Job 38:1-13]
“Who has cleft a channel for the flood, or a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land without people, on a desert without a man in it, to satisfy the waste and desolate land and to make the seeds of the grass to sprout? Has the rain a father? Or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb has come the ice? And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth? Water becomes hard like stone and the surface of the deep is imprisoned. [Job 38:25-30]
Throughout this chapter, God rebukes Job, saying in effect, “Who are you to question Me? What right have you, the creature—a suffering creature, yes, and a creature with many questions, yes—but who has given you the right to interrogate Me?” At the beginning of chapter 40, the Lord concludes His argument: “Then the Lord said to Job, ‘Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it.’” [Job 40:1] It is hard to imagine a more severe and direct indictment than what God says here to Job. Where were you when I made the world? Remind Me again how you set the sun on its course. Remind Me of how you set the limits on the waters.
Job’s response is entirely appropriate. “Then Job answered the Lord and said, ‘Behold I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; even twice, and I will add nothing more.’” [Job 40:3] He continues, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore, I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me. I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees you. Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” [Job 42:1-6]
What we should learn from Job’s response—at a bare minimum—is that while we are to seek to understand what God is doing in the midst of this crisis, we must never act as if we can explain exactly why God allowed this tragedy to happen.
One great danger is the temptation to say, “I know why this storm hit, and I know why this storm hit where it did.” “New Orleans is a sinful city,” some say. “The Lord sent this storm because of the casinos in the gulf and because of the wickedness in the city of New Orleans.” To make such a claim, however, is to go far beyond the bounds of human knowledge. We are simply not given the right to say with such precision why this tragedy—or any other natural disaster—has occurred.
Jesus made this same point in John chapter 9. Jesus and His disciples came across a man who was blind from birth. His disciples wanted to know if it was this man’s sin or the sin of his parents that had caused his blindness. Jesus responded, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” [John 9:3] God’s purposes are beyond our understanding, and the Lord simply does not explain or seek to justify His ways to humankind. Thus, Christians should consistently affirm the sovereignty of God and the righteousness of God’s ways, even as we await the full revelation of His purposes in the age to come.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
An event as large and catastrophic as the hurricane which struck the Gulf Coast of the United States last week can only be understood in the context of the full teaching of Scripture. It is not enough to focus on one or two texts. On the contrary, we must look at the big picture and draw our conclusions only in light of the entire storyline of the Bible.
Genesis chapter one states: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” [Genesis 1:1-2] From there, God creates the entire cosmos—light, the moon, the sun, stars, fish, birds, and animals—simply by speaking them all into existence. And at every point of creation, Scripture tells us that God declared His work to be “good.” Throughout this entire sequential unfolding of creation, the divine verdict is consistently, “It is good.” In fact, at the end of chapter one, “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” [Genesis 1:31]
The big story thus begins with God bringing glory to Himself by creating an order, a cosmos, a universe, a planet, and everything on this planet is very good. The Lord looked at His own work and declared it good—not just better than it could have been, but very good, which is to say, perfect.
In Genesis chapter 2, the story continues with the creation and differentiation of man and woman, and the institution of marriage. So we read, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” [Genesis 2:24-25] At the end of chapter two then, the world is still a picture of perfection. One might wish that the story had ended there, with the world in perfect bliss and the man and woman in perfect innocence—naked and not ashamed before their Creator. Unfortunately, however, Genesis one and two are followed by Genesis three.
Genesis three tells the story of the Fall, a story that centers in the volitional, willful act of Adam and Eve to break the command of God, and to do that which the Lord had forbidden. Giving themselves to temptation, they rationalized their desires, justified their action in their own eyes, and ate the fruit that was forbidden them.
“Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate it.’” [Genesis 3:13] No one escapes God’s condemnation for this rebellion. In the next few verses, He curses them all—the serpent, the woman, and the man. Finally, and significantly, God pronounces a curse on all of creation: “Cursed is the ground because of you,” he tells Adam. “In toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your fact you will be bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” [Genesis 3:17b-19]
When humans sinned, not only did it affect Adam and Eve and their descendants, but the earth—the cosmos itself—was corrupted. After Genesis three, we must speak of humanity as being in a fallen state, but many of us forget that creation itself is fallen, too. The creation is cursed. If the Fall had never occurred, there would be no hurricanes, no tsunamis, no earthquakes, and no forest fires. There would be no droughts and no floods. Before the Fall, the Lord declared the world to be very good. It was, in other words, perfect. People did not have to plow and cultivate; the earth simply brought forth produce, giving up its fruit willingly.
But with sin came death, and with death came the curse, so that even the ground is cursed. Understanding this helps us to explain how we get from Genesis to the suffering of Job. It explains how we get to the Psalms where there are similar testimonies of pain and sorrow. To be sure, the world declares God’s glory. The heavens are telling the glory of God, but they are also telling us another story—one of disorder and entropy, a testimony to the curse.
When humans age and die, therein is the curse. When the ground cracks because there is no rain, there is the curse. When a tornado drops from the sky and lightning strikes, when the floods rise and the hail falls, there is the curse. When hurricanes come, there is curse—and yet there is God as well, for God is in the curse. Of course we cannot know exactly how God is in the curse. We cannot say, “This is why there is drought here and flood there.” Such precision is not given to us, not when the disaster is independent of human action.
Ultimately, we cannot say why God does what He does. We cannot explain why some are spared the ravages of Hurricane Katrina while others must bear her full force. Certainly, it is not because we are better than those who were stricken. Certainly, it is not because we prayed harder than they prayed, or that we did more good deeds than they did. No, it is simply because God was in the wind, as Elihu said to Job.
Thankfully, the story does not end in Genesis chapter 3. In Romans chapter 8, Paul reminds us that, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves grown within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. [Romans 8:18-23].
We are waiting for redemption, and so is the planet. So is the cosmos. On that glorious day when all things are consummated, the earth itself will be redeemed along with God’s people. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done, I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. [Revelation 21:1-6].
The great story of the Bible—creation, fall, and redemption—speaks directly to what we have seen over the last week, and it speaks directly to our powerlessness to have done anything to prevent this. In the final analysis, we must point to the fact that this hurricane, like every other natural disaster, is due to sin—not the sin of the Gulf Coast, not the sin of the people of New Orleans, but our sin. Our sin explains in part why the tsunami hit in the Indian Ocean basin. Our sin explains why a volcanic eruption destroyed Pompeii. Our sin helps to explain why Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th century. Our sin helps to explain why Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
But thanks be to God that is not the end of the story! For God’s purpose is to show His glory in the redemption and adoption of countless sons and daughters when they are revealed on that final day. Then He will create a new heaven and a new earth. Try as they might, human beings cannot reverse the curse that was brought on by their own sin. Only the Lord God can reverse the curse, and He does so in Jesus Christ our Lord. In the meantime, we must pray for those who are suffering. We must give generously. And eventually, we must go and give refuge. In all these actions, we will proclaim God’s love to a fallen world—and His glory will be displayed.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
The scale of suffering and the magnitude of the disaster in Southeast Asia defy the imagination. Sitting comfortably in our own homes and offices, we can look at the images, video segments, and computer simulations, knowing all the while that, in the nations that encircle the Indian Ocean, the death toll continues to mount.
This much is clear—the direct death toll from this disaster is likely to reach 250,000, and subsequent deaths related to the disaster may drive the total number of deaths to well over half a million. Those numbers are hard to take, but the video images are even harder to see. Satellite pictures taken before and after the massive tsunamis struck unprotected coastlines tell the story. Before the tsunami, a thriving region is clearly visible. In the aftermath, entire towns, villages, and cities have been wiped off the map. A wall of water traveling several hundred miles an hour and reaching the height of a multi-story building slammed into Thailand, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka with devastating force. At least nine nations were affected, with some of the waves bringing destruction as far away as Somalia on Africa’s eastern coast.
The magnitude of this disaster is multiplied when we realize that these very areas most devastated by the tsunamis are among the most impoverished and helpless regions of the earth. On December 26, families were washed away, children were ripped from their parents’ arms, and suffering beyond description settled upon the earth. Why?
That question comes immediately to the mind of any sensitive person, and any individual whose mind is allowed to rest for even a moment upon the magnitude of this disaster. At the first level, the scientific explanation seems clear. A massive earthquake, registering over 9.0 on the Richter scale, occurred more than six miles beneath the surface of the Pacific, just off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. In an instant, one of the most beautiful parts of the world became one of the most deadly, as successive mountains of water radiated from the epicenter of the quake and headed for some of the earth’s most densely populated coastal areas. The sliding of tectonic plates beneath the surface of the ocean led to massive devastation and a tidal wave of grief and questions.
How do Christians explain this kind of suffering? What do we have to say about the meaning of an event like this? In short order, questions like these found their way to the front pages of the newspapers and the front lines of our cultural conversation. All too soon, confusion was evident, as various religious leaders offered advice and counsel.
Writing in The Guardian, reporter Martin Kettle put the problem in clear form: “Earthquakes and the belief in the judgment of God are, indeed, very hard to reconcile. However, no religion that offers an explanation of the world can avoid making some kind of an attempt to fit the two together.” As Kettle asserted, “As with previous earthquakes, any explanation of this latest one poses us a sharp intellectual choice. Either there is an entirely natural explanation for it, or there is some other kind. Even the natural one is by no means easy to imagine, but it is at least wholly coherent.”
For the atheist or agnostic, the natural explanation will suffice. Those who hold to a naturalistic and materialistic worldview will simply see this disaster as one more meaningless event taking place in a meaningless universe. As British philosopher Bryan Appleyard concluded, “The simple truth is what it has always been: nature, uncontrolled, unbidden, unpredictable, can still humble our pride and wreck our schemes in an instant. We are a thin film of thought confined to a narrow band around an undistinguished planet orbiting a pretty average star.” In other words, this is just one more accident taking place in an accidental world, observed by accidental human creatures.
The challenge to the Christian faith is clear, even as it is often crudely put forth by secular critics. If God is both omnipotent and benevolent, how can disasters like this happen? This question was stated concisely by playwright Archibald MacLeish in his Pulitzer-prize winning play, J.B. Through his character Nickles, MacLeish poses the theological challenge: “If God is God, He is not good; if God is good, He is not God.”
An example of how not to give a Christian answer was provided by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Williams said this: “Every single random, accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers. Faced with the paralyzing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel more deeply outraged—and also more deeply helpless. We can’t see how this is going to be dealt with, we can’t see how to make it better. We know, with a rather sick feeling, that we shall have to go on facing it and we can’t make it go away or make ourselves feel good.” The newspaper headlined the archbishop’s column, “Of Course This Makes Us Doubt God’s Existence.” After the article was published, the archbishop protested the headline, and his spokesman claimed that the paper’s characterization of the archbishop’s article was “a misrepresentation of the archbishop’s views.”
In response, the paper acknowledged that while it may have misrepresented the archbishop’s argument, nevertheless, “he himself must accept much of the blame.” Surely speaking for the paper’s readers as well as its editors, the paper observed, “His prose is so obscure, his thought processes so hard to follow, that his message is often unclear.” In exasperation, the paper simply concluded, “If Dr. Williams hopes to teach and inspire his flock, he really must learn to express himself more clearly. Otherwise he will be forever doomed to be the victim of his own erudition.”
In Australia, much closer to the tragedy, the Anglican Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen, explained that natural disasters are a part of God’s warning that judgment is coming. Jensen was right of course, as Jesus Himself pointed to natural disasters as a warning to human beings of our own mortality and of the coming judgment of God. Nevertheless, this was too much for more liberal churchmen in Australia. Neil Brown, Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral [Catholic] described Jensen’s comments as “a rather horrible belief when you begin to think about it.”
Well, that’s orthodox Christian theology, when you think about it. Jesus clearly warned His disciples that famines and earthquakes, along with wars and other ominous phenomena, would be the “birth pangs” of coming tribulation and judgment [Matthew 24:7-8].
This is no time for theological hand-wringing and evasion. A great tragedy like this is often the catalyst for bad theology offered as soothing counsel from religious professionals.
A faithful Christian response will affirm the true character and power of God—His omnipotence and His benevolence. God is in control of the entire universe, and there is not even a single atom outside His sovereignty. And God’s goodness and love are beyond question. The Bible leaves no room for equivocation on either truth.
We must speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Scripture is silent. Christians must avoid offering explanations when God has not revealed an explanation. Finally, Christians must respond to a crisis like this by weeping with those who weep, by praying with fervent faithfulness, by offering concrete assistance in Christ’s name and, most importantly, by bearing bold witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the only way to bring life out of death.
Tomorrow: God and the Tsunami—Theology in the Headlines, Part Two.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
The tragedy unfolding in the Indian Ocean demands the world’s attention—and calls for a clear Christian response. In the aftermath of the disaster, some religious leaders suggested that God was simply unable to prevent the tsunamis that destroyed so many lives. Some secularists jumped on the opportunity to argue that the tragedy was further proof that God does not exist. Others simply blamed the earthquake and tidal waves on fate or claimed that God had sent the destruction as punishment for the victims’ sins.
How are we to deal with this? What approach will affirm the full measure of Christian truth while taking the disaster into honest account?
First, a faithful Christian response must affirm the true character and power of God. The Bible leaves no room for doubting either the omnipotence or the benevolence of God. The God of the Bible is not a passive bystander, nor a deistic Creator who has withdrawn from His creation and is simply watching it unfold. Just as creation itself was a trinitarian event, so also the triune God reigns over His creation. There is not one atom or molecule in the entire cosmos that is not under the sovereign rule of God. As the Christian tradition has always affirmed, God’s active lordship over the universe is the sole explanation for why the cosmos even holds together.
At the center of this universe is the fundamental fact of the supremacy of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul argued in Colossians 1:15-17, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Jesus Christ is the explanatory principle of the universe, and any effort to understand the creation apart from its Creator can lead only to confusion.
Liberal theology attempts to solve this problem by cutting God down to size and removing Him from the equation. Having established a truce with the naturalistic worldview, liberal theology simply accommodates itself to the secular temptation by denying God’s active and sovereign rule. In other words, God’s goodness is affirmed while His greatness is denied. Process theology does this by putting God within the created order, struggling along with His creation toward maturity. At the popular level, this theological approach was turned into a bestseller several years ago by Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. The rabbi simply asserted that God is doing the best He can under the circumstances. He would like to prevent tragedies like cancer, hurricanes, and earthquakes from happening—He is simply unable to do so.
This is not the God who revealed Himself in the Bible. God’s omnipotence is clearly revealed and unconditionally asserted. At the same time, God’s goodness is equally affirmed. Christians must point to these conjoined truths as the very basis for our confidence that life is worth living and that God is ultimately in control of the universe.
Second, we must avoid attempting to explain what God has not explained. In the end, the Christian knows that all suffering—indeed every experience of life—is meaningful. We understand that God is revealing Himself in every moment of our existence. We also know that all suffering is ultimately caused by sin. That’s about as politically incorrect an assertion as we can now imagine—but it is profoundly true. Even so, we must be very careful in how we present this truth. In the Gospel of John [John 9:1-7] Jesus and His disciples were confronted with a man blind from birth. His disciples, posing the conventional question of their day, asked Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus responded that it was neither the sin of this man nor the sin of his parents that explained his blindness; rather, “It was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, Jesus boldly explained that this man was born blind so that in the miracle Jesus was about to perform, his restored sight would be evidence of the dawning of the Kingdom and of the glory of God.
Armed with this knowledge, we must be very circumspect in assigning blame for natural evil. Were the people of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India more sinful than all others? Did God send this tsunami because of the paganisms so prevalent in Southeast Asia? Martin Kettle posed an interesting observation: “Certainly the giant waves generated by the quake made no attempt to differentiate between the religions of those whom it made its victims. Hindus were swept away in India, Muslims were carried off in Indonesia, Buddhists in Thailand. Visiting Christians and Jews received no special treatment either.”
We are in absolutely no position to argue that there is no link between human sin and this awful tragedy. The Bible makes clear that God sometimes does respond to specific sin with cataclysmic natural disaster. Just ask the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. Nevertheless, in the Bible’s book most centrally concerned with the issue of suffering, it is Job’s friends, who tried to offer detailed theological explanations, who end up looking foolish—and worse. Job himself was censured by God for “darkened counsel by words without knowledge.” In the end, Job is vindicated by God’s grace and mercy, and Job can only respond, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know. . . . I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” Job’s humility should serve as a model for our own.
As the Apostle Paul reminds us, the judgments of God are unsearchable and unfathomable [Romans 11:33]. Unless God reveals the purpose of His acts and the working of His will among us, we would do well to affirm His sovereignty and goodness, while holding back from placing blame on human agents for disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.
At the same time, the Bible is clear that sin is the fundamental explanation for these awful disasters. Not sin that is immediately traceable to one individual or another, or even to a specific culture, but the sin that is so clearly indicted in the biblical account of the Fall. According to Genesis chapter 3, Adam’s sin had cosmic implications and effects. The effects of sin are evident all around us, most clearly in the undeniable fact of death. This is why the redemptive work of God in Christ points to a new heaven and a new earth as coming realities. As Paul explains, “We know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” In Revelation 21, we are told of a new heaven and a new earth and of a day when God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the redeemed, “and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
Third, Christians must respond with the love of Christ and the power of the Gospel. Jesus is our great example in responding to such crises. When confronted with the man born blind, Jesus healed the man and showed the glory of God. In response to the death of Lazarus, Jesus brought life out of death, even as He had mourned with Lazarus’ sisters.
While Christians are not empowered to perform similar miracles, we are called to be agents of Christ’s love and mercy. Following our Lord’s example, we must first mourn with those who mourn. The unspeakable grief and incalculable suffering experienced by literally millions of persons in Southeast Asia should prompt every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ to fervent prayer, concern, generosity, and sympathy.
Relief efforts are now under way, and Christians should be at the forefront of this response. Churches, denominations, and Christian agencies are sending support in the form of food, medical care, reconstruction programs, and other forms of humanitarian assistance. In offering concrete help and assistance, Christians are doing nothing less than following the express command and example of Jesus Christ.
Beyond this, Christians must seize this opportunity to confront this awful disaster with the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked in the name of Christ. This is a powerful testimony, but acts of compassion must be accompanied by words of conviction. Our answer to this reality of unspeakable tragedy must be witness to the gospel of unfathomable power—the power to bring life out of death.
Furthermore, we must indeed point to this disaster as only a hint of the cataclysm that is yet to come—the holy judgment of God. On that day, the tidal waves of December 26, 2004 will be understood to have been one of the warnings all humanity should have heeded.
This is no time for Christian equivocation or cowardice. In the face of tragedy and suffering on this scale, we must answer with the full measure of Christian conviction and the undiluted truth of Christianity. In this life, we are not given all the answers to the questions we might pose, but God has given us all that we need to know in order to understand our peril and His provision for us in Christ.
So, let us weep with those who weep, pray for those who suffer, give and go in missions of mercy, and bear bold witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not only in Southeast Asia, but right here at home.
By R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
The images streaming in from Haiti look like scenes from Dante’s Inferno. The scale of the calamity is unprecedented. In many ways, Haiti has almost ceased to exist.
The earthquake that will forever change that nation came as subterranean plates shifted about six miles under the surface of the earth, along a fault line that had threatened trouble for centuries. But no one saw a quake of this magnitude coming. The 7.0 quake came like a nightmare, with the city of Port-au-Prince crumbling, entire villages collapsing, bodies flying in the air and crushed under mountains of debris. Orphanages, churches, markets, homes, and government buildings all collapsed. Civil government has virtually ceased to function. Without power, communication has been cut off and rescue efforts are seriously hampered. Bodies are piling up, hope is running out, and help, though on the way, will not arrive in time for many victims.
Even as boots are finally hitting the ground and relief efforts are reaching the island, estimates of the death toll range as high as 500,000. Given the mountainous terrain and densely populated villages that had been hanging along the fault line, entire villages may have disappeared. The Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation has experienced a catastrophe that appears almost apocalyptic.
In truth, it is hard not to describe the earthquake as a disaster of biblical proportions. It certainly looks as if the wrath of God has fallen upon the Caribbean nation. Add to this the fact that Haiti is well known for its history of religious syncretism — mixing elements of various faiths, including occult practices. The nation is known for voodoo, sorcery, and a Catholic tradition that has been greatly influenced by the occult.
Haiti’s history is a catalog of political disasters, one after the other. In one account of the nation’s fight for independence from the French in the late 18th century, representatives of the nation are said to have made a pact with the Devil to throw off the French. According to this account, the Haitians considered the French as Catholics and wanted to side with whomever would oppose the French. Thus, some would use that tradition to explain all that has marked the tragedy of Haitian history — including now the earthquake of January 12, 2010.
Does God hate Haiti? That is the conclusion reached by many, who point to the earthquake as a sign of God’s direct and observable judgment.
God does judge the nations — all of them — and God will judge the nations. His judgment is perfect and his justice is sure. He rules over all the nations and his sovereign will is demonstrated in the rising and falling of nations and empires and peoples. Every molecule of matter obeys his command, and the earthquakes reveal his reign — as do the tides of relief and assistance flowing into Haiti right now.
A faithful Christian cannot accept the claim that God is a bystander in world events. The Bible clearly claims the sovereign rule of God over all his creation, all of the time. We have no right to claim that God was surprised by the earthquake in Haiti, or to allow that God could not have prevented it from happening.
God’s rule over creation involves both direct and indirect acts, but his rule is constant. The universe, even after the consequences of the Fall, still demonstrates the character of God in all its dimensions, objects, and occurrences. And yet, we have no right to claim that we know why a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti happened at just that place and at just that moment.
The arrogance of human presumption is a real and present danger. We can trace the effects of a drunk driver to a car accident, but we cannot trace the effects of voodoo to an earthquake — at least not so directly. Will God judge Haiti for its spiritual darkness? Of course. Is the judgment of God something we can claim to understand in this sense — in the present? No, we are not given that knowledge. Jesus himself warned his disciples against this kind of presumption.
Why did no earthquake shake Nazi Germany? Why did no tsunami swallow up the killing fields of Cambodia? Why did Hurricane Katrina destroy far more evangelical churches than casinos? Why do so many murderous dictators live to old age while many missionaries die young?
Does God hate Haiti? God hates sin, and will punish both individual sinners and nations. But that means that every individual and every nation will be found guilty when measured by the standard of God’s perfect righteousness. God does hate sin, but if God merely hated Haiti, there would be no missionaries there; there would be no aid streaming to the nation; there would be no rescue efforts — there would be no hope.
The earthquake in Haiti, like every other earthly disaster, reminds us that creation groans under the weight of sin and the judgment of God. This is true for every cell in our bodies, even as it is for the crust of the earth at every point on the globe. The entire cosmos awaits the revelation of the glory of the coming Lord. Creation cries out for the hope of the New Creation.
In other words, the earthquake reminds us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only real message of hope. The cross of Christ declares that Jesus loves Haiti — and the Haitian people are the objects of his love. Christ would have us show the Haitian nation his love, and share his Gospel. In the midst of this unspeakable tragedy, Christ would have us rush to aid the suffering people of Haiti, and rush to tell the Haitian people of his love, his cross, and salvation in his name alone.
Everything about the tragedy in Haiti points to our need for redemption. This tragedy may lead to a new openness to the Gospel among the Haitian people. That will be to the glory of God. In the meantime, Christ’s people must do everything we can to alleviate the suffering, bind up the wounded, and comfort the grieving. If Christ’s people are called to do this, how can we say that God hates Haiti?
If you have any doubts about this, take your Bible and turn to John 3:16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. That is God’s message to Haiti.
By Greg Stier
Just a few days ago a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti. Tens of thousands are feared dead. The total devastation will take weeks if not months to realize. The official death toll continues to rise as bodies are discovered in the rubble of the aftermath.
My heart broke, along with yours, as I watched report after report of this devastating earthquake. It seemed like every station from Fox to CNN to MSNBC to local news stations were on a constant disaster watch, every report seeming to uncover more horrific levels of absolute devastation.
On a nature level, it seems like catastrophes are back. It wasn’t all that long ago that New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And I’m sure we all remember the shock of the tsunami in Indonesia.
On December 26th, 2004 the world was shook by the most devastating earthquake in four decades on this planet. Massive waves destroyed entire villages and swept away hundreds of thousands of people from India to Indonesia. I wept with the rest of the world as I watched replay after replay of the absolute and total devastation that took so many lives that day just five years ago.
When something like a tsunami, a hurricane or the most recent earthquake in Haiti unexpectantly unleashes devastation on unsuspecting people the most fundamental question of the jumps to the forefront of our minds…
Why did some live while others died?
Why did children have to be a part of the casualty count?
And the most disturbing question of all, why did God let this happen?
There is no easy answer and I don’t propose to give one here. As the Apostle Paul said, “Who can know the mind of God?” Not me or my puny brain, that’s for sure.
But there are some raw realities that can help us hope and cope in the aftermath of such a horrific human disaster. Here are a few:
God doesn’t view tragedy like we do.
While we tend to see death as a tragedy, God sees it as transition. The loss of life at the powerful hands of an earthquake wasn’t the end but the beginning, the dawn of a new existence, the start of a new journey. Those Christians who died that day may have left this earth with a scream but they entered the gates of heaven with a song. Theirs was a triumphant transition into the very presence of God. For the children of God who went home to their Daddy they wouldn’t come back to earth if they could.
The real catastrophe was for those who died without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. From the divine perspective this was the tragedy behind the tragedy. Those in Haiti who didn’t know Jesus were catapulted from an earthly catastrophe into an eternal one.
In the aftermath of the worst devastation God often does his biggest miracles.
We have already heard some of the amazing stories of people who saved lives at the risk of their own, of separated families who were reunited and of a toddler who survived for days under the rubble without food or water before being rescued. We are witnessing the miraculous outpouring of prayer and provisions from people all across America.
Throughout the pages of Scripture human tragedy is almost always followed by divine miracles. Consider the story of the world-wide flood. When the planet and everyone on it was destroyed by a flood God, brought about a new existence for mankind through Noah and his family. He wiped the slate clean through destruction and gave mankind a fresh start. Every rainbow is a reminder of this. While this may be the biggest example of God’s miracles following human tragedy there are many more in the Bible…
After the ten plagues in Egypt God delivered his people from slavery
After the destruction of Jericho came the birth of a new nation in a promised land
After the death of Christ came salvation for all mankind
After the horrific judgments in Revelation will come the eternal kingdom
But perhaps the biggest truth to ponder during these times of tragedies is the simple reality that, ultimately, this earthquake is my fault and yours.
At first this premise may sound preposterous to you. But when you stop and think Biblically you begin to realize that every natural disaster started with a supernatural tragedy, the fall of mankind. When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden he opened the door to catastrophes, to hurricanes, to tornadoes, to tsunamis and to death. The Bible says in Romans 5:12, “When Adam sinned, sin entered the entire human race. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned” Romans 5:12.
Think about that last phrase, “death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.” The real catastrophe is the chain reaction of transgression that Adam and Eve unleashed on this planet when they ate of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Up until then there was no death on the earth. The first and most devastating disaster took place when the first man and woman disobeyed God. And when we sin we continue that legacy of destruction. It is the original sin of Adam that rocks the ground under our feet, shaking our lives, cities and planet into rubble.
But there’s some good news in all of this. Someday God will completely triumph over evil. On that day, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” Revelation 21:4. For those who are God’s children through faith in Christ there will be no more natural disasters, earthquakes, tsunamis or sin. For those who are not it will be an eternal catastrophe.
So in light of all of these realities, what can we do now?
First and foremost we can help the victims of this earthquake through our financial gifts and our fervent prayers. Secondly we can share the good news of Jesus with everyone we meet before the earthquake of eternity crushes them forever. And, finally, we can continue to embrace a God who we may not understand but always can trust. Why can we trust him? Because this same one who allowed this catstrophe in Haiti just a few days ago also allowed his Son to be crushed for our sins 2,000 years ago. Jesus endured the ultimate tragedy so that we wouldn’t have to.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5
What are we to say about a human condition in which “Nature red in tooth and claw” rears up on its massive hindquarters, and hurls a 30-foot wall of water against the lowlands of eleven of the poorest and most populous nations on earth, including some playgrounds of the rich of Europe and America, and crushes, chokes, and twists away the lives of going past 150,000 human beings?
“Nature” is not the way the Greens picture it. Nature batters human beings. Nature has annihilated tens of thousands of other species, why not the human species?
Most of the public voices in our enlightened age have gotten away with the indefensible drivel of liberal sentimentalism, chattering as if all intelligent people are atheists, whose god is a benevolent, nurturing, sheltering Mother Nature. Recently, I was debating on radio a Dutch member of the European parliament, who described herself on air as “an atheist who has values.” She then described her values as “caring about this Earth and protecting it, and passing it on to my children.”
I respect and admire her choice. At that moment, though, she was probably not thinking about this murderous tsunami and other natural furies, such as the raging seas that would overpower Holland if the extensive, huge dikes did not prevent it. Nor about diseases that for millennia kept the primitive human population on earth pitifully low.
How cruel a habitat is Earth!
The evils that afflict humankind upon this Earth are not a scandal solely for those who believe in a Creator. They are also a scandal for those who believe that Nature cares for human beings.
Most of the atheists among my friends at Harvard years ago (and elsewhere in academic departments of philosophy) were actually rationalists, who believed that in the end, at bottom, reason and law governed all things. They simply saw no reason for calling that abiding rationality in things a gift from God, whom they could not see. It was simply there, unexplained.
A few of them, however, were nihilists. They believed that “at bottom” there was just one unexplained bottom after another unexplained bottom “all the way down.” Our existence is only a joke, a fluke, an irrational flick of pure, unadulterated chance. They believed that their superior intellects allowed them to cut through all the fraud, pretense, and superstition in which others took comfort. They thought that even the “rationalist” atheists were not smart enough to detect the absurdity of their own position. An “unexplained” rationality is a non-rational rationality. The rationalists were actually nihilists who couldn’t yet admit it.
To this accusation, the atheists who were rationalists replied that they were merely being pragmatic, walking as far as the light of rationality took them, and saw no need to throw themselves on the ground in adolescent “existential anguish.” They thought the nihilists went way too far in romantic self-dramatization, and their admonition to them was: “Grow up.”
Modernism, however, which in my university years connoted Nietzsche, nihilism, contempt for anything bourgois or orthodox, and all the flowers of evil, has become the common language of the arts and “culture.” Although now under the banner of “post-modernism,” the invisible gas of nihilism seems to have seeped into every quarter. More even than the universities, the media have become the carriers of nihilism, even when nihilism is far from the intentions of the carrier.
Well, then, how does nihilism explain the ease with which Nature threw 150,000 living, unsuspecting, terrified human victims in Asia to their anonymous deaths?
The entire “nobility” of nihilism depends on the superiority of intellect that allows the nihilist to see himself as smarter than those who believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent Creator God. In other words, the Jewish and Christian God. The whole emotional-moral point of nihilism is to hold itself superior to Judaism and Christianity. If everything else is absurd, religion must be too. That is why, faced with a horrendous natural disaster, in which thousands of innocent human beings die irrationally, for no reason, the rationalist atheists and the nihilists alike blame God first. It is important for them to do that.
They do not blame just any God. The God of the Maya and many other religions of nature has always been known to be cruel, as Nature itself is cruel, and heedless of human emotion, aspiration, and hope. Rather, it is only the God of Judaism (learned of and spread round the world by Christians) that they blame. No, perhaps more, they blame the God of Christianity, for in Christ the world has been given an even more vivid image of divine concern for the poor, the lowly, and the needy, and of divine gentleness, friendship and love. They are blaming the God of the Sermon on the Mount. That is the God that there is true joy in blaming.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
Truly, the continuing presence of evil in the world — perhaps most acutely when this evil is manifested in unconscious Nature, out of its own laws and processes — is a great scandal to loving, believing Christians. It is truly hard for them to understand how a kind and gracious Providence can allow such terrible things to happen to human beings. To so many scores of thousands of human beings. On such a vast scale.
In some ways, it is easier to understand how individual human beings can do horribly evil deeds. At least one can point to their free will. Struggling to find plausible reasons, one recalls one’s own irrationalities and sins, murders one has read of in the local papers, etc.
It is true that some evils are so unspeakable and unimaginable that they defy all attempted comparisons to anything in anyone’s previous experience — the Holocaust, for example. How can a good God possibly allow that horror to happen to (in a twofold sense) his own people? But even these we attribute to human agency, however monstrous. Whereas the dead that have suffered from a naked act of Nature seem somehow to have been stricken by God’s own unmediated action.
What can biblically informed believers reply to those who, contemplating the massive destruction and death in today’s Asia, blame their God (a God in Whom those who do the blaming do not believe)?
Confronted with this demand — confronted with it, actually, quite often in my lifetime — I think first of this: Since those who ask it do not believe in God, the question is not what it seems to be. The real point of the question is to get me to groan inwardly by agreeing that the one who thinks he is my superior is correct, after all. The real point is to get me to deny the reality of God.
The point is even a little more complex. My taunter does not want me to deny the reality of God on the ground that the assertion of that reality is absurd. Actually, my taunter holds that everything, at bottom, is absurd. My taunter really wants to show me that I am like him; and that I too am driven to join him in recognizing the absurd at the bottom of all things. He wants to prove that he has been smarter all along, and to watch me have to surrender as he has surrendered. He has given up his faith in reason all the way down, and he wants me to do the same.
My second thought is as follows. The Bible warns us often of the confrontation with the absurd that each of us who believes in the goodness of the Lord must face, and more than once in our lives. We see all the time in the Bible that the just are made to suffer, while the unjust live and laugh in plenty, heaping ridicule on the just. We read of the horrid, unfathomable afflictions that God piles up on his faithful servant, Job. Job refuses to say that in doing these things to him God is acting justly or kindly; Job knows his own pain, and he refuses to lie. He refuses to “prettify” God, or to cut God down to human standards. He knows that God is no sentimental liberal.
And if Job is the type of “the suffering servant,” whose sufferings cannot be explained by his own deeds, and whose sufferings are on the face of it horribly and inexcusably unjust, so also is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the sinless One, who in forewarning his apostles of the sufferings he will endure on the cross alludes to Job more than once.
WHO’S JUDGING WHOM?
Stand before the cross. Look at the body of this suffering servant of God. Look, perhaps, with eyes opened by Mel Gibson’s all but unendurable The Passion. If this is what God did to His own Son — His own being, with Whom He is one — then what hope is there that we will be treated “nicely”? The God who does this is not “the God of niceness.” His scale of grandeur is far different from ours. One has no sense of Him whatever if one does not feel inner trembling and vast distance.
He is not a God made in our image. We are made as (very poor) images of Him — images chiefly in the sense that we experience insight and judgment, decision and love, and that we too have responsibilities.
This is the God who made the vastness of the Alps and the Rockies and the Andes; who knows the silence of jungles no human has yet penetrated; who made all the galaxies beyond our ken; who gave to Mozart and Beethoven and Shakespeare and Milton and Dante and legions of others great talents; who infused life into the eyes of every newborn, and love into the hearts of all lovers; and imagined, created, and expressed love for all the things that He made. He made all the powers of storms, and all the immense force of earthquakes, and the roiling and tumultuous churning of the oceans. He imagined all the beautiful melodies we have ever heard, and more that we have not.
God is God.
God is our Judge.
We are not His judge.
The question is not, “Does God measure up to our (liberal, compassionate, self-deceived) standards?” The question is, “Will we learn — in silence and in awe at the far-beyond-human power of nature — how great, on a far different scale from ours, is God’s love?”
It would be the greatest and most obscene of illusions for a man, any man, to imagine that he has greater love for a child mangled in the oily, dark waters of the recent tsunami than the Creator of that child has. It would be like Ivan Karamazov being unable to forgive God so long as one single child anywhere went to bed at night crying in loneliness and in pain. Who is Karamazov to think that his own love for that child — a purely abstract, speculative, hard-case, counterexample love — is greater than that of the child’s Creator?
The tapestry on which God weaves human existence is not the tapestry within the framework of time that we experience. As we do not comprehend the power of nature (especially nowadays, when we live so far removed from it, so protected from it), even more we do not begin to comprehend the love and goodness of God.
The truth is, the sight and smell of awful human death is sometimes more than we can take. Perhaps we should feel confidence in the power of God’s love, but we do not see it. All we feel is the night. Our darkness is as keen as that of the unbeliever and the nihilist.
Yet in that darkness, we the believers alone (not the unbeliever or the nihilist) feel betrayed by One whom we love. We alone feel anguish because we cannot understand.
But it is not as if we had not often before bumped into the limits of our understanding, and recognized nonetheless that there are undeniable glimmerings of powers and presences we know not of. And, like Job, we refuse to deny the power of the goodness and light which we do see, their power to go out into the night in which we cannot now see.
It does seem that the Creator is not always kind, not even just, within the bounded space that we experience. It does seem that the Creator acts with undeniable cruelty. In our time, we have seen unimaginable suffering. Like Job, we cannot deny what we see.
Neither can we deny the Light, which is what makes the absurd seem absurd. Only in contrast to Light is the absurd absurd. Otherwise it is only a brute matter of fact.
No less than the unbeliever or the nihilist does the devout Jew or Christian inhabit the night. But only the believers continue in the silence to utter the unseeing yes of our love. The yes that Ivan Karamazov cannot say in the night Alyosha does say.
— Michael Novak’s latest book is The Universal Hunger for Liberty (Perseus, Basic), but he has written extensively on the theme addressed above in Belief and Unbelief and The Experience of Nothingness, as well as (with Jana Novak) Tell Me Why, all of which are still in print and available through his website at www.michaelnovak.net.
An online poll at Beliefnet.com, the popular website on religion and spirituality, is asking what role God plays in natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami that has devastated much of Asia. The poll offers five options:
(1) God is punishing us.
(2) God is testing us.
(3) The earthquake and tsunami were sent by God, but we don’t know what the purpose was.
(4) Although I believe in God, the supernatural had nothing to do with this tragedy.
(5) God doesn’t exist; disasters like this are just forces of nature.
As one who believes in a God of both creation and history — a God involved in the lives of individuals and nations, and without whose existence our own existence would ultimately have no purpose — I voted for No. 3. So did 29% of all who have voted so far.
But the runaway winner, at 51%, is No. 4 — God exists, but He had no connection to the tsunami. Insurers may call such catastrophes “acts of God,” but to a majority of Beliefnet’s respondents, that is only a figure of speech.
Online polls are not scientific, of course, but the belief that God was uninvolved in the greatest natural calamity in years is being widely expressed.
“There is no God in this disaster,” says essayist Rodger Kamenetz, a scholar of religion and literature at Louisiana State University. “It is not for the good, it is not for the bad. It just is.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Christian theologian David B. Hart sees in the tsunami only “the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls.” The Reverend Hakon Langstrom, a Lutheran deacon in Stockholm, tells worshippers: “The God we believe in is not someone who lies behind everything. God did not make this happen.”
Harold Kushner popularized this view almost 25 years ago in “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a book he wrote after his young son died from a terrible disease. God, Kushner argued, does not cause the miseries brought on by illness and natural disasters and accidents, and He is powerless to prevent them. Earthquakes, cancer, plane crashes — “these events do not reflect God’s choices,” he wrote. “They happen at random, and randomness is another name for chaos. . . . And chaos is evil . . . because by causing tragedies at random, it prevents people from believing in God’s goodness.”
How an all-powerful and benevolent God can permit innocents to be massacred or suffer undeserved agonies is a question as old as monotheism itself. Kushner’s answer is that God isn’t all-powerful. Tsunamis happen, and for no reason at all. There is no divine calculus at work; there is simply bad luck. And so there is no reason to think hard thoughts about God when tragedy strikes. In Kushner’s words, “We can be angry at what has happened to us, without feeling that we are angry at God.”
But what is so bad about being angry with God? Why shouldn’t we challenge Him to make sense of the injustice and cruelty that He Himself has taught us to hate? Isn’t it better to angrily question a God in whose universe we are sure nothing happens without a reason, than to resign ourselves to a weakling God who can do nothing about a world that kills and lays waste at random?
Calling God to account, arguing with Him when He seems to be acting unjustly, has deep roots in Judeo-Christian faith. When Abraham learns of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he heatedly confronts God: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be 50 innocents within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent 50 who are in it? . . . Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25).
When Pharaoh increases the Israelites’ crushing workload, an outraged Moses challenges God: “Why have you done evil to this people?” (Exodus 5:22). When the blameless Job is afflicted with horrific suffering, he repeatedly demands to know why it is happening. “I speak out in the bitterness of my soul,” he cries to God. “Tell me why You contend with me. . . . Does it befit you to plunder?” (Job 10:1-3).
Elie Wiesel tells the haunting story of three rabbis in Auschwitz who convened a court of law and put God on trial for allowing His children to be slaughtered. At the end of the trial, which stretched over several days, they pronounced Him guilty of crimes against humanity. Then one of the rabbis glanced at the darkening sky. And now, he said, it is time for our evening prayers.
To wrestle with God is not to abandon Him. To protest against the unearned suffering He inflicts or permits is not to reject His message — quite the opposite. But having protested a seeming lack of compassion and justice from Heaven, we are obliged to reach out to the victims and work even harder to establish justice and compassion here on Earth.
As the death toll from the Tsunami in Asia mounts to over 150,000, it raises one of the most haunting questions of mankind: If God is a loving and merciful God, why would He allow such a disaster? Some assume the existence of such suffering disproves the reality of an all-powerful God. When actor Robert Deniro was once asked what he would say to God if he met Him, Deniro said, “I would tell him He’s got a lot of explaining to do.” That seems to be the feeling of many.
It must be admitted troubles are a part of the fabric of life — and if God created the world as it currently exists, He would not be a good God, He would be evil. But the Scriptures teach God didn’t create the world in the state in which it is today; suffering was the result of man’s rebellion against God.
Since human departure from God in the Garden of Eden, affliction has been mankind’s lot in every age. After Adam and Eve sinned, nature was deeply affected. No longer would the soil produce plentifully as it had, but man had to toil and work the ground — he had to struggle to get the natural processes to cooperate with him. The human body started to fail with sickness, aging, and ultimately death. Women would bear children in pain. Sorrows of every kind beset the human race.
Jesus said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (Jn. 16:33).
Longfellow once wrote, “Into each life some rain must fall. Some days must be dark and dreary.”
God is not evil. Pain and suffering are simply the natural consequence of man’s foolish decision to go his own way rather than the way of his Creator. Apologist Josh McDowell explains: “Because of the Fall, the world now is abnormal. Things are not in the state they should be in. Man, as a result of the Fall, has been separated from God. Nature is not always kind to man and the animal world can also be his enemy. There is conflict between man and his fellowman. None of these conditions were true before the Fall. Any solution that might be given to the problems mankind faces must take into consideration that the world as it stands is not normal.”
“But,” someone may protest: “I thought nothing was supposed to be impossible with God. If adversity and calamity are the results of sin, why didn’t God just create human beings so they would always resist temptation?”
The answer is there could never be genuine love between God and man unless love is freely given. Unless man is a free agent, he is nothing more than a robot. To say, “God should have created man with free will, but programmed him always do what is right” is as meaningless as to say: “God ought to have made a tripod with four legs.” Part of being human, being made in the image of God, is that like God we can make our own choices.
C.S. Lewis further observed: “We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of the abuse of free will by his creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void ...”
Although disaster came into the world through man’s sin, God wasn’t content to leave mankind and the world in a fallen state. In the person of Jesus Christ, God Himself set out to forever do away with the afflictions of life. In her book, Creed or Chaos, Dorothy Sayers has written: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is — limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death — He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst of horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”
The Bible says Christ was tempted and tried in “every way, just as we are — yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He died on the cross to take the payment for our sin. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). In providing a remedy for sin, Christ cancelled the source of our sorrows and promises to return and set up a new world where there is no more pain — a world essentially paradise regained (Rev. 21:5).
Of course, this doesn’t mean believers in Christ should simply sit around ignoring the tribulations of their neighbor, while they wait for Christ’s second coming. Because trouble wasn’t God’s original intent, Christians ought to endeavor to ease or eliminate it. Natural disasters and the like will never be stopped until God’s plan of redemption is complete. Nevertheless, in the interim, followers of Christ must work, pray, and sacrifice to help those whose lives have been shattered.
Last week, columnist Dennis Rogers in the Raleigh News and Observer told the remarkable story of a rescue helicopter flying over isolated islands off the coast of India where the tsunami struck. According to Rogers, the islands are home to a few primitive tribes that have virtually no contact with the modern world. When the chopper’s crew spotted a naked man standing on the beach, they assumed it was probably somebody who needed saving. As they hovered above the naked man and prepared to land, they watched him defiantly fix an arrow to his bow and shoot it at the aircraft.
The Scriptures do not tell us why God allowed suffering to come into the world, it only tells us how it got here. God’s purposes are sometimes beyond our understanding. But what can be known is that God is willing to turn our tragedies into triumphs, if we’ll let Him. As the hymnist William Cowper wrote: “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace. / Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” Moreover, God promises to eventually deliver us from all life’s troubles and disasters, if we’ll put down our bow and arrow of doubt and disbelief and stop assailing the One who came to rescue us.
(AP) — Some deadly earthquakes this century, with location, date, magnitude, and number killed:
-Tangshan, China: July 28, 1976; 7.8 to 8.2; 240,000.
-Yokohama, Japan: Sept. 1, 1923; 8.3; 200,000.
-Gansu, China: Dec. 16, 1920; 8.6; 100,000.
-Northern Peru: May 31, 1970; 7.7; 70,000.
-Northwest Iran: June 21, 1990; 7.3 to 7.7; 50,000.
-Chillan, Chile: Jan. 24, 1939; 8.3; 28,000.
-Northeast Iran: Sept. 16, 1978; 7.7; 25,000.
-Northwest Armenia: Dec. 7, 1988; 6.9; 25,000.
-Guatemala: Feb. 4, 1976; 7.5; 22,778.
-Valparaiso, Chile: Aug. 16, 1906; 8.6; 20,000.
—Northeast Afghanistan: Feb. 4, 1998; 6.1; 5,000.
—Northern Iran: May 10, 1997; 7.1; 1,500.
—Central Bolivia: May 22, 1998; 5.9; 84.
Major earthquakes since 1923:
— Dec. 26, 2003; Bam, Iran, 6.7-magnitude; over 15,000 killed.
— May 1, 2003; southeastern Turkey, 6.4-magnitude; 167 people killed, including 83 children in a collapsed dormitory.
— Feb. 24, 2003; western China, magnitude 6.3 or 6.8, at least 266 killed.
— June 22, 2002; northwestern Iran, magnitude 6; at least 500 killed.
— March 25, 2002; northern Afghanistan, magnitude 5.8, up to 1,000 killed.
— Jan. 26, 2001; India; magnitude 7.9; at least 2,500 killed. Estimates put death toll as high as 13,000.
— Sept. 21, 1999; Taiwan; magnitude 7.6; 2,400 killed.
— Aug. 17, 1999; western Turkey; magnitude 7.4; 17,000 killed.
— Jan. 25, 1999; western Colombia; magnitude 6; 1,171 killed.
— May 30, 1998; northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, magnitude 6.9, As many as 5,000 killed.
— May 10, 1997; northern Iran; magnitude 7.1; 1,500 killed.
— Jan. 17, 1995; Kobe, Japan; magnitude 7.2; more than 6,000 killed.
— Sept. 30, 1993: Latur, India; magnitude 6.0; as many as 10,000 killed.
— June 21, 1990; northwest Iran; magnitude 7.3 to 7.7; 50,000 killed.
— Dec. 7, 1988; northwest Armenia; magnitude 6.9; 25,000 killed.
— Sept. 19, 1985; central Mexico; magnitude 8.1; more than 9,500 killed.
— Sept. 16, 1978; northeast Iran; magnitude 7.7; 25,000 killed.
— July 28, 1976; Tangshan, China; magnitude 7.8 to 8.2; 240,000 killed.
— Feb. 4, 1976; Guatemala; magnitude 7.5; 22,778 killed.
— Dec. 26, 1939; Erzincan province, Turkey; magnitude 7.9; 33,000 killed.
— Jan. 24, 1939; Chillan, Chile; magnitude 8.3; 28,000 killed.
— May 31, 1935; Quetta, Indi a; magnitude 7.5; 50,000 killed.
— Sept. 1, 1923; Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan; magnitude 8.3; at least 140,000 killed.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Rescuers piled up bodies along southern Asian coastlines devastated by tidal waves that obliterated seaside towns and killed more than 22,000 people in 10 countries, and officials indicated Monday that the death toll could climb far higher.
Hundreds of children were buried in mass graves in India, and morgues and hospitals struggled to cope with the catastrophe. Somalia reported hundreds of deaths, some 3,000 miles away from the earthquake that sent tsunamis raging across the Indian Ocean.
The International Red Cross reported 23,700 deaths and expressed concern about waterborne diseases like malaria and cholera.
Jan Egeland, the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, said millions of people were effected — by lost homes, polluted drinking water, destroyed sanitation — and that the cost of the damage would “probably be many billions of dollars.”
“We cannot fathom the cost of these poor societies and the nameless fishermen and fishing villages and so on that have just been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods have gone,” he told reporters.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said at least eight Americans had been killed.
U.S. citizens were urged to call (888) 407-4747 to check on travel conditions, or to go to the State Department’s Crisis Awareness and Preparedness Web page.
The count of the dead rose sharply a day after the magnitude 9 quake struck beneath the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia — the most powerful earthquake in the world in four decades.
Government and aid officials suggested the toll could jump even further, citing unconfirmed reports of thousands more deaths on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and on India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, areas closest to the quake’s epicenter.
Walls of water sped away from the epicenter at more than 500 mph before crashing into the region’s shorelines, sweeping people and fishing villages out to sea. Millions were displaced from their homes and thousands remained missing Monday.
The governments of Indonesia and Thailand conceded that public warnings came too late or not at all. But officials insisted they could not know the seriousness of the threat because no tsunami warning system exists for the Indian Ocean.
Rescuers converged on beaches and islands throughout the region to search for survivors, and offers of aid poured in from around the globe, as troops in the region struggled to deliver urgently needed aid. Pakistan, India’s nuclear-armed rival, offered assistance.
Chaos erupted at the airport in Phuket, Thailand, as hundreds of tourists, many wounded and weeping, tried to board planes.
Sri Lanka said more than 10,000 people were killed along its coastlines, and Tamil rebels said 2,000 people died in its territory, raising that country’s toll to more than 12,000.
Indonesia reported about 5,000 deaths and India 4,000. Thailand — a Western tourist hotspot — said hundreds of people were dead and thousands more were missing.
Deaths also were reported in Malaysia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Somalia. The Red Cross reported 6,000 deaths in India and three deaths in the Seychelles, part of its total of 23,700.
With communications still difficult with the areas closest to the epicenter, officials predicted more deaths there. Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said the death toll on the island of Sumatra could climb to 10,000.
“We have ordered 15,000 troops into the field to search for survivors,” Indonesian military spokesman Edy Sulistiadi said. “They are mostly retrieving corpses.”
A reporter for The Associated Press saw bodies wedged into trees in one village, apparently left there by receding waters.
On the remote Car Nicobar island, an Indian territory 150 miles northwest of Sumatra, Police Chief S.B. Deol told New Delhi Television he had reports another 3,000 people may have died. If confirmed, that would raise India’s toll to 7,000 and the overall number to 25,000.
“The Andaman and Nicobar islands have been really badly hit,” said Hakan Sandbladh, senior health officer at the Geneva headquarters of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, noting that unconfirmed reports put the death toll at 13,000 on the islands.
A Somali presidential spokesman said an unknown number of people — but in the hundreds — died and entire villages disappeared on the African country’s coastline.
“All of the fishermen who went to sea [Sunday] haven’t come back,” Yusuf Ismail said.
In Bandah Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, 150 miles from the quake’s epicenter, dozens of bloated bodies littered the streets as soldiers and desperate relatives searched for survivors. Some 500 bodies collected by emergency workers lay under plastic tents, rotting in the tropical heat.
“We have ordered 15,000 troops into the field to search for survivors,” Indonesian military spokesman Edy Sulistiadi said. “They are mostly retrieving corpses.”
Unlike other areas, Bandah Aceh also suffered from the quake itself. The city’s mall was reduced to a pile of rubble and its mosque was leaning precariously.
Refugees in nearby Lhokseumawe complained that little or no aid had reached them. The city’s hospital said it was running out of medicine. Villagers near the town picked through the debris of their ruined houses amid the smell of decomposing bodies.
One man, Rajali, said his wife and two children were killed and he could not find dry ground to bury them to follow Islamic tradition.
“What shall I do?” said the 55-year-old man, who, like many Indonesians goes by a single name. “I don’t know where to bury my wife and children.”
The southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu reported thousands of deaths. Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa called the scene “an extraordinary calamity of such colossal proportions that the damage has been unprecedented.”
Nearby beaches resembled open-air mortuaries. In Cuddalore, red-eyed parents buried more than 150 children in a mass grave covered over by a bulldozer.
The tsunamis came without warning. Witnesses said sea waters at first retreated far out into the ocean, only to return at a vicious pace. Some regions reported a crashing wall of water 20 feet high.
“The water went back, back, back, so far away, and everyone wondered what it was — a full moon or what? Then we saw the wave come, and we ran,” said Katri Seppanen, who was in Thailand, on Phuket island’s popular Patong beach.
In Thailand, where tourist season is at its peak as Europeans escape frigid winters, the government said 866 people were killed and more than 7,000 injured.
Among the dead was the Thai-American grandson of King Bhumipol Adulyadej, officials said. Poom Jensen, 21, was reportedly jet skiing off Phuket when the tidal wave struck.
Six-month-old Melina Heppell of Western Australia state was swept from her father’s arms on the same beach, a relative told Australia’s Channel Nine news. Canberra confirmed a baby of that age was killed on the island.
Sri Lanka and Indonesia said at least 1 million people were driven from their homes in each country. Warships in Thailand steamed to remote tropical island resorts to search for survivors as air force helicopters in Sri Lanka and India rushed food and medicine to stricken areas.
In Sri Lanka — an island nation some 1,000 miles west of the epicenter — about 25,000 troops were deployed to crack down on sporadic, small-scale looting and to help in rescue efforts.
About 200 inmates escaped from a prison in coastal Matara. Looters duped residents into leaving homes by saying more tidal waves were approaching.
“When the residents are gone, they go on a looting spree,” said Brig. Daya Ratnayake, a military spokesman.
Signs of carnage were everywhere Monday. Dozens of bodies still clad in swimming trunks lined beaches in Thailand. Villagers in Indonesia picked through destroyed homes amid the smell of rotting corpses, lacking any dry ground to inter the dead.
Helicopters in India rushed medicine to stricken areas, while warships in Thailand steamed to island resorts to rescue survivors.
In Malaysia, officials estimated that children who were frolicking in the surf or at beachside picnics when the waves struck comprised about one-third of the victims.
About 200 people were evacuated from devastated Phi Phi island, one of Thailand’s most popular destinations for Westerners.
Jimmy Gorman, 30, of Manchester, England, said he saw 15 bodies on the island, including up to five children and a pregnant woman.
“Disaster. Flattened everything,” Gorman said. “There’s nothing left of it.”
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake’s magnitude was 9.0 — the strongest since a 9.2-magnitude temblor in Alaska in 1964 and the fourth-largest in a century.
The quake occurred more than 6 miles deep and has been followed by powerful aftershocks. A 620-mile section of a geological plate shifted, triggering the tsunamis.
Countries around the world had people among the dead. Britain reported 11 of its citizens had died; Norway 10; Sweden 9; Japan 9; Germany four; and Denmark three.
Also among the missing, injured or dead were nationals of South Korea, Germany, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, Chile, Thai media reported.
Japanese media reported that 15 bodies in Sri Lanka appeared to be of Japanese.
Those numbers likely would rise. Sri Lanka said 72 foreign tourists were killed, and Thailand said 35 of the dead were foreigners.
President Bush expressed his condolences over the “terrible loss of life and suffering.” From the Vatican, Pope John Paul II led appeals for aid.
Aid agencies and governments around the world began pouring relief supplies into the region Monday. Japan, China, Russia and Israel were among the countries sending teams of experts.
Jasmine Whitbread, international director of the aid group Oxfam, warned that without swift action more people would die from contaminated drinking water.
Yvette Stevens, an emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations, said the widespread nature of the damage made it challenging for relief agencies to respond.
“This is unprecedented,” she said. “We have not had this before.”
In Thailand, Gen. Chaisit Shinawatra, the army chief, said the United States has offered to send troops stationed on Japan’s Okinawa island. Thailand was considering the offer.
Tsunamis as large as Sunday’s happen only a few times a century. A tsunami is a series of traveling ocean waves generated by geological disturbances near the ocean floor. With nothing to stop them, the waves can race across the ocean like the crack of a bullwhip, gaining momentum over thousands of miles.
An international tsunami warning system was started in 1965, after the Alaska quake, to advise coastal communities of a potentially killer wave.
Member states include the major Pacific rim nations in North America, Asia and South America. But because tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean, no system exists there.
What caused Hurricane Katrina to slam the U.S. Gulf Coast? Was it a typical late-summer tropical storm caused by wind, water, and heat? Mother Nature crying out on behalf of the earth’s pain? An angry God?
Depends whom you ask. All along the theological and political spectrum, Katrina has crystallized people’s fears into a now-familiar brew of apocalyptic theories similar to what we saw after September 11 and after the Asian tsunami several months ago.
At least one New Orleans-area resident believes God created the storm as punishment because of the recent role the United States played in expelling Jews from Gaza. On Sunday evening, Bridgett Magee of Slidell, La., told the Christian website Jerusalem Newswire that she saw the hurricane “as a direct ‘coming back on us’ [for] what we did to Israel: a home for a home.” Stan Goodenough, a website columnist, described Katrina as “the fist of God” in a Monday column. “What America is about to experience is the lifting of God’s hand of protection; the implementation of His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel,” Goodenough writes. “The Bible talks about Him shaking His fist over bodies of water, and striking them.”
Meanwhile, spiritual and political environmentalists say that massive hurricanes such as Katrina, along with the Asian tsunami, are messages from the earth, letting humanity know of the earth’s pain. These hurricanes are caused by global warming, environmentalists say, which are the result of using too much fossil fuel. They see the catastrophic consequences as a kind of comeuppance.
Katrina forced oil workers to evacuate rigs in the Gulf of Mexico; meanwhile, seven oil refineries and a major oil import terminal have been closed. The Gulf Coast region is home to a quarter of U.S. oil refining. As a result, Common Dreams, a liberal website, wrote Monday: “Oil may be achieving a new impact on daily news, people’s pocketbooks and world history—perhaps even the end of history and the world.” James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century,” predicted in his Monday blog: “It seems possible to me that we will be seeing gas station lines all over America within the week.” In another area of his website, Kunstler writes: “We are entering a period of economic hardship and declining incomes...The suburbs as are going to tank spectacularly. We are going to see an unprecedented loss of equity value and, of course, basic usefulness. We are going to see an amazing distress sale of properties, with few buyers. We’re going to see a fight over the table scraps of the 20th century.”
Stephen O’Leary, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and an expert on the media and apocalypticism, says, “God’s got a two-fer here. Both sides are eager to see America punished for her sins; on one side it’s sexual immorality and porn and Hollywood, and on the other side it’s conspicuous consumption and Hummers.”
In some ways, these are mainstream feelings: In a recent CNN poll, 55% of those responding believe that global warming is causing the severe weather we’ve experienced recently, which is a kind of admission that a huge hurricane is part of the wages of (environmental) sin. Meanwhile, most polls show that 40% of all U.S. adults believe the physical world will eventually end as a result of a supernatural intervention, perhaps with a literal Rapture, Tribulation, Antichrist, and Battle of Armageddon described in the Book of Revelation. Nearly half of all Americans believe the Middle East will be “heavily involved” in the events surrounding the end of the world. And 40% believe the end of the world will come in their lifetime.
The rush to doomsday thinking, O’Leary says, is related to our need to process emotion in the face of suffering. “The mass media confront us with emotion that is almost impossible to process, and the only way we have to deal with that is to put it in terms of the drama of apocalypse and redemption—you transform suffering into a story of God’s plan. If you don’t have that, then what you do is turn off the TV and have despair.”
It’s not just conservative Christians who tune in to this cycle of apocalypse and redemption, however. New Agers and left-wing environmentalists subscribe to a theory that the world is undergoing what they call Earth Changes—a time when, because of humanity’s degradation, the climate severely reacts. Many of these believers say the United States will be almost completely submerged in seawater when the Earth Changes are complete.
“When people leave behind the Christian version of the apocalypse, they don’t quit being apocalyptic,” O’Leary says. “They switch brands.”
Even the media, perhaps reacting to their own cycle of hype and emotion of this moment, have been priming the doomsday pump. The normally bloodless Associated Press wrote this description: “When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans on Monday, it could turn one of America’s most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city’s legendary cemeteries.”
Interestingly, last year’s string of Florida hurricanes didn’t seem to cause much doomsday rhetoric. But Katrina is different for a few important reasons: It’s much larger than usual storms; it hit a region that is home to one-fourth of U.S. oil production at a time when Americans are feeling tremendous anxiety over rising fuel costs; it happened a couple weeks after Israel pulled out of Gaza; and it conjures horrific images of fetid water contaminating a city with a Sodom and Gomorrah reputation.
The thought of this region, or even the nation, being somehow punished for its sins, conjures twin feelings of excitement and dread among apocalyptic thinkers. On one hand, they seem delighted that a divine plan appears to be unfolding. With horrific events such as this, they believe, God (or Mother Nature) has shown them the world is so evil that it is closer than ever to the end of human history—which means they will spend eternity in a happier place. Yet they also believe God (or Mother Nature) is punishing Americans. That gives rise to their urgent need to stave off destruction through prayer, scolding, and trying to convert people to their way of thinking.
It’s worth noting that end-times fever also broke out during the Persian Gulf War, around the turn of the millennium five years ago, and then around September 11, as it has many times in history. Each time it happens, Americans (and humanity for millennia before) become convinced the End is upon them because they’ve sinned and that God or Mother Nature is angry.
Yet if people actually read the Bible, they can just as easily find an alternate view of the divine, a view that is diametrically opposite the wrathful avenger. The Book of I Kings reads: “Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind and earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”
Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans just two days before the annual homosexual “Southern Decadence” festival was to begin in the town, an act being characterized by some as God’s work.
Southern Decadence has a history of “filling the French Quarters section of the city with drunken homosexuals engaging in sex acts in the public streets and bars,” says a statement from the Philadelphia Christian organization Repent America.
This year’s 34th annual Southern Decadence festival, which drew 125,000 revelers last year, was set to begin today in the Big Easy and run through Monday.
As writer John d’Addario explained in “Southern Decadence 2005: A How-To Guide” posted on FrenchQuarter.com:
Parades and non-stop parties aside, Southern Decadence may be most famous (or infamous) for the displays of naked flesh which characterize the event – which is only fitting, since New Orleans in early September is generally the closest thing you’ll ever experience to walking around in a steambath outside of a health spa. While police have started to crack down on public lewdness and pressure from a local crackpot conservative religious organization has caused the five-day festival to become a little more sedate than it was in years past, the atmosphere of Southern Decadence has stayed true to its name and public displays of sexuality are pretty much everywhere you look.
Of course, the massive flooding of the city and evacuation order from Gov. Kathleen Blanco has forced the event’s cancellation.
“Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city,” stated Repent America director Michael Marcavage in a statement. “From ‘Girls Gone Wild’ to ‘Southern Decadence,’ New Orleans was a city that opened its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin. May it never be the same.”
Repent America says three former and current mayors of New Orleans have issued official proclamations welcoming visitors to Southern Decadence.
“Let us pray for those ravaged by this disaster. However, we must not forget that the citizens of New Orleans tolerated and welcomed the wickedness in their city for so long,” Marcavage said. “May this act of God cause us all to think about what we tolerate in our city limits, and bring us trembling before the throne of Almighty God.”
Marcavage was one of the five Philadelphia Christians arrested last year for protesting at a homosexual event. The charges eventually were tossed out.
As the loss of life appears to be increasing into the thousands, Churches and their affiliated relief groups are mounting efforts to help ease the grief, suffering, and frustration of the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
In New Orleans alone, the death toll was surely hundreds and most likely, thousands, news agencies quoted Mayor Ray Nagin as saying. City officials have called for a full evacuation because the municipality won’t function completely for weeks over even months.
Meanwhile, frustration among poor flood victims who couldn’t escape the city in time has grown as some aid is slow in making its way to the hardest hit areas because of impassable roads. Fresh drinking water and food are the most urgent needs.
“The people who have resources can get out of harm’s way,” said Episcopal Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana yesterday, from temporary offices in Baton Rouge. “We’ve lost at least 18 churches. The diocesan offices didn’t flood until today, but I understand they had already been looted. New Orleans is a city with many poor people, and there’s a lot of civic unrest.”
“But we’ve had calls from dioceses all over the country offering help, and [Episcopal Relief Development] has been a tremendous aid to us,” he added. “This is the church at its best – pulling together and helping each other through hard times.”
Episcopal leader Frank T. Griswold called on members of his church to unite and work together by donating to relief efforts of the ERD, which is working in various dioceses in the Central Gulf coast, Mississippi and Louisiana.
“At this time let us be exceedingly mindful that bearing one another’s burdens and sharing one another’s suffering is integral to being members of Christ’s body,” he said in a statement.
For Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief teams arriving in Pascagoula, Miss., on Tuesday, about 30 miles east of hard hit Gulfport, Miss. it had been a struggle against misfortunes which included arriving late to First Baptist Church there.
When teams were not able to immediately provide food and water, residents in need became impatient, storming the church where the teams were stationed. Local church members had to request security from the National Guard, according to the Baptist Press.
Other Baptist efforts were stymied in New Orleans when the lone relief team was stopped from operating by local authorities. It relocated to Baton Rouge.
Various Baptist churches in New Orleans and Gulfport were destroyed. Dennis Watson, a pastor for a Baptist Church in Matairie, La., whose church was flooded, said his 2,500 member congregation trust that God would use the disaster to bring the city closer together, according BP news.
“He uses natural disasters like this to bring people to His Kingdom. I believe America will rally around New Orleans just as it supported New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks,” he told the Baptist Message news journal.
Meanwhile, United Methodists welcomed evacuees streaming in from New Orleans to First United Methodist Church of Marshall, Texas. Mark Smith, one of the volunteers from the church noted how nervous the new arrivals were.
“The longer people are there, you can tell they’re anxious,” he said.
A spokesperson for Christian Reformed World Committee told the Christian Post that its small initial team of five to seven volunteers would go into Mississippi to assess damage, coordinate with larger relief and government agencies, and begin cleaning up. It estimates a 2 to 3 year period of recovery..
“The problem we are facing is it is hard to get into the region,” said Kristin VanderBerg, a communications coordinator for CRWRC. “We have to start the cleanup process - cutting down palm trees, rebuilding homes.”
As we mourn New Orleans, let us also celebrate it, as New Orleanians famously celebrate their own dead. The city has long been admired for its literary creativity, its exceptional food, and its wonderful music, and deplored — albeit also frequented — because of its legendary corruption and degradation. The possibility of its destruction no doubt played a role in the character of its people, and it is no accident that an annual bacchanal took place there, in the riotous celebrations of Mardi Gras. Death has always been omnipresent in the consciousness of the city; dancing in defiance of death was the city’s trademark, and the spirited music that defined New Orleans for much of the world was played at the happiest occasions, and at the most famous funerals.
New Orleans is one of a handful of cities that are defined in large part by the recognition that it can all come to an end most any day. Joel Lockhart Dyer wrote that “New Orleans is North America’s Venice; both cities are living on borrowed time.” New Orleans and Venice are both subject to the vagaries of the water gods, and both have acted sporadically to fend off their seemingly inevitable fate. But their basic response to the looming disaster has been defiance, a ritual assertion of life in the face of the inevitable, and an embrace of human frailty that echoes the frailty of the city itself.
Carnival in Venice, albeit more so in the past than today, has much in common with Mardi Gras, including the use of masks by the celebrants, who thereby throw off their daily identities to participate anonymously in the licentious celebrations. Thomas Mann knew what he was doing when he wrote Death in Venice, in which a proper German professor (pointedly named Aschenbach, the stream of ashes) hurls himself into bawdy Venice to recover his repressed sexuality and creativity. Similar characters abound in the works of Tennessee Williams, who lived many years in New Orleans, the setting for both A Streetcar Named Desire and The Rose Tattoo. William Faulkner also found New Orleans a congenial place for his creative labors. And in both cities, the bacchanals are religious, celebrating both sin and the hope of redemption thereafter, as if a sinner were more attractive to the Almighty than a virtuous soul, at least on that day.
Moreover, Venice prefigured the most likely cultural and political destiny of New Orleans, no matter whether the long-anticipated catastrophe came or not: a slow slide into monotonous ritual, a city transformed into an historic theme park, more frequented by tourists than defined by the energy of its inhabitants, an anachronistic curiosity like Florence, where one focuses on things past, not present or future.
But there is much that separates them. Venice is a northern city, and New Orleans is profoundly southern. A German like Mann might find Venice to be incredibly warm and sunny, but no knowledgeable Italian would. And the presumed naturalness and spontaneity of Venetians could only be taken seriously by someone from even farther north. New Orleans, on the other hand, incarnates the south. New Orleanians are perversely proud of the slow tempo of their daily life, of the absence of industry, and of the fascinating spectacle of human foibles and failures that seems at one with the city. The Italian city that most closely matches New Orleans is Naples, not Venice. Naples also faces destruction — volcanic destruction, from “Vesuvius the Exterminator,” as the poet Verga once wrote — and Naples, too, is noted for a lively, and often lawless style of life, along with great literature, art, cuisine and music. Unlike Venice, Naples is every bit as southern as New Orleans, and the European stereotype of the Neapolitan is very much like the American image of New Orleanians: lazy, happy, spontaneous, and unrepressed, slow-moving but quick-witted, and very happy with the food.
Naples and New Orleans also share a common affliction: disease. An enormous number of New Orleanians and Neapolitans have died of cholera; indeed, one of the best books on modern Naples is entitled Naples in the Age of Cholera. New Orleans had the additional scourge of Yellow Fever. In both cities, the effect of these epidemics and mass deaths meant, as Frederick Starr puts it in his excellent book on New Orleans, “death...was not merely a private drama occurring in the intimate circle of one’s family, but a civic event, experienced by the entire community.” Both cities have a highly developed culture of death. The dead are believed to be actively involved in daily life, busily haunting houses and even restaurants, sending dream messages to the living, and organizing good and bad fortune for those who have or lack proper respect for the inhabitants of the spiritual realm.
The dead themselves require special treatment, because both cities lack proper traditional burial grounds. New Orleans is below sea level, and the soil in Naples is very porous, so the dead are usually placed in tombs, not in the ground. In some Neapolitan churches, you can see skeletons in the walls, and local artists paint clothing around the skeletons. This sort of intimacy with the dead is unknown in most of the modern world.
The combination of a rich culture of death with the looming threat of catastrophe is an intoxicating mélange for the spirit, and it no doubt explains why so many great writers have been drawn to these two southern cities, both of which have developed a unique version of Catholicism, often to the consternation of Rome. As Starr observes of New Orleans (and it is equally true of Naples), “all this frivolity occurs in the very city which, for over two centuries, Death visited more ruthlessly than anywhere else on the continent.”
Doomed cities with an intimate relationship with the dead are special places, incubators of exceptional qualities of spirit and thus of extraordinary inventiveness. If we have lost one of those cities to the forces of nature, it will impoverish our world far beyond the enormous human tragedy. Even if it was long foreseen.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.
Just days after the Asian tsunami on December 26, 2004, a dozen or so writers raised the subject of theodicy. Within weeks, scores of writers broached the subject. Theodicy, if you didn’t know, is the branch of theology which tries to explain how a good God can allow evil to persist.
So far, according to a search of Lexis-Nexis, I’m the first to bring it up in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster. I’m pretty sure I won’t be the last, and I’m positive I’ll be among the least authoritative.
Indeed, I have no idea how to answer the question of how God can allow evil to exist, except to say that God’s ways are mysterious; a world without evil wouldn’t be the world; free will matters; and so on. It may be boilerplate, but it works for me and I really haven’t read anybody who does much better.
But what I find fascinating is how so many people desperately want the culprit to be someone - or something - other than God or “Mother Nature.”
A slew of partisans have already declared that George W. Bush is responsible for this disaster because of his policies on global warming and the Kyoto Treaty.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. blamed Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for the devastation. “Now we are all learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged,” he said.
Even the environment minister of Germany joined the chorus of those who believe the “butterfly effect” of Bush’s signature on the Kyoto treaty would have stopped Katrina.
On one level, I think all of this is partisan opportunism. Even a casual glimpse at the data provided by the National Weather Service (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/pastdec.shtml) shows that big hurricanes (categories 3, 4, and 5) haven’t increased over the 20th century. But for years now, activists have exploited media coverage in order to make it seem like something scary is driving the rise in hurricanes. “Global warming = Worse hurricanes. George Bush just doesn’t get it,” blared a billboard in Florida during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election.
A great many people tried to pin the 2004 tsunami on global warming, too, even though that wasn’t even theoretically possible (it was caused by a deep-sea earthquake). Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth in Britain, spoke for many when he proclaimed, “Here again are yet more events in the real world that are consistent with climate change predictions.”
But I also think there’s something much deeper going on. It cannot be disputed that not just the activists but millions of normal people honestly believe these self-fulfilling prophecies that explain virtually every kind of weather - except nice weather, of course - as the comeuppance of man. And the key word there is “prophecy.”
It’s become something of a cliche to say that environmentalism has become a religion, but that’s because there’s something so obviously true about it. The cant, the ritual, the creation myths all feel more religious than scientific. Within the environmentalist worldview there’s “an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all,” observed Michael Crichton in a famous speech on the subject.
Secular, “scientific” liberals understandably titter at televangelists who pray away hurricanes or claim that this or that calamity is God’s retribution. But as unpersuasive or unhelpful as much of that theater may be, there’s at least a serious theology somewhere underneath all the posing. Save for the cults of “deep ecology” and Wicca, environmental theology seems slapdash.
They could start by getting their own theodicy, one that would try to reconcile natural disasters with their faith that Mother Nature is such a nice lady. Rejecting Tennyson’s description of nature as “red in tooth and claw,” they opt for a nurturing but wounded mommy nature. Were it not for man’s folly, she would be rocking us to sleep in her gentle arms every night. God, it seems, is a deadbeat dad in this whole scheme, and man ultimately has all the power. Indeed, George Bush (with the aid of Haley Barbour, of course) could eliminate catastrophes with the stroke of a pen.
Those who study theodicy spend a lot of time on the Book of Job, which tackles God’s willingness to allow bad things to happen to people who don’t have it coming. Despite his hardships, Job never abandons God because to do so would be to abandon hope.
Environmentalists, it seems, need their own Book of Job. Because, as it stands right now, Mother Nature’s ways are not mysterious, but entirely contingent on the output of fossil fuels. And, ironically enough, all of their hopes lie in George W. Bush. Which sounds just a bit like their version of Satan worship.
“There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eights of our territory must pass to market.”
So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to his negotiators in France, in words intended to persuade Napoleon to sell the already thriving port city to the young United States. The French ruler was impressed enough to throw in the vast hinterland of the Louisiana Purchase, all for the bargain price of $15 million.
As I write, four days after the levees broke, the possessors of New Orleans are the waters and the looters and thugs who have been plundering luxury merchandise and shooting at policemen and rescue teams. The criminals seem likely to be dispersed by the soldiers now pouring into the city, and the floodwaters will in time — it will seem an agonizingly long time — be displaced. But the question will remain: What kind of New Orleans will be rebuilt?
It could just be an industrial terminal. George Friedman, of stratfor.com, argues that “the ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans, which run north and south of the city, are as important today as at any point during the history of the republic.” As in Jefferson’s time, this “is where the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and” — we get beyond 1803 here — “the bulk commodities of industrialism come in.” Those bulk commodities include oil and natural gas, about one-quarter of the national production of which come through New Orleans and South Louisiana.
Friedman’s argument seems hard to counter. And it is surely within the nation’s physical and financial capacity to rebuild New Orleans’ port and oil infrastructure — re-engineering it to withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane this time, not just a Category 3 — and make it once again what it was until last weekend. But ports and petrochemicals are no longer labor-intensive industries: It doesn’t take that many employees to man a refinery or a container port. Port Fourchon, the site of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, is a tiny community in southern Lafourche Parish. Restoring the port will not restore the fabric of the city.
And some parts of that fabric are not worth restoring. The city of New Orleans has had a horrifyingly high crime rate in recent years, and after disaster hit, the reports of looting — not just of food and necessities, but of luxury items — have been rampant. Shots have been fired at rescue teams and police officers; supplies of food and medicines on their way to hospitals have been hijacked; gangs of criminals have stolen boats from survivors. Flooding has produced an urban riot like those of the 1960s or Los Angeles in 1992.
I worked as an intern in the office of the mayor of Detroit during the riot summer of 1967, and I know what happened to that city during the riot and after. The riot destroyed some commercial strips, but the high crime that persisted for years afterward resulted in the emptying out of large parts of the city, the destruction of the value of commercial and residential real estate, and a population drop from 1,670,000 in 1960 to 900,000 in 2004.
Something similar has been going on recently in New Orleans. The population of the central city declined from 484,000 in 2000 to 462,000 in 2004 — one of the biggest percentage declines in the nation. It seems unlikely that many of the small wooden houses in neighborhoods dominated by the criminal underclass will be habitable after the waters recede, nor will it be worth anyone’s money to rebuild them. New Orleans may suffer a population loss similar to Detroit’s in a much smaller period of time.
The suburbs are more likely to be rebuilt, and the gambling casinos and the historic structures of the French Quarter and the Garden District will be, too, to the maximum extent possible. The tourist trade, which has recently been New Orleans’ biggest employer, will likely revive, and the city’s great restaurants will likely reopen.
But New Orleans’ heritages of upper-class complaisance and political corruption — the result of the city’s French tradition — work against a more broadly based commercial and economic revival. Without changes in these attitudes, historic New Orleans may revive, but the city will become little more than a theme park, like Venice, and not the great commercial beehive it once was.
This famous, selfless cry for the safety of others is best associated with the tragedy of the Titanic, when thousands lost their lives in the frozen waters of the sea so many years ago. Not unlike the rising waters in New Orleans, where the ocean began to fill its natural territory after man-made walls that held it back for so long failed, so the mighty waters of the North Atlantic engulfed the damaged vessel that sought to defy nature’s icebergs and open waters. But, unlike New Orleans where dry land was nearby, the Titanic was a lone ship, in the middle of the vast waters, filled with helpless souls who had nowhere to go save too few lifeboats.
The harsh reality that dreadful day in 1912 is that most of the passengers would die, and they knew it. Yet, amid the panic and impending doom, the accounts of survivors remind us of a time when civility and honor were more important to many than survival itself.
So how is it that in fewer than 100 years we have digressed to a society where, when disaster strikes, the story is marked by a display of the worst side of human nature rather than the best?
Could it be that in a pop culture where the gangsta style is “hip” and is reflected and perpetuated in everything from violent rap and hip-hop music, to the clothing styles, to the language and gestures used in “normal” communication, to the negative attitudes toward females and children, that the “style” isn’t just a fashion trend but has actually become a way of life for some? In other words, in a culture where many people dress like gangstas, talk like gangstas, and strut like gangstas, should we be shocked and horrified that they start engaging in gangsta crime when given the opportunity?
I can’t help but conclude that if the tragic natural disaster in New Orleans had occurred in a culture that had daily practiced the Golden Rule, rather than the Gangsta Rot, we would have seen more scenes of neighbors helping neighbors and far fewer scenes of neighbors preying upon neighbors.
This is not to say that lawlessness ruled the past week in New Orleans. The fact is, it didn’t. The story of the flood is filled with heroic acts of selflessness, and of desperate neighbor helping desperate neighbor even while death loomed around them. And the amazing generosity from countless Americans — in and near the disaster areas, as well as around the nation — is a testament to the goodness of the American people.
Still, the raping and beating and pillaging and murdering that shocked the world, for many now define not just New Orleans, but American culture.
It’s time to ask ourselves a few obvious questions: Why do we as a nation produce and embrace a pop culture that glorifies rap and hip-hop music, that teaches men to prey upon women and engage in senseless violence, and that is now, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s recent survey on media and youth, the number-one music choice of teenagers from all races and every socio-economic status? Why is it that we produce, en masse, hedonistic movies, television programs, and Internet content? Why is it that we continue to make ever more graphic and violent video games for our children? Why have we allowed such selfish messages to have such a powerful voice in our culture?
Mind you, I’m not advocating government censorship, but rather pleading for social and parental rejection to replace the current proliferation and acceptance of such barbaric and destructive messages.
Other key questions — a bit different but entirely related — for the good people of New Orleans and taxpayers everywhere to ask of Louisiana and federal officials is: Why is it not only common knowledge but also accepted practice that organized crime and gangs hold much of the power and control much of the commerce in New Orleans? Will New Orleans return to business as usual? Or will you uplift the entire community by throwing out the thugs and their vile wares for which New Orleans is infamous? When you think about it, the values of the thugs involved in the post-Katrina crime wave really weren’t all that different from those that have flooded sections of New Orleans with societal sewage for years.
Once the immediate danger has passed and the cleanup has begun in earnest, we must, as a nation, ask ourselves many questions. Along with the formal investigations into what went wrong with the local, state and national emergency plans (or lack thereof), we as citizens must also explore how our failure to teach civility, decency and morality gravely compounded the problems of an already horrific disaster.
The stories of the heroic figures of the Titanic and the civility that marked their lives and culture should not be lost. Now is an excellent time to use the lessons of history to build a better future for our children.
The physical devastation caused by hurricane Katrina has painfully revealed the moral devastation of our times that has led to mass looting in New Orleans, assaults on people in shelters, the raping of girls, and shots being fired at helicopters that are trying to rescue people.
Forty years ago, an electric grid failure plunged New York and other northeastern cities into a long blackout. But law and order prevailed. Ordinary citizens went to intersections to direct traffic. People helped each other. After the blackout was over, this experience left many people with an upbeat spirit about their fellow human beings.
Another blackout in New York, years later, was much uglier. And what has been happening now in New Orleans is uglier still. Is there a trend here?
Fear, grief, desperation or despair would be understandable in people whose lives have been devastated by events beyond their control. Regret might be understandable among those who were warned to evacuate before the hurricane hit but who chose to stay. Yet the word being heard from those on the scene is “angry.”
That may be a clue, not only to the breakdown of decency in New Orleans, but to a wider degeneration in American society in recent decades.
Why are people angry? And at whom?
Apparently they are angry at government officials for not having rescued them sooner, or taken care of them better, or for letting law and order break down.
No doubt the inevitable post mortems on this tragic episode will turn up many cases where things could have been done better. But who can look back honestly at his own life without seeing many things that could have been done better?
Just thinking about all the mistakes you have made over a lifetime can be an experience that is humbling, if not humiliating.
When all is said and done, government is ultimately just human beings — politicians, judges, bureaucrats. Maybe the reason we are so often disappointed with them is that they have over-promised and we have been gullible enough to believe them.
Government cannot solve all our problems, even in normal times, much less during a catastrophe of nature that reminds man how little he is, despite all his big talk.
The most basic function of government, maintaining law and order, breaks down when floods or blackouts paralyze the system.
During good times or bad, the police cannot police everybody. They can at best control a small segment of society. The vast majority of people have to control themselves.
That is where the great moral traditions of a society come in — those moral traditions that it is so hip to sneer at, so cute to violate, and that our very schools undermine among the young, telling them that they have to evolve their own standards, rather than following what old fuddy duddies like their parents tell them.
Now we see what those do-it-yourself standards amount to in the ugliness and anarchy of New Orleans.
In a world where people flaunt their “independence,” their “right” to disregard moral authority, and sometimes legal authority as well, the tragedy of New Orleans reminds us how utterly dependent each one of us is for our very lives on millions of other people we don’t even see.
Thousands of people in New Orleans will be saved because millions of other people they don’t even know are moved by moral obligations to come to their rescue from all corners of this country. The things our clever sophisticates sneer at are ultimately all that stand between any of us and utter devastation.
Any of us could have been in New Orleans. And what could we have depended on to save us? Situational ethics? Postmodern philosophy? The media? The lawyers? The rhetoric of the intelligentsia?
No, what we would have to depend on are the very things that are going to save the survivors of hurricane Katrina, the very things that clever people are undermining.
New Orleans can be rebuilt and the levees around it shored up. But can the moral levees be shored up, not only in New Orleans but across America?
How one responds to a natural disaster like Katrina says a lot about one’s character and motives.
If you’re a now-obscure “civil rights leader” like Randall Robinson, you write on a Web blog, “Black hurricane victims have begun eating corpses to survive.” How did he know this? “It has been reported,” he claimed, without revealing his source so the assertion might be fact-checked. Robinson later retracted his remarks.
If you’re a fading, but not yet obscure “civil rights leader” like Jesse Jackson, you blame President Bush, because this gets you TV time. This race hustling should be condemned and would be if politicians and the major media had any guts.
The quickest way to avoid responsibility is to blame someone else for your own shortcomings. Before assigning blame, it is helpful to be reminded of the state’s checkered past.
Louisiana and New Orleans have a long history of corruption. In the late 19th century, a Louisiana lottery scandal led to the abandonment of lotteries in every state that had them. Mobster Frank Costello brought illegal slot machines to the state thanks to a deal he made with Governor Huey P. Long. Then there were the illegal, but wide-open casinos in St. Bernard Parish in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Five years ago, Gov. Edwin Edwards was convicted of racketeering and conspiracy for taking political bribes over the awarding of riverboat casino gambling licenses. It was Edwards who, in 1983, uttered these immortal words: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
Why is this relevant to the current disaster in New Orleans? Because in the past, the levee board has played fast and loose with the funds it was given, as one former top state official told me.
In a May 21, 2001, article for the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, Amanda Furness quoted Stanley Riley, a plaintiff in a suit against the Orleans Levee District (OLD). Riley and his uncle, Harry Jones, have had a long-running legal battle with the OLD over some disputed land they say is theirs, but the OLD claims for itself.
Riley alleges in the Furness story that the OLD literally gambled away a lot of money -funds that might have been used to shore-up the levee system and prevent the disaster caused by Katrina: “The levee board spent $20 million on (a) casino,” Riley alleges. “Now they say they can’t pay it back ‘cause it’s going to break them? That’s not our problem.” There have also been allegations of cronyism by board members who allegedly have diverted levee funds to friends and relatives.
The federal government must share some of the blame for not being properly prepared for the storm, says former Republican Governor Mike Foster. In a telephone interview, Foster told me, “The Feds cut us short. Louisiana supplies a lot of the nation’s oil and gas and we get no consideration in return.” He means federal help in shoring up the wetlands area, which serves as a buffer between Southern Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico has been eroding.
Foster says despite his pleas when he was governor (1996-2003), Washington refused to provide the money needed to fix the erosion problem. Still, he says, there is probably nothing that by itself would have prevented Katrina from severely damaging New Orleans and coastal Mississippi and Alabama.
The City of New Orleans knew it was vulnerable. As recently as last October, National Geographic magazine published an article titled “Gone with the Water.” It reads like a biblical prophecy foretelling disaster. The scenario laid out by the magazine was fulfilled last week. (http://www3.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0410/feature5/index.html)
Investigations will - and should - be conducted. But government rarely indicts itself as an institution. The size and bureaucratic nature of government is the problem - not racism and insensitivity to the poor.
Too many who should have acted did not act because Louisiana officials, who saw the hurricane coming, apparently could not decide who was in charge. If the size of government is the main problem, then investigations that produce more layers of bureaucracy will compound, not solve the problem.
The ultimate culprit, though, is Mother Nature and no one has yet figured out a way to control her.
The American image around the world has taken a post-Katrina nosedive. “I am absolutely disgusted,” said Sajeewa Chinthaka of Sri Lanka. “After the tsunami, our people, even the ones who lost everything, wanted to help the others who were suffering.” The problem, some said, was “American individualism,” with folks acting selfishly.
Hmmm — what about the tens of thousands of Americans individuals who eagerly responded to the crisis without waiting for governmental or collective directive?
Before expressing disgust with America, please spend a couple of hours reading through Internet postings like this one: “We are a family of five. ... We have a very small room with a bed and two small dressers that we will offer to you so that you can get back on your feet. You will be welcome at our family table. ... We don’t have much money after the bills are paid, but we’ll happily share whatever we can. We don’t expect you to pay us, and we won’t expect you to leave quickly. It takes time to rebuild, and we’ll give you that time.”
Look at all the people ready to donate their expertise: “I am a licensed bus driver willing to go south to haul those folks out. ... I am a house painter. ... I am fully licensed, have a truck with all equipment and chemicals, and am willing to go down and help out with any pest control problems. ... I’m a building and roofing contractor from upstate New York who will donate my expertise and labor. ... I am background-screened and fingerprinted for childcare, willing to take in a few kids or a small family. ... I speak fluent Spanish and will contact anyone for anybody.”
Look at all the medical talent volunteering: “I’m a board certified orthopedic surgeon who is willing to help in a medical capacity. ... I am a nurse from Cleveland. ... I am a fully licensed general surgery chief resident willing to help immediately. ... I am a CPR-certified healthcare provider.” (And some specialists were willing to be generalists: “Hi- I’m a registered nurse, my boyfriend is a union electrician. Even if you couldn’t use us in our professions, we would be willing to provide any assistance necessary.”)
Look at the many people offering housing: “Can’t get out there myself, but we have a dry, clean living room with space for a small family and their pets. ... We only have our hearts and our home to offer, but our home is comfortable and dry! ... I am a single mother with a small baby at home. I have an extra room and can house a single parent and/or children. It’s not a lot of space, but I can help with meals, clothing, employment and schooling. ... We are licensed, loving foster parents who would be honored to take in a baby/toddler/young child — short or long term.”
Look at the people without special training or available space just offering themselves: “I was down at ground zero after 9-11 and can help with any manual labor, rebuilding, medical help, search and rescue, and anything else under the sun. ... I cannot offer my apartment for shelter at this time because I have no power/water, and I cannot offer money because I have very little, but I am very able to help out physically. ... I have two husky chainsaws, transportation, and complete camping and cooking gear. No PAY required, just a destination and a person who truly needs help.”
Television viewers abroad may have seen images of helplessness, but many would-be volunteers showed a can-do spirit: “I can run heavy equipment or operate off-road vehicles and a variety of boats in highly variable and adverse conditions. I have extensive experience in the coastal marshes and swamps of south LA and MS, and have construction, oilfield and welding experience. I can also cook. I’ll do anything to help, and I can bring some supplies.”
And many of those who couldn’t provide much material aid helped in another crucial way: “God bless you all. I continue to pray.”
Reporters covering the evacuation of New Orleans last week have noticed an interesting phenomenon. People who have lost everything are staying in shelters. And who are running those shelters? Churches.
Christians were the first to arrive on the scene—literally the first responders—the first to help with the devastation in New Orleans, even before the first government assistance arrived. And Christians shouldn’t be surprised at this, even if reporters are.
Because throughout history, Christians have been passionate about human dignity. We believe all humans are made in the image of God. This is why Christians throughout history have rescued abandoned babies, fought slavery, and passed child labor laws. Today, we care equally for the mother dying of AIDS in Africa, the six-year-old sex slave in Thailand, and the homeless family in New Orleans.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers are also caring for a segment of the population that hasn’t gotten much sympathy: prisoners and their families.
Angola Prison, a huge, maximum-security prison near Baton Rouge, has faced the burden of housing several thousand displaced prisoners from New Orleans. Most of these prisoners will live in tent cities set up on the grounds of Angola. Richard Payne, Prison Fellowship’s national director of Operation Starting Line, along with a group of volunteers are driving a trailer filled with toothbrushes, soap, towels, socks, blankets, and water from North Carolina to Angola.
Prison Fellowship-Alabama has also responded by housing Katrina victims. Until Katrina hit, Alabama field director Deborah Daniels had been working on a project to convert an abandoned nursing home into transitional housing for ex-offenders. Now she’s preparing the home to serve as temporary housing for some 350 displaced persons arriving from New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi.
And we haven’t forgotten the children of prisoners, either. Jean Bush, Prison Fellowship’s executive director for Louisiana, contacted many of the 195 Angel Tree churches in the state’s northern and central parishes to help provide housing for evacuees. She’s also found a way to provide Bibles for any who want them.
We recognize that local churches will not be able to carry out Angel Tree at Christmas this year as planned. So, Prison Fellowship has already begun a national campaign to raise funds to locate the now displaced Angel Tree children and to purchase gifts for them.
As the story of Hurricane Katrina begins to fade out of the news, as it inevitably will, we must not let our memories fade with it. Loving our neighbor requires perseverance. Those rendered homeless by Katrina will need help for years to come—and as we have recently seen, we cannot always rely on government help. Are we, the Church, willing to stick it out that long—to love our neighbor for as long as it takes? Yes, it’s easy to write a check—I’m sure we have all done that. But are we also willing to take people into our homes, to feed them, baby-sit their kids, help them find a job?
Christians reaching out to those who suffer offer a tremendous witness to secular observers—a witness to the fact that throughout history, whenever there are people who suffer, it is Christians, just like now in New Orleans, who are the “first responders.”
“Cities do not last. Those built in precarious places collapse. The rest are doomed to decay or suffer humanly induced destruction.” That is the assessment of historian Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto. He spoke those words with reference to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but his historical judgment would well apply to Nineveh, Tyre, Babylon and a host of cities long ago covered with dust.
The pictures out of New Orleans tell the story. Broken glass, twisted steel, sunken streets, and abandoned homes testify of the city’s impermanence. And yet, the pictures of devastation wrought by nature paled in light of the picture of moral devastation that followed the hurricane. Lawlessness in the streets, rioting in the Superdome, and sniper fire aimed at rescue teams revealed the disorder and anarchy that lie close beneath the surface of human civilization.
Of all people, Christians should be least surprised. After all, we have been warned of civilization’s fragility, and we know that history unfolds God’s judgment in the rising and falling of empires, nations, and cities.
Augustine, the great theologian-bishop of Hippo in North Africa, produced the greatest interpretation of history by a Christian in his monumental work, The City of God. Writing even as Rome had fallen to the Vandals, Augustine offered a Christian vision of history and its meaning.
Christians should see all of history in terms of two cities, Augustine explained—an earthly city and a heavenly city. The earthly city, the City of Man, serves the gods of power, wealth, and pleasure. Its ultimate founder is Cain who, according to Genesis 4:17, “built a city.” Cain’s city—and all the lesser cities that follow in its way, are transient monuments to human achievement and pride.
Christians are indeed citizens of the earthly city, Augustine argued. But as the New Testament makes clear, we are ultimately citizens of a heavenly kingdom—of the City of God. As Augustine wrote, “We have learnt that there is a City of God: and we have longed to become citizens of that City with a love inspired by its founder.”
Augustine understood that the two cities represented two different allegiances, two different loves, and two different ways of life. Ultimately, the two cities represent two very different destinies. The earthly city is concerned with the matters that make for glory and pleasure among men. The City of God, embodied in this age as the Church, is the eternal city that is completely devoted to the glory of God. The earthly city is headed for destruction. The City of God is eternal.
The earthly city looks secure, but is passing. This truth is brought to mind when looking at the remains of New Orleans. Buildings that once looked so permanent and safe are soon to be demolished and replaced. Institutions and organizational forms that once constituted the very structure of civilization can quickly pass from existence. Anarchy quickly supplants order, and ruins quickly appear where gardens had once been tended.
“The ruins of places once full of confidence surround us,” reminds Fernandez-Arnesto. “History is a path we pick among them. Yet we contemplate them with romantic yearning or philosophical detachment, instead of being very afraid.”
Christians understand that fear would be an appropriate response to what we have seen in New Orleans. As Augustine reminds us, “The earthly city will not be everlasting; for when it is condemned to the final punishment it will no longer be a city. It has its good in this world, and rejoices to participate in it with such gladness as can be derived from things of such a kind. And since this is not the kind of good that causes no frustrations to those enamoured of it, the earthly city is generally divided against itself by litigation, by wars, by battles, by the pursuit of victories that bring death with them, or at best are doomed to death.”
Cities appear to be permanent, but no city has endured throughout the course of human history. No earthly city will endure the judgment that is to come.
Fernandez-Arnesto sympathizes with our reflexive trust in cities. “The fragility of cities is a cruel fact to acknowledge,” he admits. “We put so much effort into them. We beautify them in confidence of the future. We measure their greatness by their willingness to make present sacrifices for future fame, or—more altruistically—for the benefit of posterity. We admire cities that court disaster. Dazzlingly heroic examples include Venice—built in stone on islets of salt marsh, so that it is bound to sink, or San Francisco, built and rebuilt in defiance of topography and almost in the embrace of a geological fault-line; or Tokyo, earthquake prone and in the path of typhoons.”
Even a brief review of human history tells the story. Augustine wrote The City of God as a Christian interpretation of history that had been made necessary by the fall of Rome. When the Visigoths plundered Rome in A.D. 410 (followed by the Ostrogoths in 455) the capital city of the Roman Empire fell—and the fall of that city was indeed great.
By the end of the fifth century, only a hundred thousand citizens lived in Rome—the rich having fled to Constantinople or other safe and attractive cities. The capital that had styled itself the “eternal city” was now a desolate ruin.
Christopher Woodward recalls, “In the sixth century the Byzantines and the Goths contested the city three times, and the population fell to thirty thousand clustered in poverty beside the River Tiber, now that the aqueducts had been destroyed and the drinking fountains were dry. The fall of Rome came to be seen by many as the greatest catastrophe in the history of western civilization.”
Poetry and literature are filled with references to ruins and the passing of civilization. Percy Bysshe Shelley told the story of King Ozymandius, whose abandoned statue mocked his claim to be “Ozymandius, King of Kings.” As Shelley described the scene: “Nothing beside remains, round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Standing at the very apex of Queen Victoria’s empire, Rudyard Kipling warned of the judgment that was to come. “Far-call’d our navies melt away / on dune and headland sinks the fire. / Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / is one with Nineveh and Tyre!” he intoned.
Remember that Augustine described the two cities as created by two kinds of love. As he taught his fellow Christians, “The earthly city was created by self-love reaching the contempt of God, the heavenly city by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience.” Alas, we are tempted by the wrong love, and we are easily seduced by the wrong city.
Augustine was absolutely certain—and absolutely correct—in emphasizing the temporary nature of the earthly city and the passing power of its love. Only the heavenly city remains, and all earthly cities will follow Nineveh, Tyre, Babylon and every other metropolis and village into oblivion.
One day, unless that day of judgment comes sooner, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and all the cities we now know and admire will be covered with dust, if not with water.
In the midst of all this, the church—representing the City of God—must keep its wits. Jerome, one of the great leaders of the church as Rome fell, asked the wrong question: “What is to become of the church now that Rome has fallen?”
The City of God is represented wherever the church is found, and the church is safe by the power of God. Christians must be humbled by a biblical view of history that understands the difference between the earthly and the heavenly cities—that understands full well that every earthly city will fall and that only the City of God will remain.
In the meantime, we should pray humble prayers and ask for God to preserve the earthly city until His kingdom comes. As Kipling called England to pray: “Lord God of Hosts be with us yet, lest we forget, lest we forget!”
No where in the scripture has God ever assured anyone, baptized or not, of a carefree, no conflict existence. Televangelists might have sold that sack of crack to preening narcissistic apostates, but Christ never marketed that kind of deceptive dope. Ever since Adam and Eve derailed in the garden we have had to pay retail to live on this planet, and we will continue to do so until the credits run on this fallen-earth flick.
In Jesus’ first tape series, aka, The Sermon on the Mount, He told his listeners to expect storms, disasters, and yes, at times, even to have their lives battered internally or externally or both. It sucks to hear such news, but that’s the naked truth for individuals, churches and nations alike. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t like us; it’s just the way it’s been ever since our primal parents were sent east of Eden.
No, God didn’t promise anyone or any country unceasing bliss, but He was kind enough to forewarn His followers that at times things would get bad, really bad. Then He instructed them to be smart, build well, act right and to believe always; and He promised if they did, they’d ride the storm out. He told us and showed us how to construct our lives in such a way that when we start going through hell, we’d be certain to keep going.
Given the dicey environment in which we’re currently embroiled, i.e. Katrina and Rita, what sort of men and women should we be as believers when our lives and nation get tossed by the storms (both literally and figuratively)?
Here’s what I’ve gleaned from the scripture regarding how we should respond:
1. Don’t curse God when things go south. Keep up your worship, confession and obedience when the stuff is hitting the fan. We’ve got to learn to be faithful storm travelers who’ll be just as on fire for Him during and after our storms as we are when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and we just got a raise.
Perusing the book of Job will add grist to our meal to help us in times of adversity. Through all of the inconceivable junk Job went through, such as losing his family, home, health and livelihood, he did not become a whining atheist. And what did God do for this man who did not cave when catastrophe struck? He made certain that the last part of his life blew away the first part.
2. Realize how short and fragile life really is. This is a jagged little pill for invincible evangelicals to swallow. We seem to live and act like we’ll never die and like we can VISA-card our way out of most of our situations. However, death, adversity and vulnerability have a way of bringing us back to reality. Hopefully, this current grating trial will cause us to be living on this earth with leaving this planet ever in mind.
When one lives with one eye on dying and has the realization that after the big dirt nap there will be a face-to-face with a holy God, it has a way of making certain that we live a life worthy of Christ’s death. It doesn’t mean we cease to be full of life, hope, vision and dreams, it just means that should life get cut shorter than what you’d envisioned, you know it is well with your soul.
3. Bank treasure in heaven. I’m all for making and banking as much cash as I can. Why? Well, hunting is expensive, Miami is expensive and I’d like to leave my kids some money that they can misspend. However, at the end of the day, truth be told, most of the things we lust after are about as important as Hillary Duff’s latest album. Therefore, in all of our getting we need to get things that will follow us beyond the grave. I’m talking about being rich in good works and standing for truth in a day of lies, hype and spin.
You know what I mean . . . eternal things, like being compassionate and merciful both to those who share our beliefs and to those who don’t. And making certain that above all things we leave a legacy of justice, mercy and faithfulness and not just of Gucci, Mercedes and ridiculousness. By allowing calamity to realign our priorities we will be better prepared to embrace that which endures versus that which amounts to manure.
When (not if) the trials come, we can be certain that they will reveal our courage, call, commitment and convictions. They will show what we are truly made of instead of how we might appear. The lesson can be brutal for individuals and nations if we’re caught spiritually napping.
Regardless of how disheartening the difficulties can be, they should not send us into a tailspin. Rather, they should bring out the best in the believer. They can, if played correctly, bring us back to the biblical basics of faith, hope and love. If engaged properly they can serve us by shaking us down, shaping us up, softening our hearts and steeling our will in a right direction. And that’s exactly what I am praying for during this historical moment.
The devastation and death Hurricane Katrina left in its wake once again tests America’s inexhaustible ability to quickly recover from catastrophe.
That’s happening in New Orleans and the other Gulf Coast regions laid waste by a storm of previously unimaginable destruction, which led to the population’s exodus to higher ground and shut down key parts of our energy industry.
As bleak and chaotic as things may look across the shattered coastal states, this region will be hit by an even greater force than Katrina: the power of an $11 trillion economy to rebuild, repair and reclaim what was lost and destroyed.
An early sign was evident on Wall Street last week immediately following the storm, when stocks were tanking (before Wednesday’s rally), but construction company stocks flew high.
Investors knew one of the economic benefits of natural disasters is the explosion of insurance claims, reclamation projects and reconstruction spending that in time will total in the tens of billions of dollars.
As the waters recede and the massive cleanup and rebuilding begins, New Orleans and other besieged communities will need construction crews to restore bridges, repave roads and repair and reinforce levies breached by the storm. That will require an army of workers, including engineers, electricians, telecommunications workers, reclamation companies of all sorts, carpenters, plumbing contractors, health-care professionals and many others.
The Big Easy is one of our most exciting cities, with a large tourism industry. But it has a troubled history of massive poverty and one of the country’s highest crime rates, as we saw in the hundreds of looters who ravaged downtown stores.
But this city and other devastated areas will become employment central in the weeks and months to come as a wave of businesses move in to take advantage of an explosion in private and government construction.
The region also will benefit from significant federal spending. “As much as it takes,” Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary, said last week, even as the government moved an armada of equipment, personnel and relief supplies to the affected regions.
While President Bush was criticized for not responding quickly enough, he mobilized a recovery effort by Wednesday that included a dozen departments and agencies, from the Pentagon to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
An emergency assistance bill that, as of this writing, was speeding through Congress Friday will pump $10.5 billion in federal disaster aid to cities and towns to cope with the recovery costs. A much bigger assistance bill is expected to pass in the weeks to come.
But there were even bigger economic problems at stake due to the disaster, principally the shutdown of oil rigs, pipelines and refineries in the Gulf region. Forecasters say this and other collateral economic interruptions in communications, railroad and interstate trucking will slow the nation’s economic growth. But that remains to be seen.
Mr. Bush correctly tapped into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to maintain existing oil supplies. But gasoline prices still shot up to $3 or more per gallon in many areas on fears of oil shortages and a decline in refinery output.
One possibility: A temporary cut or suspension in federal gas taxes that would help beleaguered drivers cope with rising prices until all area oil rigs and refineries are fully operational.
But after all is said and done, some fundamental things will not change. New Orleans will still be below sea level and vulnerable to future storms, which could be even more powerful than Katrina. This means regional infrastructure must to be reinforced with stronger sea walls and levies and more sophisticated drainage systems.
Stricter building development regulations are needed as well. Homes, casinos and other developments foolishly built along the coast took the storm’s full brunt and were demolished. Shore zones must be made off-limits for new building.
The paths hurricanes take are often unpredictable. But we can be sure the Gulf will spawn more of them. And it’s a good bet a future storm could make Katrina seem mild by comparison.
The time to better prepare is now.
Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.
The New Orleans disaster, unspooling minute by minute on our TV screens, has been wrenching — in one particular way even more gut-twisting than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
You could watch the aftermath of the 2001 attacks and feel horror at its sheer violence and destruction; anger at the murderous evil of Mohamed Atta and the other hijackers; heartbreak at the awful suffering and loss. But there wasn’t any cause to feel embarrassment and shame.
Those are the emotions evoked by sights of the massive lawlessness in New Orleans in the days after the storm and the inability of anyone to stop it. Katrina unleashed a catastrophe of nearly unimaginable proportions, confronting government at all levels with enormous challenges. That the reaction to the hurricane initially seemed uneven and slow is understandable, but even allowing for the hellish circumstances, the breakdown in civil order has been stunning.
Without order, which government exists to protect, nothing else is possible. Not even rescue operations, as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has learned. On Wednesday night, as the city descended into an urban dystopia straight out of the 1981 film “Escape From New York,” he had to command nearly all the city’s 1,500 police officers to focus on re-establishing law and order instead of saving endangered people.
Everyone understands desperate people getting food or water by any means possible. Plundering tennis shoes and TVs, as a small thuggish minority has done, is another matter. And the problem is that there is no such thing as a little chaos. Once a climate of disorder is set, it has a logic of its own. First, it was stealing tennis shoes, then it was taking potshots at a helicopter arriving to evacuate people from the Superdome. Goons stole a bus from a nursing home and threatened its residents. Rescue workers report rocks and bottles have been thrown at them and shots fired their way.
Unfortunately, the urban revival that had swept much of the country mostly left New Orleans behind. The atmosphere of lawfulness that stood New York City in good stead after September 11 and during the 2003 blackout — although those were much less far-reaching disasters — was never established. The city never had a Rudy Giuliani. Even as murder rates continued declining in other cities in recent years, the murder rate in New Orleans crept up. The police were plagued by allegations of corruption and brutality, and, according to the Associated Press, only had “3.14 officers per 1,000 residents — less than half the rate in Washington, D.C.”
Law enforcement, of course, is primarily a state and local responsibility, but in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, people look to the federal government and the president to solve any problem on their TV screens. Already the question is being asked if the feds could have jumped in sooner (the National Guard is now arriving in force). If President Bush pays a political price for the images of lawlessness that have played out in New Orleans, it will be the second time looting has hurt his cause.
The other, of course, was in Baghdad in 2003. It is a matter of consensus now that the rip-the-place-apart looting in the initial days after the fall of Saddam Hussein set the occupation off on the wrong foot. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained the looting away at the time as the natural exuberance of a newly liberated people. One wonders: Has anyone in the administration read their Hobbes? Or does he not make the “compassionate conservative” reading list?
New Orleans has provided a corrosive lesson about government. At all levels, government is overbearing and nagging, paying for people’s prescription drugs and telling us whether we can smoke in restaurants or not. But when it comes to its most elemental task of maintaining order and protecting property, it might not be up to the task when it is needed most.
Keep that in mind and buy a gun, just in case.
Rich Lowry is a nationally syndicated columnist.
The looters are helping themselves to DVD and MP3 players, beer, flat-screen TVs, clothing, booze, guns, candy and sporting goods. Some simply loaded up shopping carts with all they could hold and boldly pushed them out the doors and down the sodden streets. “With no police officers in sight,” reported The New York Times, “people carried empty bags, shopping carts and backpacks through the door of the Rite Aid on Wednesday and left with them full. As they came and went, the looters nodded companionably to one another.”
No doubt there were some desperate New Orleans residents who took to theft simply to get food and water from stores bereft of clerks and electricity. But most of the looting is not of that character. As good people within the city struggle to help the sick who lack functioning hospitals, the thousands who lack basic food and shelter, and the unknown number still waiting to be rescued from flooded homes, the psychological blow looters are dealing to the city (and the country) is dramatic. As Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco put it, “What angers me most is disasters tend to bring out the best in everybody, and that’s what we expected to see. Instead, it has brought out the worst.”
Several news organizations have reported armed gangs now rove the streets. They raided a nursing home and took whatever they could lay hands on. “We had enough food for 10 days,” Peggy Hoffman, the home’s director, told the AP. “Now we’ll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot.”
The evacuation of the steamy, filthy, unsafe Superdome was temporarily halted after a report (which may or may not be true) that shots were fired at a military helicopter attempting to help out. The Superdome is a sink of misery, with toilets backed up, no air conditioning, and a stench so disgusting authorities don face masks when they enter.
Mayor Ray Nagin has ordered New Orleans police officers to halt their search and rescue efforts and focus on apprehending looters. But how much will the suffering of the stranded and needy be prolonged as the police read looters their rights and take them into custody? How many station houses and jails are even above water? Six thousand inmates in the New Orleans area are already scheduled to be moved to higher ground.
The city of New Orleans is descending rapidly into a state of anarchy just when organization and cooperation are most essential. The New York Times reported one scene that is emblematic: “John Carolan was sitting on his porch in the thick, humid darkness just before midnight Tuesday when three or four young men, one with a knife and another with a machete, stopped in front of his fence and pointed to the generator humming in the front yard. [One] said, ‘We want that generator.’ [Mr. Carolan responded] ‘I fired a couple of rounds over their heads with a .357 Magnum ... they scattered. You’ve heard of the law west of the Pecos? This is the law west of Canal Street.’ “
In the midst of this appalling disaster, lawlessness simply cannot be tolerated. The situation is too dire. The pilot of a medical evacuation helicopter in the outlying town of Kenner reportedly refused to land because more than 100 people thronged the landing pad and many had guns. Gunfire has been heard throughout the New Orleans area. Several police officers were stranded on a hotel roof when they were fired upon by armed criminals in the street. One officer was hit in the head but is expected to survive.
Authorities must attempt to rescue and relocate thousands of people, to care for the injured and disabled, to fight the outbreak of disease, and to attempt, if possible, to pump the sea out of what was only a few days ago a thriving city. If police officers are authorized to shoot looters, this intelligence will spread quickly among the criminal population. The free-for-all will end abruptly. Only then will the fire, police, sanitation, National Guard and private groups be able to do the basics for our suffering compatriots.
Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.
More than 2.5 million people have been left homeless by the devastating 7.6-magnitude earthquake that shook Pakistan and India, a United Nations official said Sunday.
The region around the city of Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir, was the worst hit.
According to the U.N. team at the site, “at least 2.5 million people are in need of shelter,” said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswomen for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Relief.
The office said at least 200,000 winterized tents were urgently needed.
So far, the U.N. agency has set up three emergency centers in Pakistan to coordinate international relief efforts.
The World Health Organization said it has provided Pakistan with two emergency health kits, which will provide essential medical supplies to care for a total of 20,000 people for three months.
It said it would send five more kits as well as packages to cover 1,000 surgical operations in coming days. The kits will help Pakistan cope with injuries even though hospitals have been destroyed and health workers are among the casualties, WHO said.
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — Two strong aftershocks from South Asia’s deadly earthquake shook the devastated region on Wednesday, unleashing landslides and setting off another wave of panic among survivors who lost loved ones and homes in the Oct. 8 disaster. A new tally from regional officials pushed the death toll to 79,000.
Despite brisk sorties of helicopters delivering aid to quake victims, an estimated half-million survivors, many of them in Pakistan’s portion of Kashmir, have yet to receive any help since the monster 7.6-magnitude quake leveled entire villages. Thousands need urgent medical care.
The situation is the most dire in the estimated 1,000 settlements outside the main cities and towns, said regional U.N. disaster coordinator Rob Holden.
“Many people out there, we are not going to get to in time,” Holden said. “Some people who have injuries don’t have a chance of survival.”
On Wednesday, Asif Iqbal Daudzai, information minister for Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, said 37,958 people died in the province and at least 23,172 were injured, the vast majority of them in Mansehra district. He said the figures were based on reports from local government and hospital officials, and that the toll was likely to rise.
The prime minister of neighboring Pakistani-held Kashmir, Sikander Hayat Khan, said at least 40,000 people died in that region. India has reported 1,360 deaths in the part of Kashmir that it controls.
Pakistan’s central government has said the death toll from North West Frontier Province and Pakistani-held Kashmir was a total of 42,000, and expected to rise. The central count has lagged behind the local count since the early days of the disaster.
Wednesday morning’s 5.8-magnitude aftershock struck 80 miles north of Islamabad, near the epicenter of the main quake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was followed by another in the same area about 45 minutes later that registered 5.6.
The first aftershock caused a landslide in Balakot, one of the cities hardest hit by the initial quake. Debris covered the road to nearby Mansehra, but it was quickly cleared, said Pakistani Army Lt. Col. Saeed Iqbal, who is in charge of relief efforts in the area.
A landslide also blocked a road out of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, but it was expected to be cleared quickly.
Iqbal said the aftershock was “very heavy” and that he saw dust rising from the Kaghan Valley north of Balakot, possibly indicating an additional landslide.
In Indian-held Kashmir, the new tremors startled thousands of people in relief camps, including those in the worst-hit Uri and Tangdar districts close to the boundary with Pakistan-held territory. Police said there were no reports of landslides or damage to buildings.
Hundreds of aftershocks have struck the region since the Oct. 8 quake.
“They’re not over,” said Waverly Person, a seismologist at the U.S. quake center. “For a shallow-depth earthquake like this they go on, sometimes for a year.”
In Balakot, villagers scavenged for food, clothes or building material.
“We need help,” said resident Basim Qassir. “There’s been deliveries, but it’s just not enough.”
On a tour of Balakot, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said he expected reconstruction of the area to take years, and that the government would try to get prefabricated homes for victims.
In Beijing, the U.N.’s top relief coordinator on Wednesday said the international community was not doing enough to help and should step up relief efforts.
Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, urged China to help because it borders the hard-hit area of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and has a stockpile of winterized tents.
Egeland asked China for 20,000 tents, 10 helicopters and as much cash as possible — hinting at $20 million. Beijing, a close ally of Pakistan, has already pledged $6.2 million directly to Islamabad and sent tents, blankets, water purifying tablets, rescue equipment and a search team.
India was mulling Pakistan’s proposal to help quake victims in Kashmir by allowing residents to cross the frontier that divides the disputed territory between them, the latest sign of cooperation between the nuclear-armed rivals since this month’s disaster.
India, which has sent quake relief supplies to Pakistan, hailed the plan but said it was awaiting details.
Also on Wednesday, residents of Indian-controlled Kashmir made the first phone calls to the Pakistani side of the Himalayan territory in 15 years, trying to find out what’s become of loved ones since the massive South Asian quake, police said.
New Delhi cut communications between its Jammu-Kashmir state and all of Pakistan in 1990 in an effort to stymie an Islamic insurgency there that it charged was being run from Pakistan, an allegation Islamabad denies. Pakistanis can, however, still make direct calls to Indian Kashmir.
At least 54,000 people died in the disaster, most of them in the Pakistani-held part of divided Kashmir. The toll includes 1,361 deaths reported by India on its side of the militarized boundary separating the Himalayan region.
A two-foot snowfall in Los Angeles — a severe drought this summer in the Midwest that dropped water levels in the Missouri River to their lowest on record — a heat wave of temperatures of over 110 degrees that in one week killed more than 20 people in Arizona — hurricanes in Florida, Carolina, and of course, the monster of all storms, Hurricane Katrina, which essentially washed away the city of New Orleans. All, says Ross Gelbspan of the Boston Globe, are the results of human-induced global warming. According to Gelbspan, it’s not just America, but places around the world like Scandinavia, Spain, Portugal, and India that are feeling the heat of catastrophic environmental changes.
Singer Barbra Streisand recently commented on the phenomena. In an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News, Streisand insisted: “We are in a global warming emergency state, and these storms are going to become more frequent, more intense. There could be more droughts, dust bowls. You know, it’s amazing to hear these facts, I mean; the Andes have no ice caps on the mountains in winter. The glaciers are melting ....” Streisand’s solution was that America and the world sign the Kyoto Protocol, regulating the emission of carbon-dioxide gases.
WorldNetDaily, however, reports experts tend to disagree about what’s really taking place. Dr. Sami Solanki, director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, says dramatic weather changes are caused not by man-made activity, but the result of the sun heating up, which “may now be affecting global temperatures.” Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, and Hurricane forecaster William Gray, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, essentially say the current “onslaught of storms ‘is very much natural.’”
It’s hard to believe what’s been occurring of late is simply “very much natural.” The succession and intensity of these events have rightly caused people to sense something isn’t right in the earth, and scientific data alone can’t explain it.
Interestingly, the Old Testament book of Haggai describes a time not unlike ours, when the people of Israel were wondering why so many natural calamities had befallen them. Like us, they had thought of every reason but God. Of course, they were too sophisticated, even too pious, to blame Him. Yet God said to them: “You counted on much; and see it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that is in ruins, while you each busy yourself with his own house. Therefore for your sake the heavens have withheld the dew and the earth withheld its produce. I called for a drought upon the land, upon the mountains, upon the grain, upon the new wine, upon the oil, upon what the ground produces and upon men, upon cattle and upon all the labor of their hands” (Haggai 1:9-11, The New Berkeley Version). In other words, God was saying: “I’m the reason you’ve experienced the storms — the drought — the scorching heat — the crop failures — the strong winds — this heightened intensity of natural disasters. I did it. And I did it because I wanted to get your attention about the way you’ve forgotten me and my business and focused exclusively on your own.”
Could there be any better description of our day? Radio Bible teacher, the late Dr. J. Vernon McGee, once said something more than 20 years ago in his commentary on Haggai 1:9-11 that was incredibly insightful for our time, especially for America, and even more specifically applicable concerning recent Katrina events in New Orleans.
“In our day,” Dr. McGee said, “the tendency is first to blame the police — they should have been on the job. Then we blame the mayor, we blame the legislature, and we blame Washington. Very possibly all of them are guilty. But, my friend, has it occurred to you that you yourself are to blame? Although we blame men and machines for the conditions of the world, God has brought it all to pass. Do you want to blame Him? Go ahead. He told Israel that He was responsible. But He also told them why. They had neglected Him. You see, the solution to our problems is very simple; yet it is complicated. We think that if we put in a new method or a new machine or a new man, our problems will be solved. My friend, why don’t we recognize what our problem really is, who caused it, and how it can be solved.”
One needn’t think the natural disasters in New Orleans, Biloxi, or any other place were because the people in those cities acted more wickedly than others. Jesus warned against that kind of assessment in Luke 13:1-5, declaring: “Unless you repent you will all similarly perish.” But this unusual barrage of climatic catastrophes should be seen as a wake-up call for people everywhere — the handwriting on the wall that God is ready to judge the nations. God gets no pleasure in afflicting men. His actions are not retaliatory. But the Sovereign of the Universe cannot simply allow His law to be spurned. His will and way must be paramount to everything else. His business must be attended to first.
In 1787, George Mason, one of the largest plantation owners in Virginia, stated his views on national accountability before the Constitutional Convention: “As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.”
Global warming? The sun heating up? A natural cycle? Have you ever considered the fact that recent natural disasters might have more to do with you — your neglect — my neglect — America’s neglect — the nations’ neglect of God’s business for their own?
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.
The shortcomings of the post-tsunami aid effort are easy to identify but much more difficult to rectify. Peter Foster reports on the lessons learned
On a beach in a fishing village on the south Indian coast lies a telling reminder of what happens when aid efforts go wrong.
Ten bright red fishing boats that were intended to rebuild livelihoods wrecked by the tsunami lie idle and unused, all declared unseaworthy by the fishermen they were intended to help.
“They were given from what we call the ‘give and go’ type of NGO [non-governmental organisation],” says Jesuratinam, the head of a local charity from the nearby town of Nagapattinam. “They mean well but leave a trail of problems behind them.”
In this case, the unnamed charity was swindled by an unscrupulous boat-builder.
“The boats were supposed to have five skins of glass-fibre but these have only two,” Jesuratinam says. “The charity had no experience in the maritime industry and so could not tell the difference. The boats were not fit to put to sea.”
The tsunami-hit shores of the Indian Ocean are littered with examples of good intentions that have proved not to be good enough, from hastily built permanent houses that have no drains, to faulty water tanks, temporary shelters with leaking roofs and fishing boats with engines but no propellers.
The shortcomings are many and easy to identify - any visitor to the tsunami areas of Indonesia and Sri Lanka can see how much still needs to be achieved - but much more difficult to rectify.
In the chaos that always follows a natural disaster, governments, United Nations agencies, international charities and well-meaning individuals all compete with each other, often to the detriment of the overall aid effort.
The Red Cross said in a report this year that in the aftermath of the tsunami, when pledges of money from charities, development banks and governments outstripped need by £2.5 billion, the surplus was the problem.
“At the root of co-ordination problems [in Banda Aceh, Indonesia] was one key factor: too much money,” the report said. “Nearly everyone could hire a helicopter or boat.”
The result was chaos as aid agencies frequently became embroiled in turf wars that, some are now prepared to admit, harmed the overall aid effort.
Government bureaucracy, corruption and inefficiency also play their part in choking the flow of aid - and not just in developing countries, as America discovered after the flooding of New Orleans.
The sudden influx of cash can also unbalance local economies and create cartels charging “UN prices” - four times the usual rates - for building work and materials, a common problem in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Speed, but not too much of it, is also vital. In Sri Lanka, for example, only about five per cent of permanent housing has been completed, a level of performance for which the government and big charities have been heavily criticised.
The International Federation of the Red Cross, which is involved in the rebuilding of up to 40,000 houses in Sri Lanka, says that the mountain of money gave people unrealistic expectations.
“After a point, it does not matter how much money there is,” Patrick Fuller, of the federation, said. “Things take time. Land has to be acquired, legal title determined, planning permission granted and power, water and roads have to be installed.
“I always ask people, ‘How long would it take to build a house in Europe or America?’ The same difficulties and formalities exist in tsunami areas. The pace of tsunami rebuilding compares favourably with other disasters.”
That said, everyone from the UN down recognises that the current arrangements for dealing with disaster are haphazard and unwieldy, as was seen again in what Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, called the “weak and tardy” response to the Pakistan earthquake.
The “big idea” aimed at improving aid delivery is the creation of a £280 million central emergency fund that the UN hopes will end the hand-to-mouth nature of disaster appeals.
While the tsunami victims wallowed in cash, the reality is that last year eight UN “flash appeals” received less than 20 per cent of the money asked for. The consequences were seen in the Niger famine.
The new fund, which is being negotiated at the UN and is due to become operational in February, has been supported by Britain, which became the largest single donor to the fund with a pledge of £40 million a year.
“When a crisis comes, it is to the United Nations that we look,” said Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary.
“The United Nations presses the fire alarm but to get the engine out of the station it has to pass round the hat to put petrol in the tank and water in the hoses.”
Not everyone is as convinced as Mr Benn, however. Pledges have barely topped £100 million, a little more than a third of the target, as several leading nations, including America, Canada and France, have yet to contribute.
There is also disagreement among international aid organisations. Oxfam is convinced that the scheme will save lives but Save the Children has “serious concerns” that ploughing more money into the United Nations bureaucracy may make disaster response times slower not faster.
A Save the Children paper said that the emergency fund risked “duplicating the current inadequacies of the [UN] appeal process” and leaving any aid effort bogged down in “internal UN politicking”.
One thing that remains certain is that natural disasters will continue to occur and the victims of 2006, wherever they happen to be, will hope to receive help more quickly and efficiently than those of last year.
A New ABC News/Washington Post Poll Shows Majority of Americans Don’t Blame Hurricanes on God or Global Warming
Oct. 2, 2005 — Most Americans rule out either a deliberate act of God or the effect of global warming as direct causes of the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Just under a quarter in this ABC News/Washington Post poll see the hurricanes as “a deliberate act” of God; two-thirds instead see them as an occurrence on God’s Earth, but not a deliberate act on God’s part. (The rest have no opinion, or don’t believe in God.)
Separately, 54% think that the severity of recent hurricanes mainly reflects “severe weather events that happen from time to time,” rather than the effects of global climate change. Just under four in 10 think climate change is mainly to blame.
Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.
That’s not to say most people doubt global warming; 56% are convinced it’s under way. It’s just that fewer are persuaded that it has increased hurricane severity.
Broad majorities across demographic groups don’t think the hurricanes are a deliberate act of God. But one in three evangelical Protestants think they are, compared with 13% of non-evangelical Protestants, 15% of Catholics and 17% of non-religious people.
Young, low-income and less-educated Americans also are more likely than others to think these hurricanes are a deliberate act of God.
Causes of the Recent Hurricanes
Deliberate Act of God?
Alabama State Sen. Hank Erwin, R-Montevallo, recently called Hurricane Katrina a punishment from God, saying New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast “have always been known for gambling, sin and wickedness. It is the kind of behavior that ultimately brings the judgment of God.”
Are the Hurricanes a Deliberate Act of God?
In this survey, though, among people who think the hurricanes are a deliberate act of God, just 8% see it as a punishment. About half instead see it as a warning sign, just over a quarter say it’s for a reason we cannot understand and 14% say it’s a test of faith.
MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia — Officials evacuated 11,000 villagers from around Mount Merapi volcano as it shot out lava and superheated clouds of gas, authorities said Tuesday.
The mountain’s lava dome has swelled in recent weeks, raising fears that it could suddenly collapse and send scalding clouds of fast-moving gas and debris into populated areas.
The government of nearby Magelang district mobilized more than 40 trucks and cars to evacuate about 11,000 villagers from three subdistricts near the foot of the mountain, said Edy Susanto, a district official.
He said the villagers were taken to temporary shelters, including school buildings.
“Of course it is dangerous. But we don’t know for sure whether the lava dome will collapse,” said Subandriyo, a government vulcanologist who uses only one name.
Red-hot lava flowed as far as a half-mile from the mountain’s crater, while gas clouds called pyroclastic flows streamed as far as 1 1/2 miles down its southwestern slope, Subandriyo said.
The 9,800-foot mountain is one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
Activity has risen since a 6.3-magnitude earthquake May 27 hit a region about 20 miles to the south, killing at least 5,862 people.
Some scientists say the quake may have contributed to the increased activity at the mountain.
A major eruption could severely strain quake relief efforts.
The government had earlier urged residents to evacuate a danger zone on the mountain’s fertile slopes, but thousands of villagers stayed in their homes, saying they didn’t want to abandon their fields and livestock, and complaining of boredom at the shelters.
The mountain, about 250 miles east of the capital, Jakarta, is notoriously unpredictable. Government scientists say they’re not sure whether the lava dome will suddenly collapse, simply keep growing, or gradually break into small pieces.
Merapi’s last deadly eruption was in 1994, when it sent out a searing gas cloud that burned 60 people to death.
About 1,300 people were killed when it erupted in 1930.
Indonesia is located on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin. It has 76 volcanoes, the largest number of any nation.
— May 27, 2006: A magnitude-6.2 quake flattens homes and hotels near the ancient central city of Yogyakarta, killing more than 3,000 and injuring thousands more in the nation’s worst disaster since the 2004 tsunami.
— March 28, 2005: A magnitude-8.7 quake strikes Nias and Simeulue islands off the western coast of Sumatra, killing about 900 people and flattening thousands of houses and bridges.
— Dec. 26, 2004: A magnitude-9 earthquake ruptures the sea floor off Sumatra island, triggering a tsunami that hits a dozen countries, including Indonesia, where at least 131,029 are killed and tens of thousands remain missing. The Indonesian province of Aceh is closest to the quake’s epicenter and suffers most.
— Nov. 26, 2004: A magnitude-6.4 earthquake rocks Indonesia’s West Papua, near Nabire, killing about 30 people and causing dozens of buildings and homes to collapse.
— Nov. 12, 2004: A magnitude-6 quake strikes off the eastern coast of Alor island, about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) east of the capital, Jakarta. At least 27 people are killed and hundreds of buildings are damaged.
— Feb. 6-7, 2004: A magnitude-6.9 quake on Feb. 6 and a magnitude-7.1 aftershock the following day kill 34 and devastate Nabire in remote Papua province.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Another powerful earthquake struck Indonesia’s Sumatra island Monday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The latest on Monday evening was at least the third: a 6.9-magnitude aftershock strike off the coast of Sumatra, according to UGS.
No tsunami warning was immediately issued.
It appeared to be at least the third in a series of quakes, with two or more strong ones reportedly hitting the same region earlier on Monday.
There was a brief tsunami warning after the first quakes, but no reports of damage, injuries or deaths.
The second quake had a preliminary magnitude of about 6.7. Another, which occurred early Monday morning, had a magnitude of 7.3, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The geophysics agency issued a tsunami bulletin following the quake first quake, but canceled it an hour later after determining no waves were generated.
Indonesia, which straddles a series of active fault lines, is prone to seismic and volcanic activity. A giant earthquake along the same coast spawned the large tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in a number of countries in December 2004.
YANGON, Myanmar — The death toll from the cyclone that battered Myanmar last weekend has risen above 22,000, state radio has reported.
A news broadcast on government-run radio said Tuesday that 22,464 people have now been confirmed dead from Cyclone Nargis, which tore through the country’s heartland and biggest city of Yangon early Saturday.
An additional 41,000 people were missing, Reuters reported.
Relief efforts for the stricken area, mostly in the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta, have been difficult, in large part because of the destruction of roads and communications outlets by the storm. The first assistance from overseas arrived Tuesday from neighboring Thailand.
The World Food Program, which was preparing to fly in food, added its own grim assessment of the destruction: Up to 1 million people may be homeless, some villages have been almost totally eradicated and vast rice-growing areas are wiped out.
A state television report gave two different numbers — 59 and 130 — for the dead in what is known as Yangon division. It did not explain the differing tolls.
The country’s ruling junta, which has spurned the international community for decades, urgently appealed for foreign aid at a meeting Nyan Win held with diplomats Monday in Yangon.
The U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator said Tuesday the government had indicated it was ready to start accepting international aid. The U.N., Red Cross and other aid organizations have been organizing supplies in preparation for shipping them to the country.
Some aid agencies reported their assessment teams had reached some areas of the largely isolated region but said getting in supplies and large numbers of aid workers would be difficult.
A military transport plane flew from Bangkok to Yangon Tuesday with emergency aid from Thailand while a number of other countries and organizations said they were prepared to follow.
Richard Horsey, Bangkok-based spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, said Yangon’s airport is the closest to the region hardest hit.
“For those places accessible by land, there will be cars and trucks from those areas to meet at the halfway point with vehicles from Yangon,” he said. “For remote areas, assessment teams and assistance teams will need to go by helicopters and boats.”
The delta is riddled with waterways but Horsey said they are not easily accessible, even during normal times.
Based on a satellite map made available by the United Nations, the storm’s damage was concentrated over about a 11,600-square-mile (30,000-square-kilometer) area along the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Martaban coastlines — less than 5% of the country.
But the affected region is home to nearly a quarter of Myanmar’s 57 million people.
Images from state television showed large trees and electricity poles sprawled across roads and roofless houses ringed by large sheets of water in the delta region, which is regarded as Myanmar’s rice bowl.
“More or less all the landlines are down and it’s extremely difficult to get information from cyclone-affected areas. But from the reports we are getting, entire villages have been flattened and the final death toll may be huge,” said Mac Pieczowski, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Yangon, in a statement.
State radio reported Saturday’s vote on a draft constitution would be delayed until May 24 in 40 townships around Yangon and seven in the Irrawaddy delta, which bore the brunt of the killer storm.
It indicated that in other areas the balloting would proceed as scheduled.
The appeal for assistance was unusual for Myanmar’s ruling generals, who have long been suspicious of the international organizations and have closely controlled their activities.
Foreign governments were poised Tuesday to rush aid to the devastated nation.
The United States, which has slapped economic sanctions on the country, said it likewise stood ready. The U.S. Embassy is providing $250,000 in immediate aid from existing emergency fund. But first lady Laura Bush said Monday the U.S. would provide further aid only if one of its own disaster teams is allowed into the country.
The European Commission was providing $3 million in humanitarian aid while the president of neighboring China, Hu Jintao, promised $1 million in cash and supplies.
The government had apparently taken few efforts to prepare for the storm, which came bearing down on the country from the Bay of Bengal late Friday. Weather warnings broadcast on television would have been largely useless for the worst-hit rural areas where electricity supply is spotty and television a rarity.
“The government misled people,” said Thin Thin, a grocery story owner in Yangon. “They could have warned us about the severity of the coming cyclone so we could be better prepared.”
Yangon was without electricity except where gas-fed generators were available and residents lined up to buy candles, which have doubled in price since the storm hit. Most homes were without water, forcing families to stand in long lines for drinking water and bathe in the city’s lakes.
Most telephone landlines appeared to be restored by late Monday, but mobile phones and Internet connections were down.
Some in Yangon complained that the 400,000-strong military was only clearing streets where the ruling elite resided but leaving residents, including Buddhist monks, to cope on their own in most other areas.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.
At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests in September led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.
RANGOON, Burma — The United States delivered its first relief supplies to Burma, renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta, on Monday, as the U.N. urged the reclusive nation to open its doors to foreign experts who can help up to 2 million cyclone victims facing disease and starvation.
The unarmed military C-130 cargo plane, packed with 28,000 pounds of supplies, flew out of the Thai air force base of Utapao and landed in Yangon, capping prolonged negotiations to persuade Burma’s military government to accept U.S. help.
Several Burma Cabinet ministers, military officers and the top U.S. diplomat in Burma, Shari Villarosa, greeted the plane.
Government spokesman Ye Htut said the aid, which was transferred to Burma army trucks, would be ferried by air force helicopters to the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta later Monday. Two more U.S. air shipments were scheduled to land Tuesday.
The official death toll from the May 3 Cyclone Nargis is 28,458 with another 33,416 still missing. But the U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Catherine Bragg and others have said the death toll could reach 100,000 or higher.
Though international assistance has started trickling in, the authoritarian government has barred most foreign experts who are experienced in managing humanitarian crises.
Richard Horsey, a spokesman for U.N. humanitarian operations, in Bangkok, Thailand, said clean drinking water, shelter, medical support and food were sorely lacking.
“The authorities of the country need to open up to an international relief effort. There aren’t enough boats, trucks, helicopters in the country to run the relief effort of the scale we need,” he said. “It’s urgent that the authorities do open themselves up.”
The junta has made a huge concession in letting the U.S. — the fiercest critic of its human rights record — bring in relief.
The U.S. plane carried mosquito nets, blankets and water in an operation dubbed “Joint Task Force Caring Response.”
Also on the plane was Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the commander of the U.S. military in the Pacific, who will try to personally negotiate with the junta for a larger U.S. role in providing relief.
U.S. Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Douglas Powell said there are 11,000 service members and four ships in the region for an annual military exercise, Cobra Gold, that could be harnessed to help the mercy mission.
Three U.S. Navy ships in the Bay of Bengal were sailing closer to Burma on Monday, ready to aid cyclone victims if they are given permission, Vice Adm. Doug Crowder told reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In Irrawaddy delta, people were surviving in miserable conditions — hundreds cramped in monasteries with little access to food. Others camped in the open, drinking dirty water contaminated by human feces or dead bodies and animal carcasses.
“The lives of thousands of cyclone survivors are at extreme risk,” aid group World Vision said. “Displaced people are living in appalling conditions in makeshift shelters and camps where overcrowding and unsanitary conditions are prevalent.”
Children — many of them orphans — are suffering from fever, diarrhea and respiratory infections, it said.
Heavy rains were forecast this week, which would further hinder aid delivery, even though it could be the only source of drinking water.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej sent a letter to his Burmese counterpart Monday, urging the junta to issue more visas. But the junta replied that visas for foreigners would be considered on a case-by-case basis, Thai government spokesman Wichianchote Sukchotrate said.
Samak’s letter was carried by his personal envoy, Lt. Gen. Niphat Thonglek, who traveled to Burma on the U.S. plane, Wichianchote said. He said Burma informed Niphat that it will open the Thilawa port in Yangon to receive international relief supplies.
Still, the reclusive junta insists it will handle the aid distribution itself, through its feared military, which has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1962.
Many people have complained that they are getting rotting rice and that soldiers are keeping the best food for themselves.
“The government is very controlling,” said U Patanyale, the abbot of a monastery in Kyi Bui Khaw village.
“Those who want to give directly to the victims get into trouble. They have to give to the government or do it secretly. They follow international aid trucks everywhere. They don’t want others to take credit. That’s the Myanmar government,” he said.
CHONGQING, China — Thousands of soldiers and police were dispatched to central China after a massive earthquake Monday killed thousands.
The death toll was expected to rise sharply. In Sichuan county, casualties are estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 people, Chinese media reported.
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck in the middle of the afternoon — when classes and office towers were full — 57 miles northwest of the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu.
Xinhua News Agency said four of the dead were ninth-grade students killed when the Juyuan Middle School building collapsed. Photographs showed heavy cranes trying to move rubble from the ruined structure.
It did not say how many of the 900 trapped students were feared dead.
The earthquake comes less than three months before the start of the Beijing Summer Olympics, when China hopes to use to showcase its rise in the world.
Xinhua said its reporters in Juyuan township about 60 miles from the epicenter in Wenchuan county in Sichuan province saw buried teenagers struggling to break loose from underneath the rubble of the three-story school “while others were crying out for help.”
Photos posted on the Internet and found on the Chinese search engine Baidu showed arms and a torso sticking out of the rubble of the school as dozens of people worked to free them, using small mechanical winches or their hands to move concrete slabs.
Another photo from Wenchuan showed what appeared to have been a six-story building flattened, ripped away from taller buildings of gray concrete.
Xinhua quoted the Ministry of Civil Affairs as saying the 107 dead had been killed in Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces and in the municipality of Chongqing. It said many had died in collapsed buildings but did not give details.
More than 5,000 soldiers and police have been rushed into Sichuan to help in the disaster relief.
The airport in Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu, was closed and roads were clogged with traffic after the earthquake, state television reported.
Rain was also predicted for the disaster area.
The quake struck 57 miles (92 kilometers) northwest of Chengdu at 2:28 p.m., the U.S. Geological Survey said on its Web site. It was centered about 6 miles below the surface. A series of smaller aftershocks followed.
Calls into the city did not go through as panicked residents quickly overloaded the telephone system.
“In Chengdu, mobile telecommunication switches have experienced jams and thousands of servers were out of service,” said Sha Yuejia, deputy chief executive officer of China Mobile.
Although it was difficult to telephone Chengdu, an Israeli student, Ronen Medzini, sent a text message to The Associated Press saying there were power and water outages there.
“Traffic jams, no running water, power outs, everyone sitting in the streets, patients evacuated from hospitals sitting outside and waiting,” he said.
Xinhua said an underground water pipe ruptured near the city’s southern railway station, flooding a main thoroughfare. Reporters saw buildings with cracks in their walls but no collapses, Xinhua said.
State television broadcast tips for anyone trapped in the earthquake. “If you’re buried, keep calm and conserve your energy. Seek water and food, and wait patiently for rescue,” CCTV said.
The earthquake also rattled buildings in Beijing 930 miles to the north. The Chinese capital is expected to be full of hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors when the Olympics start on Aug. 8.
Many Beijing office towers were evacuated, including the building housing the media offices for the organizers of the Olympics, which start in August.
Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Chengdu just before sunset to oversee rescue work.
“The Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council (Cabinet) have asked officials at all levels to be at the front line of the fighting the earthquake and lead the people in their rescue work,” he told reporters on the way.
People ran screaming into the streets in other cities, where many residents said they had never been in an earthquake. In Fuyang, 660 miles to the east in Anhui province, chandeliers in the lobby of the Buckingham Palace Hotel swayed. “We’ve never felt anything like this our whole lives,” said a hotel employee surnamed Zhu.
Patients at the Fuyang People’s No. 1 Hospital were evacuated. An hour after the quake, a half-dozen patients in blue-striped pajamas stood outside the hospital. One was laying on a hospital bed in the parking lot.
Closer to the epicenter in Chongqing, Lai Dequn was napping while her mother watched TV on the 19th floor of a hotel. “I suddenly felt the bed shaking and then realized it must be an earthquake,” said the 42-year-old Lai. “So I just put on slippers and helped my mother down to the ground floor.”
In Shanghai, skyscrapers swayed and most office occupants went rushing into the streets. The quake was also felt as far away as Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake is considered a major event, capable of causing widespread damage and injuries in populated areas.
The last serious earthquake in China was in 2003, when a 6.8-magnitude quake killed 268 people in Bachu county in the west of Xinjiang.
China’s deadliest earthquake in modern history struck the northeastern city of Tangshan on July 28, 1976, killing 240,000 people.
DUJIANGYAN, China — Rescue workers sifted through tangled debris of toppled schools and homes Tuesday for thousands of victims buried or missing after China’s worst earthquake in three decades, where the death toll soared to more than 12,000 people in the hardest-hit province alone.
Hope that many survivors would be found was fleeting. Only 58 people were extricated from demolished buildings across the quake area so far, China Seismological Bureau spokesman Zhang Hongwei told the official Xinhua News Agency. In one county, 80% of the buildings had been destroyed.
“Survivors can hold on for some time. Now it’s not time to give up,” Wang Zhenyao, disaster relief division director at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told reporters in Beijing.
A day after the powerful 7.9 magnitude quake struck Monday afternoon, state media said rescue workers had reached the epicenter in Wenchuan county, but the number of casualties there was still unknown. The quake was centered just north of the Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu in central China, tearing into urban areas and mountain villages.
Rain was impeding efforts, and a group of paratroopers called off a rescue mission to the epicenter due to heavy storms, Xinhua reported.
The agency said more than 12,000 had died in Sichuan province alone, but difficulties in accessing some areas meant the total number of casualties remained uncertain.
The number of victims was expected to rise, with 18,645 still buried in just the city of Mianyang near the epicenter, Xinhua reported.
More than two dozen British and American tourists who were thought to be panda-watching in the area also remained missing.
Some 20,000 soldiers and police arrived in the disaster area with 30,000 more on the way by plane, train, truck and even on foot, the Defense Ministry told Xinhua. Rescue experts in orange jumpsuits extricated bloody survivors on stretchers from demolished buildings.
Aftershocks rattled the region for a second day, sending people running into the streets in Chengdu.
Zhou Chun, a 70-year-old retired mechanic, was leaving Dujiangyan with a soiled, light-blue blanket draped over his shoulders.
“My wife died in the quake. My house was destroyed,” he said. “I am going to Chengdu, but I don’t know where I’ll live.”
Zhou and other survivors were pulling luggage and clutching plastic bags of food amid a steady drizzle and the constant wail of ambulances.
Just east of the epicenter, 1,000 students and teachers were killed or missing at a collapsed high school in Beichuan county — a more than six-story building reduced to a pile of rubble about two yards (meters) high, according to Xinhua. The agency said up to 5,000 people were killed and 80% of the buildings had collapsed in Beichuan alone.
At another leveled school in Dujiangyan, 900 students were feared dead. As bodies of teenagers were carried out on doors used as makeshift stretchers, relatives lit incense and candles and also set off fireworks to ward away evil spirits.
Elsewhere in Gansu province, a 40-car freight train derailed in the quake that included 13 gasoline tankers was still burning Tuesday, Xinhua said.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who rushed to the area to oversee rescue efforts, said a push was on to clear roads and restore electricity as soon as possible. His visit to the disaster scene was prominently featured on state TV, a gesture meant to reassure people that the Communist Party was doing all it could.
“We will save the people,” Wen said through a bullhorn to survivors as he toured the disaster scene, in footage shown on CCTV. “As long as the people are there, factories can be built into even better ones, and so can the towns and counties.”
The Ministry of Health issued an appeal for blood donations to help the quake victims.
Fifteen missing British tourists were believed in the area at the time of the quake and were “out of reach,” Xinhua reported.
They were likely visiting the Wolong Nature Reserve, home to more than 100 giant pandas, whose fate also was not known, Xinhua said, adding that 60 pandas at another breeding center in Chengdu were safe.
Another group of 12 Americans also on panda-watching tour sponsored by the U.S. office of the World Wildlife Fund remained out of contact Tuesday, said Tan Rui, WWF communications officer in China.
Two Chinese-Americans and a Thai tourist also were missing in Sichuan province, the agency said, citing tourism officials.
The disaster comes less than three months before the start of the Beijing Olympics. The tragedy is just the latest event to tarnish the run-up to the event meant to showcase China’s rise that has been marked by internal strife and criticism abroad of Beijing’s human rights record.
In light of the quake, Beijing Olympics organizers said the torch relay will be simplified, downscaled and begin with a minute of silence Wednesday when a leg kicks off in the southeastern city of Ruijin.
The more somber relay will likely last until the torch’s previously planned trip to the quake-hit areas next month, organizing committee spokesman Sun Wiede said, and people along the route will be asked for donations to help disaster victims.
Expressions of sympathy and offers of help poured in from across the world, and Chinese President Hu Jintao discussed the disaster in a phone call with U.S. President George W. Bush, state TV reported.
The Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader who has been vilified by Chinese authorities who blame him for recent unrest in Tibet, offered prayers for the victims. The epicenter is just south of some Tibetan mountain areas that saw anti-government protests earlier this year.
The Chinese government said it would welcome outside aid. Russia was sending a plane with rescuers and supplies, the country’s Interfax news agency reported.
But Wang, the disaster relief official, said international aid workers would not be allowed to travel to the affected area. While China has been slow at times to react to natural disasters, it usually has not lacked the manpower to eventually overcome the problem.
China’s Ministry of Finance said it had allocated 860 million yuan (US$123 million; euro80 million) in aid for quake-hit areas.
The quake was China’s deadliest since 1976, when 240,000 people were killed in the city of Tangshan, near Beijing in 1976. Financial analysts said the quake would have only a limited impact on the country’s booming economy.
YANGON, Myanmar: Amid signs that a second cyclone may be headed toward the Irrawaddy Delta, the directors of several relief organizations in Myanmar said Wednesday that some of the international aid arriving into the country for the victims of Cyclone Nargis was being stolen, diverted or warehoused by the military.
The aid directors declined to be quoted directly on their concerns for fear of angering the ruling junta and jeopardizing their operations, although Marcel Wagner, country director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, confirmed that aid was being diverted by the army.
He also said it was going to be a growing problem, though he declined to give any further details because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of Thailand arrived for a meeting with Prime Minister Thein Sein of Myanmar on Wednesday, a week and a half after Cyclone Nargis devastated the delta region, The Associated Press reported. Sundaravej told The AP that the government had given its “guarantee” that there were no disease outbreaks and that no survivors were starving.
Sundaravej told The AP that Myanmar’s rulers did not want any foreign aid workers because they “have their own team to cope with the situation.”
The AP also reported that the U.S. military’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center said there was a good chance that “a significant tropical cyclone” would form within the next 24 hours and head across the Irrawaddy Delta.
Myanmar’s state-controlled media did not broadcast information about the new storm, The AP reported. Residents of Yangon learned about the prediction from foreign broadcasters and on the Internet.
International aid shipments continued to arrive Wednesday, including five new air deliveries of U.S. assistance. Western diplomats said their representatives at the airport were making sure the cargo was unloaded efficiently and then trucked to staging areas.
But the fate of the supplies after that remained unknown, because the junta has barred all foreigners, including diplomats and aid workers, from accompanying any donated aid, tracking its distribution or following up on its delivery.
Wagner and the others said they had not heard of high-quality foodstuffs being stolen and replaced by inferior products. There were rumors in the capital on Wednesday that special high-energy biscuits donated for distribution in the disaster areas had been replaced by cheaper, off-the-shelf crackers.
Although aid flights are now regularly seen arriving at the Yangon airport, international rescue teams and disaster-relief experts for the most part remain unwelcome. A small French rescue team has arrived in Yangon, though it was unclear whether it had received official permission. Diplomats and representatives of aid missions said that visas for overseas experts were still being denied.
Wagner said he and his agency’s foreign staff members were now barred from the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta, even to areas where the group has ongoing projects dating from before the storm. Luckily, he said, he has Burmese staff who are permitted come and go through an increasing number of military checkpoints.
The Adventist group specializes in rainwater collection, water filtration and sanitation - just the kinds of expertise most needed now - and Wagner said outside experts were needed to train local people in the proper use of filters, pumps and hygiene.
Reports have been mixed about how much aid is actually getting through to the delta. One longtime relief coordinator in Myanmar said Tuesday that 30% of the people in the damaged areas had been reached. But other agencies were encouraged about recent improvements in deliveries, especially those groups with projects and local staff already in place, and the agencies with established working relationships with the government.
The World Health Organization said that its medical supplies were arriving into the country normally, without being diverted, siphoned off or replaced with substandard items. Its deliveries were even being made to Labutta and Bogale, two badly damaged areas deep in the southern delta.
Wagner said that his agency also had success in getting its trucks into Labutta, although daily rainstorms were beginning to make road travel more difficult.
The upcoming monsoon season will make things worse, he said, and he and WHO experts said they expected to start getting reports from the field soon about malaria, dengue fever and water-borne diseases. Wagner was careful to point out that these afflictions were not unusual in the delta region, saying, “They happen every year at this time, with or without a cyclone.”
Shari Villarosa, the senior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, said she was encouraged by the military government’s acceptance of aid and said it was a remarkable development given what she called the xenophobia of the regime, but that aid itself would not be enough.
“The Burmese will see they’re going to need help getting this aid out, but they’re going to come around way too slow - and too late for many,” Villarosa said during an interview in her office.
A number of countries have offered to bring in aid and deliver it from the south, by ship, but the junta has adamantly refused. One of the generals’ most enduring fears is a seaborne invasion by Western powers it refers to as “foreign saboteurs.”
Fear of a southern invasion is one of the reasons, along with ominous astrological portents, that the junta moved the country’s capital to the hinterlands.
The new capital, Naypyidaw, was carved out of the jungle about 300 kilometers, or 180 miles, north of Yangon, the former capital.
“These guys really believe we are planning an invasion,” Villarosa said. The United States said this week that several of its military ships were in the area and ready to provide help in Myanmar.
“It’s nuts! We’re not! But if they hear that a large U.S. ship is off the coast, they don’t receive the message that it’s a genuine humanitarian effort.”
Pino Annunziata, a medical officer in the World Health organization’s Department of Emergency Response and Operations, said Wednesday that the most pressing public health issue facing the delta was not the presence of corpses in the region’s waters.
“I know this issue of dead bodies is a worldwide concern, but the dead bodies do not represent any specific additional public health risk,” Annunziata said. “This is a very negligible risk from a public health standpoint. We have to focus on the survivors.”
Risk of lengthy food shortage
Myanmar will face prolonged food shortages if farmers are not able to return to their fields in the next 90 days and start planting their next rice crop ahead of monsoon rains, The Associated Press reported Wednesday from Bangkok, citing a UN food agency.
The Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome, said the Myanmar Ministry of Agriculture had estimated that 1.6 million hectares, or 3.95 million acres, of rice fields were damaged by the cyclone, which forced hundreds of thousands of farmers off their flooded lands.
Leon Gouws, acting agency representative in Myanmar, said many fields had been inundated with salt water, as many as 200,000 water buffalo and cattle had been killed, and many farm communities had been destroyed.
RANGOON, Burma — The ruling junta in Burma, also known as Myanmar, warned Thursday that legal action would be taken against people who trade or hoard international aid as the cyclone’s death toll soared above 43,000.
It was the first acknowledgment by the military government, albeit indirectly, of problems with relief operations in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
The warning came amid reports that foreign aid was being sold openly in markets, and that the military was pilfering and diverting aid for its own use.
The ruling junta has been blasted by aid agencies for refusing to allow most foreign experts into the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta and not responding adequately to what they say is a spiraling crisis.
Relief workers also reported some storm survivors were being given spoiled or poor-quality food rather than nutrition-rich biscuits sent by international donors, adding to fears that the ruling military junta in the Southeast Asian country could be misappropriating assistance.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday that it had confirmed an Associated Press report that the military had seized high-energy biscuits that came from abroad, and distributed low-quality, locally produced biscuits to survivors.
Thursday’s radio announcement obliquely denied the military was misappropriating aid.
“The government has systematically accepted donations and has distributed the relief goods immediately and directly to the victims,” it said.
The government said Thursday that the official death toll from the May 2-3 cyclone had climbed by almost 5,000 to 43,318. The number of missing has remained at 27,838 for at least two days.
But the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimated the death toll was between 68,833 and 127,990. The U.N. says more than 100,000 may have died.
The U.N. and the Red Cross say between 1.6 and 2.5 million people are in urgent need of food, water and shelter. Only 270,000 have been reached so far by the aid groups.
Tons of foreign aid including water, blankets, mosquito nets, tarpaulins, medicines and tents have been sent to Burma, but its delivery has been slowed down because of bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and bureaucratic tangles.
The junta insists on taking control of the distribution. It has allowed the U.N. and some other agencies to hand out the aid directly but prohibited their few foreign staff allowed into Burma from leaving Yangon, the country’s main city.
Police have turned back foreigners from checkpoints at the city’s exits.
“There is a visible fence around Yangon that we don’t dare cross. A circle has been drawn around Yangon and expats are confined there,” said Tim Costello of aid group World Vision.
He said the group has delivered aid to 100,000 people in spite of the “narrow parameters.” But there are tens of thousands more who haven’t received help because of heavy rain and lack of helicopters and expert staff.
“While you are getting aid through, it’s like getting it through on a 3-inch pipe not 30-inch pipe,” Costello said.
The regime insists it can handle the disaster on its own — a stance that appears to stem not from its abilities but its deep suspicion of most foreigners, who have frequently criticized its human rights abuses and crackdown on democracy activists.
In a clear sign that politics is playing a role, the junta granted approval to 160 relief workers from India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand, which have rarely criticized Burma’s democracy record.
With professional aid workers in short supply, ordinary citizens — including businessmen, housewives, monks, Christian priests and students — have rushed in to provide help.
But even Burma citizens are being restricted by the security forces, said Zaw Htin, a 21-year-old medical student who visited hard-hit Bogaley town on Wednesday.
“They (military) don’t want us to stay and talk to people. They want us to leave the supplies with them for distribution. But how can I treat them if I can’t talk to them? How do we administer medical care if we can’t touch them, feel their pulse or give them advice?” she said.
“It was overwhelming even for us who have seen a lot of suffering and death,” Zaw Htin said.
Britain’s prime minister said Thursday that an emergency U.N. summit to coordinate efforts to rush aid to cyclone victims in Burma will be held in Asia.
Gordon Brown told a news conference the summit was being organized by the U.N. and Asian countries and would be held in the region. He said the meeting represented “great progress” but gave no details of when it would take place.
Also Thursday, the junta announced that voters had overwhelmingly backed a pro-military constitution in a referendum that was held one week after the cyclone.
Human rights organizations and dissident groups bitterly accused the junta of neglecting disaster victims in going ahead with the vote, and have criticized the proposed constitution as designed to perpetuate military rule.
State radio said the draft constitution was approved by 92.4% of the 22 million eligible voters. It put voter turnout Saturday at more than 99% of eligible voters in areas that went to the polls.
Voting was postponed until May 24 in the Irrawaddy delta and Yangon areas, which were worst hit by Cyclone Nargis. But state radio said the results of the late balloting could not mathematically reverse the constitution’s approval.
“People are dying and they are talking about the referendum?” said Kyaw Muang, a small food store owner in Yangon. “They (the generals) don’t even care about dying people, you think they care about democracy for living people?” he said.
“I don’t care about the referendum. It doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
Human Rights Watch also slammed the timing of the constitution announcement and questioned the accuracy of the results.
David Mathieson, a spokesman in Bangkok, Thailand, said the junta hopes that by announcing the results now it would divert attention away from its handling of the disaster and its refusal to cooperate with the international community.
“It seems strategically timed because you would have thought with how busy they were in cleaning up the cyclone that they never would have had time to count this properly,” he said.
LUCHI, China: Hao Lin had already lied to his wife about his destination, hopped a plane to Chengdu, borrowed a bike and pedaled through the countryside in shorts and leather loafers by the time he reached this ravaged farming village. A psychologist, Hao had come to offer free counseling to earthquake survivors.
He had company. A busload of volunteers in matching red hats was bumping along the village’s rutted dirt road. Employees from a private company in Chengdu were cleaning up a town around the bend. Other volunteers from around China had already delivered food, water and sympathy.
“I haven’t done this before,” said Hao, 36, as he straddled his mountain bike on Saturday evening. “Ordinary people now understand how to take action on their own.”
From the moment the earthquake struck on May 12, the Chinese government dispatched soldiers, police officers and rescue workers in the type of mass mobilization expected of the ruling Communist Party. But an unexpected mobilization, prompted partly by unusually vigorous and dramatic coverage of the disaster in the state-run news media, has come from outside official channels. Thousands of Chinese have streamed into the quake region or donated record sums of money in a striking and unscripted public response.
Beijing is instinctively wary of public activism and has long maintained tight restrictions on private charities and religious, social and environmental groups that operate outside government control. The public outpouring is so overwhelming that analysts are debating whether it will create political aftershocks and place pressure on China’s authoritarian state to allow more space for civil society.
When the quake struck, party officials initially assigned oversight of private relief efforts to the Communist Youth League, the political base of President Hu Jintao. But many individuals, corporations and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, simply rushed into action to supplement what they say is an overburdened Chinese Red Cross or to help with the rescue, according to representatives of some private citizens’ groups.
Faced with the potential for a grave humanitarian crisis, officials loosened their grip. They have since begun warning volunteers to stay out of the earthquake zone, citing safety concerns. But thousands are already there.
In Chengdu, relief volunteers have formed a command structure called the NGO Relief Action Group to coordinate 30 organizations. They have collected donations of instant noodles, biscuits, rice, medicine, clothes and bedding.
“We realized that this is such an unprecedented crisis that we must join together to make some substantial contribution,” said Xing Mo, 39, a veteran organizer of nongovernmental organizations and president of the Yunnan Institute of Development, a school that trains volunteers.
Most volunteers say they approve of the way the government has handled rescue and relief efforts so far. Some experts believe that party leaders could channel that enthusiasm to bolster their authority, just as they helped stoke nationalist anger after the outbreak of ethnic Tibetan unrest and foreign protests against the Olympic torch this spring.
Even so, Chinese leaders generally treat unscripted public involvement in civil affairs as a threat to stability. The reaction to the quake in Sichuan Province shows how rising wealth, cellphones, text messaging and mass transportation now make it much harder for the authorities to control popular reaction to a major event.
The public’s spontaneous rush to volunteer is a piece of the same defiance in which media outlets collectively defied an initial ban by the party’s Propaganda Department on firsthand coverage of the quake.
“This is a significant turning point for China,” said Bao Shuming, a senior research coordinator for the China Data Center at the University of Michigan. “This is going to dissolve some boundaries between the government and the common people. People are becoming more educated and organized, and society is becoming more open.”
For many Chinese, the public reaction is simply a natural outpouring of grief and a desire to help, reflective of a society where more people are now rich enough to give back. Even as traditionalists deplore modern China’s moral drift and embrace of materialism, a catastrophe projected to claim 50,000 lives, including thousands of children, has struck a deep chord.
“We grew up reciting Confucius saying that all men are born kind, but it takes a disaster like this to bring out the innate kindness of everyday human beings,” said Alan Qiu, 41, an investor in Shanghai. “People are touched by the scenes of children and also the value of life. We grew up in a society where people tend to believe that Chinese lives are of less value than foreign lives.”
Outside the earthquake zone in Sichuan, the public response has grown exponentially. Exact figures change daily, but donations from Chinese citizens and companies have already surpassed the $500 million allocated by the government, according to state media. Some donations have been big, with Run Run Shaw, a Hong Kong millionaire, giving $14 million, while schoolchildren have donated the equivalent of pennies.
Blood drives, cake sales, charity fund-raisers and art auctions have already been held. Other people have dropped everything and raced to the scene. Forty members of a private car club in Chengdu, Sichuan’s provincial capital, made multiple trips transporting more than 100 injured people out of the devastated city of Shifang. Others have filled their cars or sport utility vehicles with supplies and driven hundreds of miles to Sichuan’s mountains.
Public interest is being driven by images and stories of heartbreak in the Chinese media that once would have been banned. State television has replayed film of herculean efforts to save trapped people, while newspapers have also been allowed to describe the horrors and graphic details of the devastation.
“One of the most amazing things is to see 24-hour coverage,” said Anthony Saich, a China specialist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He added, “Given the heightened sensitivity to the Olympics and the nationalist pride pumped up with the events in Tibet, maybe there’s a heightened sense of patriotism that was easier to mobilize here.”
Saich noted that China’s younger urban generation had shown little interest before in the plight of people in the countryside. “But now they are really shocked by the conditions people are living in.”
Developing a robust civil society is considered a major step if China is to become more democratic, and some advocates are hoping the earthquake proves to be a defining moment that will inspire the public to push for more change in the future. As yet, though, nongovernmental organization’s are still playing a very minor role, and Xing of the Yunnan Institute acknowledged that merely being allowed at the scene did not mean that private groups were having the sort of impact they desired.
“The most frustrating thing is that transportation is a big headache,” he said. “We have so much cargo stuck on the way. We know thousands of people are in need urgently. But we simply cannot get to them.”
There are also a few emerging warning signals. Some companies are now requiring employees to make contributions rather than encouraging volunteerism. Bloggers have hectored celebrities, including the basketball star Yao Ming, whose relief donations are not deemed big enough. The torrent of contributions inevitably raises the specter of corruption and concerns about whether the money will be well spent. Government officials are starting to seek out experts on how to make rescue efforts more efficient.
For now, though, the huge public response, and its often chaotic, ad hoc nature, is evident in much of the earthquake zone. State media reported that the first private volunteers to arrive at the scene were a rescue team organized by the president of a Jiangsu Province investment firm. Since then, a passionate contingent of private citizens has steadily arrived.
Here in the remote village of Luchi, the local glass factory is a shattered husk while clusters of brick farmhouses are leveled. For Liu Lie, 67, a rice farmer, the situation is dire. He is sleeping with seven family members under a plastic tarp. Every wall of his home has been destroyed. But at the edge of his tarp, Liu pointed to stacks of bottled water, boxes of snacks and food and two bags of rice — all donations from volunteers who came here.
“They are coming because they love the Chinese people,” Liu said. “You have to understand the difference between the old society and new society. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have food to eat. Now people are bringing us supplies from Guangzhou and all over the country.”
Liu must still rebuild his home and restart his life long after the volunteers have returned to their regular lives. His wife, Guo Bihua, 63, is worried. “I’m worried about how we will build the house,” she said. “I’m old.”
Not far away, Hao, the psychologist, was just arriving with two other bikers, including Larry Wang, a Chinese who spent 30 years living in New York City. They had met in Chengdu and were riding through devastated rural areas to provide counseling. Hao lives in the teeming export city of Shenzhen and had two weeks of supplies stuffed inside a backpack.
He said he was excited to talk to survivors, especially children, and to help them cope. But do not tell his wife. “My wife doesn’t know I’m here,” he admitted. “She would be too scared. She thinks I’m in Guangzhou.”
Persecution watchdog Release International has launched an urgent appeal to help Burma’s Christians reach out to survivors of Cyclone Nargis within their community amid reports that the military regime is withholding aid from Christians.
Release said it was receiving reports from its partners that some Christian groups in the country were being denied aid by the military junta, which has been reluctant to let in foreign aid and aid workers to help in the aftermath of the cyclone that struck on May 2.
According to Release’s partners in Burma, also known as Myanmar, the authorities are denying aid to some Christian groups in the country and there are fears that the junta may use the aftermath of the cyclone to ethnically cleanse people groups that are predominantly Christian.
Years of fierce persecution against Burma’s largest and mostly Christian minority group, the Karen people, is well documented. They have previously fallen victim to ethnic cleansing, military attacks and have been used as human minesweepers by the army because of their faith.
U.S.-based Christian Freedom International has echoed concerns for the Karen people. It fears that the relocation of storm-affected victims into consolidated population centers – currently being enforced in Karen State – has more to do with the junta’s effort to increase its control over civilians rather than care for survivors in need of help.
“Release is concerned that access to many of those in need is still being denied, as a result of discrimination against Christians,” said Andy Dipper, the chief executive of Release International.
“We remain troubled that international relief funds might be misused to forcibly relocate people on grounds of their ethnicity or faith,” he added.
“Any relocation of internally displaced persons from camps or disaster areas must be voluntary. They should not be coerced in any way – including through the suspension of aid. These people should be allowed to return to their former homes in safety and with dignity.”
Release International said its partners in Burma have been bringing food to Karen survivors of the cyclone, who say they have been denied aid from the authorities. Some have gone into hiding for fear that the authorities may use the chaos to pursue their policy of ethnic cleansing unseen.
An estimated 134,000 people are dead or missing after the May 2 storm and sea surge, which largely affected the Irrawaddy Delta. Around 2.4 million people are in need of aid.
Release International’s contact on the ground, Pastor Barnabus, whose real name has been concealed for security reasons, described the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis.
“There are many Christian villages in the worst hit area,” he said. “In one township all 17 Christian villages have been totally wiped out. Only a few people survive.
“When international aid arrived, the authorities discriminated against Christians. Those with the ‘C-virus’ (Christians) don’t get aid. So the churches are doing their best to help them.”
He told Release that the churches have pooled their resources together to help Karen survivors in hiding.
“They are in hiding because of rumors that the authorities will force them to undertake road construction like prisoners on a chain gang,” he said.
“The junta is systematically carrying out an ethnic Christian minority cleaning operation. It is clear they want to replace the people of the fertile swamp delta area – the rice bowl of Burma – with the ethnically Burman people. And they want to drive the Karen to a different location to mix them with the Burman.”
Pastor Barnabus is helping Karen survivors by delivering bags of rice that have been donated by churches.
He added: “These Karen have not been saved by the authorities, but by the churches. We were able to give our small gifts to survivors at a high school – about 1,700 Karen minority Christians.”
Pastor Joshua, another Release partner, runs a Bible college that was damaged in the cyclone. The students escaped unharmed.
“We are safe by God’s grace, but are suffering from a lack of water and food. Many thousands of people are homeless now,” he said.
“Many poor people’s houses nearby have gone and more than 400 people ran to the college for shelter. The problem is we have no food for them. I am going out to our mission fields to see if I can find our people. Thank you for your prayers.”
A network of pastors, students and churches is being coordinated by Release International’s partners on the ground to provide shelter for hundreds of homeless families.
“Believers have responded sacrificially and courageously to reach out with help and hope,” said Release. “In a land where the nation’s leaders have vowed to eradicate Christianity, the challenge is to reach out with the gospel and demonstrate the love of God.”
The director of operations at Christian humanitarian agency World Emergency Relief, Alex Haxton, said on Friday that negative media headlines have meant that emergency appeals for Burma are receiving donations well below expectations.
While media reports have tended to spotlight the struggle aid agencies are facing to bring aid to cyclone survivors, Haxton insisted that those agencies with native Burmese partners on the ground – like WER, World Vision and Tearfund - are successfully reaching those in need with emergency relief.
He appealed to Christians not to be dissuaded from giving to emergency appeals.
“The need is real, the need is great. So do give and pray that righteousness will prevail. Don’t be negative, don’t be skeptical, but give and give generously because there is real need,” he said.
Release International said it had also begun successfully sending out aid from the United Kingdom and that it plans to send more as funds come in.
“Please help the Christians of Burma as they reach out to their communities to save lives,” said Dipper. “Help them to rebuild their homes, schools, churches and orphanages.”
Premier Christian Radio and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) have teamed up for a new nationwide campaign, Change for Burma!, to highlight the current crisis in the country and mobilize Christians the world over in championing human rights and freedom in Burma.
“The campaign highlights three immediate steps which the international community should take to address the political and humanitarian emergency in Burma,” said Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
“The first step is to act without delay to ensure the immediate and safe delivery of humanitarian aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, with whatever means necessary. The second is to categorically reject the results of the sham referendum held in Burma earlier this month. The third is to put pressure on the U.N. Security Council to refer a case of crimes against humanity against Burma’s ruling generals to the International Criminal Court.”
Supporters of the campaign are being urged to write to Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander to address the campaign’s concerns and build an international coalition to deliver humanitarian aid.
“It’s our duty as a Christian media group to highlight the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other Christian organizations,” said Premier Christian Media’s Chief Executive, Peter Kerridge said. “We hope that by partnering with Christian Solidarity Worldwide on the Change for Burma! campaign we can take their message to Christians across the U.K.”
The campaign has been endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said, “We follow the Christ who always stood with the oppressed, the weak and the marginalized: ‘inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these ye have done it to me.’
“Let us join with Christ with those suffering in Burma,” Tutu said. “Let us support them in their plight.”
YANGON, Myanmar: Myanmar’s military government has approved visas for dozens of relief workers but also has expressed disdain for the international aid that is entering the country, with the state media saying Thursday that cyclone victims “can stand on their own.”
The last 45 pending visas were granted to UN staff members, a United Nations statement said Thursday. Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières and the UN Children’s Fund have sent more than 14 aid workers in recent days into the Irrawaddy Delta, which took the brunt of the cyclone that struck the night of May 2-3.
Commentary in the Myanma Ahlin newspaper said that while the country welcomed international aid, “Myanmar people are self-reliant and can stand on their own without foreign assistance.”
The state-run newspaper said that people in the delta could survive on “fresh vegetables that grow wild in the fields and on protein-rich fish from the rivers” if they could not get “bars of chocolate donated by the international community.”
Separately, state radio and television reported Thursday that the country had adopted a new Constitution that won overwhelming approval in a national referendum this month.
The charter has been signed by the leader of the junta, Senior General Than Shwe, the reports said. The government reported a 98% voter turnout and said 92% of the voters had approved the charter. There were widespread unofficial reports of voting irregularities.
The cyclone left an estimated 2.4 million people in desperate need of food, shelter and medical care, the United Nations says. The government says the cyclone killed 78,000 people and left 56,000 missing.
Myanmar’s leaders are wary of foreign aid workers and international agencies, worrying they could weaken their grip on power. The generals also do not want their people to see aid coming directly from countries like the United States that the junta has long viewed as hostile.
They allowed foreign aid workers in only after the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, met with the junta leader, Senior General Than Shwe, last weekend.
“I went to some areas where no international relief personnel had been to, and the priorities for these people are food and shelter,” Tony Banbury, regional head of the UN World Food Program, said Thursday. “We’re going to be working very hard to deliver these items to them.”
Japan, which has so far donated $13 million in aid, sent a 23-member medical team to the country Thursday, the Foreign Ministry said in Tokyo.
While the junta has received some praise for opening up to the international aid community, global powers have voiced outrage at a decision by the government to extend the detention of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi just days after donors pledged large sums of money to help the cyclone victims.
Several countries, including the United States, Britain and France, issued biting statements about the government’s order to keep the Nobel peace prize laureate under house arrest for a sixth year.
“This measure testifies to the junta’s absence of will to cooperate with the international community,” said the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.
He called on the government to “free without delay” Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and opposition members.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been held for more than 12 of the past 18 years, becoming a symbol of the junta’s intolerance of dissent.
Many nations critical of Myanmar’s abuses had put politics aside to help survivors of Cyclone Nargis. Representatives from 50 nations pledged as much as $150 million Sunday, while remaining quiet about Aung San Suu Kyi’s plight.
Under Myanmar law, people deemed security threats can be detained for a maximum of five years without trial. The government has not officially announced its decision to extend Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention.
By Chuck Colson
The Cyclone in Burma
With each passing day, the news from Myanmar—that is, Burma—gets worse: As of Sunday, May 11, nearly 300,000 people were reported as dead or missing. The United Nations estimated “that between 1.2 million and 1.9 million were struggling to survive in the aftermath of the storm . . .”
As appalling as these numbers are, what is equally, if not more appalling, is the conduct of the Burmese junta: It is actively hindering relief efforts. Late last week, the UN’s World Food Program stopped sending food aid after the junta seized previous shipments.
However this particular controversy is eventually resolved, the world has already learned what some Christians already knew: The junta does not value the lives of its people.
On May 2, cyclone Nagris made landfall in the Irrawaddy Delta, Burma’s principal rice-growing region. Initially, casualty figures, as with most major disasters, trickled in slowly—so slowly that the world’s initial response was to speculate on global warming’s role in the disaster.
Then as the devastation became clear, the emphasis was on alleviating suffering. Yet a week after the cyclone, the junta was still refusing to let relief workers into the country, insisting that countries send only supplies and not personnel.
A World Food Program spokesman told the media that “all of the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated . . .” This left the UN with “no choice” but to suspend attempts at food aid.
The junta eventually relented, but only after stamping their own names on the boxes, and not soon enough to prevent a catastrophe. Their intransigence may have already doomed a generation of Burmese children, according to international aid agencies. They warned of epidemics of “apocalyptic proportions.” The death toll from the epidemics and starvation could exceed the death toll from the storm itself.
As one brave Burmese shop-owner put it, “[the junta doesn’t] care about the plight of the people.”
No one knows this better than Burma’s Christians. As I have told you repeatedly, the plight of our Burmese brethren has been desperate. You have learned about a pattern of persecution that includes ethnic cleansing of Christian minority groups, the destruction of villages, forced conversions, and even rape and murder.
All of this is part of the junta’s attempt “to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism.”
For the most part, the mainstream media have ignored that story. In fact, most people in the West do not even know that Burma has a substantial Christian population. For them, human rights in Burma is about protesting Buddhist monks, not suffering Christians.
Of course, cyclone Nagris did not make such distinctions, and we ought not to, either. We ought to be at the forefront of alleviating the suffering of the Burmese people. But at the same time, we ought to point out to the world that while cyclones do not discriminate between Buddhists and Christians, this junta does.
And our nation ought to be mobilizing world opinion to bring down this oppressive regime.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — A series of powerful earthquakes at dawn killed at least three people and injured dozens more in remote eastern Indonesia on Sunday, cutting power lines and badly damaging buildings.
A 7.6-magnitude quake struck at 4:43 a.m. local time about 85 miles from Manokwari, Papua, at a depth of 22 miles, the U.S. Geological Agency said. It was followed by 10 aftershocks and a second major 7.3-magnitude tremor that sent small tsunamis into Japan’s southeast coast, but there were no reports of damage there.
In Indonesia three bodies were found including a 10-year-old girl, hospital director Hengky Tewu told The Associated Press.
“Her head was crushed. We have our ambulances picking up two more,” he said. Another 19 patients at the hospital were treated for broken bones, cuts, crushed fingers and other injuries.
Papua police chief Maj. Gen. Bagus Ekodanto said he received reports that a hotel and rice warehouse had been “destroyed,” but he did not know if anyone had died.
Attempts were under way to search for possible victims.
Several stories of the Mutiara Hotel in the main city Manokwari collapsed, said Ina, a nurse at a navy hospital treating 20 quake patients. Like many Indonesians she goes by a single name.
Electricity went off and people in the coastal city of 167,000 fled their homes in the dark, fearing a tsunami, said Hasim Rumatiga, a local health official. The Indonesian Meteorology and Seismology Agency issued a tsunami alert, but it was revoked within an hour after it was determined the epicenter was on land.
Japan’s Meteorological Agency said tsunamis of 4 inches to 16 inches in height splashed ashore in towns along the coast. It also warned that bigger tsunamis were possible later. Television broadcasts of the coastal areas showed calm beaches and cars driving as normal on roads near the ocean.
The damage in Indonesia was still be being assessed.
“My son’s head was wounded when a cabinet fell on him,” said Ferry Dau, a father of two who said the walls in his house were cracked. “It was very strong and scary. The power and phones went dead after the utility lines fell down.”
Rahmat Priyono, a supervisor at the National Earthquake Center, said there was no immediate information on casualties or damage. “But since the epicenters were on land, they have a potential to cause significant damage.”
Relief agency World Vision Indonesia was flying in 2,000 emergency provision kits, including canned food, blankets and basic medical supplies, said spokeswoman Katarina Hardono.
Papua, about 1,830 miles east of the capital Jakarta, is some of the nation’s least developed territory. A low-level insurgency has simmered in the resource-rich region for years and it is off limits to foreign reporters.
Indonesia straddles a chain of fault lines and volcanoes known as the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and is prone to seismic activity. A huge quake off western Indonesia caused the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed about 230,000 people, more than half of them in Sumatra.
The massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Chile Saturday morning is not like the one that devastated Haiti in January, said a relief expert at World Vision.
Even though both monstrous quakes have caused or is expected to result in the deaths of many people, the challenges facing relief workers in each country is different, said Steve Matthews of World Vision’s global rapid response team.
“This (Chile) quake will not be like the one in Haiti,” said Matthews on Saturday.
Matthews and other relief experts are coordinating early plans for the group’s response in Chile.
“Haiti was concentrated and that led to the challenge of tons of aid and hundreds of aid workers being sent into a small zone,” he said. “This quake off the Chilean coast has potential to reach remote areas and thus it will be extremely difficult to assess the number of deaths and amount of damage, but we can expect that children and families will have taken the brunt of it.”
The Chile quake is responsible for at least 708 deaths. It has also triggered tsunamis but the Pacific-wide alert for a tsunami has been lifted.
World Vision staff in Chile said the disaster happened during the early morning when everyone was sleeping, so there was no time to escape.
It struck at 3:34 a.m. local time 200 miles southwest of the capital, Santiago.
“Many houses are destroyed; even large buildings have collapsed,” said Mariela Chavarriga, emergency advisor for World Vision in Chile. “Main roads have been destroyed and communication is very difficult. We are trying to connect with our regional offices but all the phone lines are down.”
Electricity is out in many areas also.
World Vision said it was sending its first relief flight, in coordination with the Bolivian air force, and loaded supplies including tarps, blankets, plastic sheeting and collapsible water containers for survivors, to Chile later Saturday.
Many church-based relief groups have also initiated response to the Chile quake.
Baptist Global Response, the relief arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, is working with local partners on the ground to assess relief needs. The Baptist group said it is ready to send a team “immediately” if ministry partners in Chile request help.
Church World Service and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America International Disaster Response are also working with their Chilean partners to assess the situation and plan responses.
Chile has a history of large earthquakes given that it lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire. In November 2007, northern Chile experienced a 7.7-magnitude quake. And in 1960, the country was hit by the largest recorded quake (magnitude 9.5) in the world. That quake killed 1,655 people and left 2 million homeless.
World Vision has worked in Chile for 30 years and has more than 100 staff in the country. The Christian relief agency was one of the first responders during the 2007 Chile quake.
REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — A volcano in southern Iceland has erupted for the first time in almost 200 years, raising concerns that it could trigger a larger and potentially more dangerous eruption at a volatile volcano nearby.
The eruption at the Eyjafjallajokull (AYA-feeyapla-yurkul) volcano, located near a glacier of the same name, shot ash and molten lava into the air but scientists called it mostly peaceful. It occurred just before midnight Saturday (2000 EDT, 8 p.m. EDT) at a fissure on a slope — rather than at the volcano’s summit — so scientists said there was no imminent danger that the glacier would melt and flood the area.
TV footage showed lava flowing along the fissure, and many flights were canceled due to the threat of airborne volcanic ash. After an aerial survey Sunday, scientists concluded the eruption struck near the glacier in an area that had no ice.
“This is the best possible place for an eruption,” said Tumi Gudmundsson, a geologist at the University of Iceland.
Nonetheless, officials sent phone messages to 450 people between the farming village of Hvolsvollur and the fishing village of Vik, some 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of the capital, Reykjavik, urging them to evacuate immediately.
A state of emergency was declared although there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage. Evacuation centers were set up near the town of Hella, but many people returned to their homes later Sunday. The most immediate threat was to livestock because of the caustic gases the eruption released.
“We had to leave all our animals behind,” Eli Ragnarsdottir, a 47-year-old farmer, told RUV, Iceland’s national broadcaster from an evacuation center. “We got a call and a text message ... and we just went.”
Scientists say it is difficult to predict what comes next. Like earthquakes, it is hard to predict the exact timing of volcanic eruptions.
“It could stop tomorrow, it could last for weeks or months. We cannot say at this stage,” Gudmundsson said.
The last time there was an eruption near the 100-square-mile (160 square-kilometer) Eyjafjallajokull glacier was in 1821, and that was a “lazy” eruption — it lasted slowly and continuously for two years.
The latest eruption came after thousands of small earthquakes rocked the area in the past month. Scientists in Iceland have been monitoring the volcano using seismometers and global positioning instruments, but Gudmundsson noted that the beginning of Saturday’s eruption was so indistinct that it initially went undetected by the instruments.
“The volcano has been inflating since the beginning of the year, both rising and swelling,” said Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Science. “Even though we were seeing increased seismic activity, it could have been months or years before we saw an eruption like this ... we couldn’t say that there was an imminent risk for the area.”
Einarsson and Gudmundsson said the eruption could trigger a more damaging eruption at the nearby Karla volcano, which lies under the thick Myrdalsjokull icecap and threatens massive flooding and explosive blasts if it erupts.
“One of the possible scenarios we’re looking at is that this small eruption could bring about something bigger. This said, we can’t speculate on when that could happen,” Einarsson told The Associated Press.
Iceland, a nation of 320,000 people, sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic’s mid-oceanic ridge. Volcanic eruptions, common throughout Iceland’s history, are often triggered by seismic activity when the Earth’s plates move and when magma from deep underground pushes it’s way to the surface.
All domestic flights in Iceland were canceled because airborne ash might interfere with aircraft engines, although Reykjavik appeared to be unaffected with clear visibility.
Aviation authorities were to determine whether it is safe to fly again early Monday.
A flight to Oslo was canceled, but most international flights into and out of Iceland were delayed but returning to normal, Icelandair said. The airline’s flights from the U.S. — departing from Seattle, Boston and Orlando, Florida — were due later Sunday in Reykjavik. Earlier, a flight was turned back to Boston, leaving about 500 people waiting for hours.
First settled by Vikings in the 9th century, Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice because of its volcanos and glaciers. During the Middle Ages, Icelanders called the Hekla volcano, the country’s most active, the “Gateway to Hell,” believing that souls were dragged below.
In the mid-1780s, the Laki volcano erupted, causing scores to die of famine when livestock and crops were destroyed and changing weather patterns across Europe.
PARIS — With no prospect of a return to normal before the weekend, travel chaos across the globe deepened on Friday as a vast, high-altitude plume of volcanic ash from Iceland spread farther across northern and central Europe, forcing aviation authorities to close airspace and ground airplanes to forestall damage to jet engines.
By Friday, most of Europe’s major airports — crucial hubs for international travelers — were closed. Thousands of flights had been canceled since the disruption began on Thursday, stranding or delaying millions of passengers from North America to Asia.
“I’ve never seen such chaos,” said Erich Klug, 35 , a buyer for an auto parts company who was stranded at the Frankfurt airport after it closed down on Friday. Hundreds of people there stood in line to buy train tickets for onward travel.
Aviation authorities said normal air-traffic conditions would not resume until Saturday at the earliest, raising questions about a wide range issues from the economy and business to family vacations and even to whether President Obama would be able to fly to the funeral of the Polish president and his wife, killed in an unrelated air crash last week.
Neither did the eruption in Iceland, which started on Wednesday, seem to be easing — experts said it could continue for weeks.
At noon local time on Friday, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center reported in London, there was still “significant eruption continuing” with “episodic” plumes of ash rising to as high 24,000 feet. The precise concentrations of ash were not known, but the center said there was no significant ash risk above 35,000 feet, which is the standard cruising altitude for most aircraft.
In Geneva, meanwhile, the World Health Organization said people with respiratory problems should “limit their activities outdoors or stay indoors” if ash started falling from the sky.
In a telephone interview, a spokesman, Dan Epstein, said there were no apparent health risks if the ash stayed in the upper atmosphere. But if the ash reached the ground, people with illnesses such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis could be at risk. There have been no reports of significant amounts of ash falling on densely populated areas.
Eurocontrol, the agency in Brussels that is responsible for coordinating air traffic across the region, said the cloud’s impact “will continue for at least the next 24 hours.”
British authorities, which closed all British airspace Thursday for the first time in many people’s memory, said Friday that there would be no flights over England until early Saturday morning at the earliest.
Germany’s civil aviation authority said that as of noon Friday, all German airspace, except Munich airport, was closed and would remain so until 6 p.m.
Thomas Uber, a spokesman for Frankfurt airport, a major hub for Lufthansa, said that “no one knows” how long the facility would be closed but that the reopening would be much later than initially foreseen.
“The cloud is way up north but we are erring on the safe side,” he said. He said the airport set up 1,000 cots in open terminal areas last night, and almost all were taken.
Lufthansa, the country’s flag carrier, said passengers for flights within Germany were being offered vouchers at airport check-in counters for rail tickets to their destinations. Passengers to destinations outside Germany were being offered free rebookings on other flights, the airline said on its Web site.
Eurocontrol said it expected that more than 60% of the 28,000 scheduled flights across Europe would be canceled on Friday. Of the 300 flights that would usually arrive in Europe in the morning from other areas, only about one-third arrived Friday, Eurocontrol said.
The disruption Friday seemed to be setting a new pattern as the volcanic plume drifted slowly eastward over central Europe and western Russia, moving away from the areas first affected. As Ireland, to the west, and Scotland to the north, eased restrictions, Czech authorities to the east in central Europe, began closing down their airspace. Euro-+
control said that much of Polish airspace, including the Warsaw airport, was now closed and said the region would likely continue to face severe disruptions to air travel for at least another 24 hours.
It was not immediately clear if that would affect world leaders planning to attend the state funeral on Sunday of President Lech Kaczynski of Poland and his wife.
Before the volcano erupted, the White House said President Obama would depart Washington on Saturday evening to fly to Krakow, Poland, for the funeral. By Friday the tally of airport closings, which began Thursday in Scotland, had spread toHeathrow and Gatwick in Britain; Charles de Gaulle and Orly in Paris; Frankfurt; and hubs in Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.
Britain’s National Air Traffic Service said Friday that restrictions on flights in English-controlled airspace would remain in effect until 1 a.m. Saturday “at the earliest.”
“In general, the situation cannot be said to be improving with any certainty,” the agency said.
About 6,000 scheduled flights use British airspace in an average day, aviation experts said. The ash from the volcano, Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced EYE-a-fyat-la-jo-kutl), was reported to be drifting at 18,000 to 33,000 feet above the earth.
While satellite photographs from above show the cloud to be dark and menacing, it remains largely invisible from the ground. In Paris, London and Frankfurt on Friday, the skies were blue and mostly clear.
At Frankfurt airport, Dominique Spiesser, 54, a chemical engineer from Switzerland, said he only learned that the airport was closed after his flight from India landed early Friday. Gesturing toward a patch of sunlight streaming down a nearby stairwell, Mr. Spiesser said: “When you see sunshine like that it’s difficult to understand.”
A picture taken on Thursday and released by Meteosat showing a dark cloud of volcanic ash spreading over Iceland.
Smoke and ash billowed from an erupting volcano by the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on Wednesday near Reykjavík. Iceland.
Nonetheless the plume represents a severe threat to aircraft as volcanic ash is primarily made of silicates, or glass fibers, which, once ingested into a jet engine, can melt, causing the engine to flame out and stall.
In recent decades, more than 90 aircraft have suffered damage from volcanic plumes, according to the International Civil Aviation Authority, an arm of the United Nations.
The closing of British airspace disrupted the great majority of trans-Atlantic flights, including those on the New York-London route, the second busiest international route in the world after the Hong Kong to Taipei, Taiwan, route, according to the International Air Transport Association. Eurocontrol said roughly half of the 600 daily flights between North America and Europe probably faced cancellations or delays on Friday.
Severe disruption extended all the way to the Asia-Pacific, where major carriers like Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and Qantas, the Australian airline, were among those that canceled, delayed or diverted flights to and from Europe on Thursday and Friday. Qantas, which cancelled various flights on Friday, said in a statement that it would also not offer flights to London and Frankfurt on Saturday.
Globally, the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, an industry consultancy based in Sydney, said Friday that if the disruptions continued for three days “some 6 million passengers will be affected” — and many could forfeit their flights. The potential economic effect of the closings is “virtually impossible” to determine at this stage, said Peter Morris, chief economist at Ascend, an aviation consultancy in London.
“A ballpark estimate would be that half a million to a million people’s travel will be disrupted in the U.K. over a couple of days, assuming things start to clear up soon,” he said. “For the long-haul players, especially those headed to the other side of the world, it’s a nightmare.”
Japanese police say 200 to 300 bodies have been found in a northeastern coastal area where a massive earthquake spawned a ferocious tsunami Friday that swept away boats, cars and homes.
The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake — the largest in Japan’s history — unleashed a 23-foot tsunami and was followed by more than 50 aftershocks for hours, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0.
The bodies found were in Sendai city, the closest major city to the epicenter, Japanese police said. Officials said another 110 were confirmed dead, with 350 people missing. Police also said 544 people were injured. The death toll was likely to continue climbing given the scale of Friday’s disaster.
Tsunami waves generated by the massive quake hit as far as Hawaii, Alaska and the Oregon coast Friday morning. The first waves crashed into the Hawaii island of Kauai at 3:13 a.m. local time. Officials predicted they would experience waves up to 6 feet.
Alaska Emergency Management also reported a 5.1-foot wave at Shemya, 1.5-foot at Adak, and 1.6-foot at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Shemya is 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Emergency Management Specialist David Lee at Fort Richardson said there are no reports of damage and no significant damage expected on the coast of Alaska, although that could still depend on the surge in different areas.
The Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for the coastal areas of Alaska from Attu to Amchitka Pass in the Aleutians and an advisory from Amchitka Pass along the West Coast to Oregon.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 2:46 p.m. quake was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s, and one of the biggest ever recorded in the world.
The quake struck at a depth of six miles, about 80 miles off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 240 miles northeast of Tokyo.
The Japanese government ordered thousands of residents near a nuclear power plant in Onahama city to evacuate because the plant’s system was unable to cool the reactor. The reactor was not leaking radiation but its core remained hot even after a shutdown. The plant is 170 miles northeast of Tokyo.
Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles from the epicenter.
“The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.
A passenger train with an unknown number of people aboard was unaccounted for Friday, Kyodo News reported. The East Japan Railway Co. train was running near Nobiru Station on the Senseki Line connecting Sendai to Ishinomaki when a massive quake hit, triggering a 33-foot tsunami, according to the station.
A Japanese coast guard official said a search is also under way for a ship carrying 80 dock workers that was swept away when a tsunami struck the northeastern coast. The vessel was washed away from a shipbuilding site in Miyagi prefecture (state). That’s the area most affected by a massive offshore earthquake on Friday. The quake triggered the tsunami.
Trouble was also reported at two other nuclear plants as well, but there was no radiation leak at any.
Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions because of the tsunami that crashed ashore, swallowing everything in its path as it surged several miles inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images of surging water broadcast by Japanese TV networks resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.
Large fishing boats and other sea vessels rode high waves into the cities, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way. Upturned and partially submerged vehicles were seen bobbing in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.
The highways to the worst-hit coastal areas were severely damaged and communications, including telephone lines, were snapped. Train services in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serve 10 million people a day, were also suspended, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets. Tokyo’s Narita airport was closed indefinitely.
Waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland near the city of Sendai, carrying buildings, some on fire, inland as cars attempted to drive away. Sendai airport, north of Tokyo, was inundated with cars, trucks, buses and thick mud deposited over its runways. Fires spread through a section of the city, public broadcaster NHK reported.
More than 300 houses were washed away in Ofunato City alone. Television footage showed mangled debris, uprooted trees, upturned cars and shattered timber littering streets.
The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea. Flames shot from some of the houses, probably because of burst gas pipes.
“Our initial assessment indicates that there has already been enormous damage,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. “We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment.”
He said the Defense Ministry was sending troops to the quake-hit region. A utility aircraft and several helicopters were on the way.
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture and burned out of control with 100-foot-high flames whipping into the sky.
From northeastern Japan’s Miyagi prefecture, NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city.
NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.
Also in Miyagi, a fire broke out in a turbine building of a nuclear power plant, but it was later extinguished, said Tohoku Electric Power Co. the company said.
A reactor area of a nearby plant was leaking water, the company said. But it was unclear if the leak was caused by tsunami water or something else. There were no reports of radioactive leaks at any of Japan’s nuclear plants.
Jefferies International Limited, a global investment banking group, said it estimated overall losses to be about $10 billion.
A tsunami warning was extended to a number of Pacific, Southeast Asian and Latin American nations, including Japan, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Chile. In the Philippines, authorities ordered an evacuation of coastal communities, but no unusual waves were reported.
Thousands of people fled their homes in Indonesia after officials warned of a tsunami up to 6 feet high. But waves of only 4 inches were measured. No big waves came to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory, either.
In downtown Tokyo, large buildings shook violently and workers poured into the street for safety. TV footage showed a large building on fire and bellowing smoke in the Odaiba district of Tokyo. The tremor bent the upper tip of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a 1,093-foot steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Footage on NHK from their Sendai office showed employees stumbling around and books and papers crashing from desks. It also showed a glass shelter at a bus stop in Tokyo completely smashed by the quake and a weeping woman nearby being comforted by another woman.
Several quakes had hit the same region in recent days, including a 7.3 magnitude one on Wednesday that caused no damage.
Hiroshi Sato, a disaster management official in northern Iwate prefecture, said officials were having trouble getting an overall picture of the destruction.
“We don’t even know the extent of damage. Roads were badly damaged and cut off as tsunami washed away debris, cars and many other things,” he said.
Dozens of fires were reported in northern prefectures of Fukushima, Sendai, Iwate and Ibaraki. Collapsed homes and landslides were also reported in Miyagi.
Japan’s worst previous quake was in 1923 in Kanto, an 8.3-magnitude temblor that killed 143,000 people, according to USGS. A 7.2-magnitude quake in Kobe city in 1996 killed 6,400 people.
Japan lies on the “Ring of Fire” — an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90% of the world’s quakes occur, including the one that triggered the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 nations. A magnitude-8.8 temblor that shook central Chile last February also generated a tsunami and killed 524 people.
SENDAI, Japan — An explosion and feared meltdown at a Japanese nuclear plant Saturday exposed the scale of the disaster facing the country after a massive quake and tsunami left more than 1,000 dead.
Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the 8.9-magnitude quake and the terrifying tsunami which followed were an “unprecedented national disaster” and vowed to protect those living near the stricken plant.
Reactor cooling systems failed at two nuclear facilities after Friday’s record earthquake, which unleashed a terrifying 10-metre (33-foot) wave that tore through coastal towns and cities, destroying everything in its path.
Smoke was seen billowing from the Fukushima No. 1 atomic plant about 250 kilometres northeast of Tokyo after an explosion at the site.
Kyodo News agency said radioactive caesium had been detected near the ageing facility, citing the nuclear safety agency.
Kan’s top spokesman, Yukio Edano, said however that the Fukushima plant’s operator had reported the reactor container was not damaged and that radiation levels near it had fallen after the blast.
Kyodo and Jiji reported before the explosion that the plant “may be experiencing nuclear meltdown”, while public broadcaster NHK quoted the safety agency as saying metal tubes that contain uranium fuel may have melted.
The cooling system of the plant was damaged in the massive earthquake that struck the region 24 hours earlier, leaving authorities scrambling to fix the problem and evacuate tens of thousands of people within a 20-kilometre radius.
Thousands were evacuated from near another damaged plant, Fukushima No. 2.
The atomic emergency came as the country struggled to assess the full extent of the devastation wreaked by Friday’s massive tsunami, which was unleashed by the strongest quake ever recorded in Japan.
The wall of water pulverised towns and cities along the northeastern coast. Police reportedly said 200-300 bodies had been found in the city of Sendai.
Some 300-400 bodies were recovered in Rikuzentakata, a coastal town of some 23,000 people, NHK quoted the military as saying. The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said the tsunami had obliterated the town.
It was not immediately clear whether any of the bodies found by the military were included in police tolls showing at least 700 people dead. The government spokesman said at least 1,000 people were believed to have lost their lives.
More than 215,000 people were huddled in emergency shelters, police said.
The full scale of those left homeless was believed to be much higher, with police saying they had not received a tally from Miyagi prefecture, the hard-hit province that is home to Sendai.
“What used to be residential areas were mostly swept away in many coastal areas and fires are still blazing there,” Prime Minister Kan said after surveying the damage by helicopter.
The raging tsunami picked up shipping containers, cars and the debris of shattered homes. It crashed through the streets of Sendai and across open fields, forming a mud slick that covered vast tracts of land.
“There are so many people who lost their lives,” an elderly man told TV reporters before breaking down in tears. “I have no words to say.”
“The damage is so enormous that it will take us much time to gather data,” an official at the police agency told AFP.
Authorities said more than 3,000 homes were destroyed or swept away.
In the shattered town of Minamisoma, Sayori Suzuki, a 34-year-old housewife, recalled the utter horror of the moment the quake hit.
“It was a tremor like I’ve never experienced before,” she told AFP. “Things just flew from the shelves.”
“My house is okay, but a relative’s house was washed away.”
Some 50,000 military and other rescue personnel were spearheading a Herculean rescue and recovery effort with hundreds of ships, aircraft and vehicles headed to the Pacific coast area.
Army helicopters airlifted people off the roof of an elementary school in Watari, Miyagi prefecture.
The towering wave set off alerts across the Pacific, sparking evacuations in Hawaii and on the US West Coast.
The Bank of Japan said it would do its “utmost” to ensure the stability of financial markets after the quake brought huge disruption to key industries, raising short-term concerns for the nation’s struggling economy.
In quake-hit areas, 5.6 million households had no power Saturday and more than one million households were without water. Telecommunications networks were also hit.
Leading international offers of help, President Barack Obama mobilised the US military to provide emergency aid after what he called a “simply heartbreaking” disaster.
The United States, which has nearly 40,000 military personnel in Japan, ordered a flotilla including two aircraft carriers and support ships to the region to provide aid.
The quake, which hit at 2:46 pm (0546 GMT) and lasted about two minutes, rattled buildings in greater Tokyo, the world’s largest urban area and home to some 30 million people.
But with small quakes felt every day somewhere in Japan, the country is one of the best prepared to deal with the aftermath of such a calamity.
“If there is any place in the world ready for a disaster of the scale and scope of this historic calamity, it is Japan,” said Stacey White, senior research consultant at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
In a rare piece of good news, a ship that was earlier reported missing was found swept out to sea and all 81 people aboard were airlifted to safety.
But mostly the picture was one of utter devastation.
The tsunami submerged the runway at Sendai airport, while a process known as liquefaction, caused by the intense shaking of the tremor, turned parts of the ground to liquid.
More than 24 hours after the first, massive quake struck just under 400 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, aftershocks were still rattling the region, including a strong 6.8 magnitude tremor on Saturday.
The US Geological Survey said more than 100 aftershocks had hit the area.
Japan sits on the “Pacific Ring of Fire” and Tokyo is in one of its most dangerous areas, where three continental plates are slowly grinding against each other, building up enormous seismic pressure.
The government has long warned of the likelihood that a devastating magnitude-eight quake will strike within the next 30 years in the Kanto plains, home to Tokyo’s vast urban sprawl.
IWAKI, Japan – A blast at a Japanese power station Saturday leveled a building housing its reactor and stoked fears of a nuclear meltdown, as officials searched for thousands of people missing more than a day after a devastating earthquake and tsunami.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says nearly 140,000 people have been evacuated from areas near two nuclear power plants.
“Evacuations around both affected nuclear plants have begun,” the IAEA said in a statement to Reuters.
Authorities have evacuated people from a 12-mile radius around the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor.
The IAEA says the primary containment vessel is intact and that the sea water injection procedure has started at the nuclear plants.
Details of a death toll are sketchy, with hundreds confirmed dead, and the number is expected to rise. Devastation stretched hundreds of miles along the coast, where thousands of hungry survivors huddled in darkened emergency centers cut off from rescuers and aid.
The scale of destruction was not yet known, but there were grim signs that the death toll could soar. One report said four whole trains along the coast had disappeared Friday and still not been located. The East Japan Railway Company says one of them, a bullet train, had 400 people on board, The Guardian U.K. reports.
Others said 9,500 people in one coastal town were unaccounted for and that at least 200 bodies had washed ashore elsewhere.
Continued aftershocks, some as high as magnitude 6.4, were hampering search efforts as strong waves batter the coastline.
More than 1,231 buildings have been destroyed and another 4,000 damaged, according to a United Nations report.
Atsushi Ito, an official in Miyagi prefecture, among the worst hit states, could not confirm those figures, noting that with so little access to the area, thousands of people in scores of town could not be contacted or accounted for.
“Our estimates based on reported cases alone suggest that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives in the disaster,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. “Unfortunately, the actual damage could far exceed that number considering the difficulty assessing the full extent of damage.”
Among the most worrying developments was the possible meltdown of a nuclear reactor near the quake’s epicenter. Edano said an explosion caused by vented hydrogen gas destroyed the exterior walls of the building where the reactor is, but not the actual metal housing enveloping the reactor.
Edano said the radiation around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant had not risen after the blast, but had in fact decreased. He did not say why that was so. He added that pressure decreased after the blast.
Still, virtually any increase in ambient radiation can raise long-term cancer rates, and authorities were planning to distribute iodine, which helps protect against thyroid cancer.
The explosion was caused by hydrogen interacting with oxygen outside the reactor. The hydrogen was formed when the superheated fuel rods came in contact with water being poured over it to prevent a meltdown.
“They are working furiously to find a solution to cool the core, and this afternoon in Europe we heard that they have begun to inject sea water into the core,” said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Nuclear Policy Program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That is an indication of how serious the problem is and how the Japanese had to resort to unusual and improvised solutions to cool the reactor core.”
Officials have said that radiation levels were elevated before the blast: At one point, the plant was releasing each hour the amount of radiation a person normally absorbs from the environment each year.
The explosion was preceded by puff of white smoke that gathered intensity until it became a huge cloud enveloping the entire facility, located in Fukushima, 20 miles from Iwaki. After the explosion, the walls of the building crumbled, leaving only a skeletal metal frame.
Tokyo Power Electric Co., the utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, said four workers suffered fractures and bruises and were being treated at a hospital.
The trouble began at the plant’s Unit 1 after the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami it spawned knocked out power there, depriving it of its cooling system.
Power was knocked out by the quake in large areas of Japan, which has requested increased energy supplies from Russia, Russia’s RIA Novosti agency reported.
The concerns about a radiation leak at the nuclear power plant overshadowed the massive tragedy laid out along a 1,300-mile stretch of the coastline where scores of villages, towns and cities were battered by the tsunami, packing 23-feet high waves.
It swept inland about six miles in some areas, swallowing boats, homes, cars, trees and everything else.
“The tsunami was unbelievably fast,” said Koichi Takairin, a 34-year-old truck driver who was inside his sturdy four-ton rig when the wave hit the port town of Sendai.
“Smaller cars were being swept around me,” he said. “All I could do was sit in my truck.”
His rig ruined, he joined the steady flow of survivors who walked along the road away from the sea and back into the city on Saturday.
Smashed cars and small airplanes were jumbled up against buildings near the local airport, several miles from the shore. Felled trees and wooden debris lay everywhere as rescue workers coasted on boats through murky waters around flooded structures, nosing their way through a sea of debris.
Late Saturday night, firefighters had yet to contain a large blaze at the Cosmo Oil refinery in the city of Ichihara.
According to official figures, 586 people are missing and 1,105 injured.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said 50,000 troops joined rescue and recovery efforts, aided by boats and helicopters. Dozens of countries also offered help.
President Obama pledged U.S. assistance following what he called a potentially “catastrophic” disaster. He said one U.S. aircraft carrier was already in Japan and a second was on its way.
More than 215,000 people were living in 1,350 temporary shelters in five prefectures, the national police agency said.
Aid has barely begun to trickle into many areas.
“All we have to eat are biscuits and rice balls,” said Noboru Uehara, 24, a delivery truck driver who was wrapped in a blanket against the cold at center in Iwake. “I’m worried that we will run out of food.”
Since the quake, more than 1 million households have not had water, mostly concentrated in northeast. Some 4 million buildings were without power.
About 24% of electricity in Japan is produced by 55 nuclear power units in 17 plants and some were in trouble after the quake.
Japan declared states of emergency at two power plants after their units lost cooling ability.
Although the government spokesman played down fears of radiation leak, the Japanese nuclear agency spokesman Shinji Kinjo acknowledged there were still fears of a meltdown.
A “meltdown” is not a technical term. Rather, it is an informal way of referring to a very serious collapse of a power plant’s systems and its ability to manage temperatures.
Yaroslov Shtrombakh, a Russian nuclear expert, said a Chernobyl-style meltdown was unlikely. “It’s not a fast reaction like at Chernobyl,” he said. “I think that everything will be contained within the grounds, and there will be no big catastrophe.”
In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded and caught fire, sending a cloud of radiation over much of Europe. That reactor — unlike the Fukushima one — was not housed in a sealed container, so there was no way to contain the radiation once the reactor exploded.
The reactor in trouble has already leaked some radiation: Before the explosion, operators had detected eight times the normal radiation levels outside the facility and 1,000 times normal inside Unit 1’s control room.
An evacuation area around the plant was expanded to a radius of 12 miles from the six miles before. People in the expanded area were advised to leave quickly; 51,000 residents were previously evacuated.
“Everyone wants to get out of the town. But the roads are terrible,” said Reiko Takagi, a middle-aged woman, standing outside a taxi company. “It is too dangerous to go anywhere. But we are afraid that winds may change and bring radiation toward us.”
The transport ministry said all highways from Tokyo leading to quake-hit areas were closed, except for emergency vehicles. Mobile communications were spotty and calls to the devastated areas were going unanswered.
Local TV stations broadcast footage of people lining up for water and food such as rice balls. In Fukushima, city officials were handing out bottled drinks, snacks and blankets. But there were large areas that were surrounded by water and were unreachable.
One hospital in Miyagi prefecture was seen surrounded by water. The staff had painted an SOS on its rooftop and were waving white flags.
Technologically advanced Japan is well prepared for quakes and its buildings can withstand strong jolts, even a temblor like Friday’s, which was the strongest the country has experienced since official records started in the late 1800s. What was beyond human control was the killer tsunami that followed.
Japan’s worst previous quake was a magnitude 8.3 temblor in Kanto that killed 143,000 people in 1923, according to the USGS. A magnitude 7.2 quake in Kobe killed 6,400 people in 1995.
Japan lies on the “Ring of Fire” — an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90% of the world’s quakes occur, including the one that triggered the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 countries. A magnitude-8.8 quake that shook central Chile in February 2010 also generated a tsunami and killed 524 people.
FUKUSHIMA, Japan - Japan battled on Monday to prevent a nuclear catastrophe and to care for millions of people without power or water in its worst crisis since the Second World War, after a massive earthquake and tsunami that are feared to have killed more than 10,000 people.
A badly wounded nation has seen whole villages and towns wiped off the map by a wall of water, leaving in its wake an international humanitarian effort of epic proportions.
A grim-faced Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the world’s third biggest economy faced rolling blackouts as it reopens for business on Monday, while officials confirmed three nuclear reactors were at risk of overheating, raising fears of an uncontrolled radiation leak.
“The earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War Two,” Mr. Kan told a news conference.
“We’re under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis.”
As he spoke, officials worked desperately to stop fuel rods in the damaged reactors from overheating. If they fail, the containers that house the core could melt, or even explode, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere.
Broadcaster NHK, quoting a police official, said more than 10,000 people may have been killed as the wall of water triggered by Friday’s 8.9-magnitude quake surged across the coastline, reducing whole towns to rubble.
“I would like to believe that there still are survivors,” said Masaru Kudo, a soldier dispatched to Rikuzentakata, a nearly flattened town of 24,500 people in far-northern Iwate prefecture.
Kyodo news agency said 80,000 people had been evacuated from a 20-km (12-mile) radius around a stricken nuclear plant, joining more than 450,000 other evacuees from quake and tsunami-hit areas in the northeast of the main island Honshu.
Almost 2 million households were without power in the freezing north, the government said. There were about 1.4 million without running water.
“I am looking for my parents and my older brother,” Yuko Abe, 54, said in tears at an emergency centre in Rikuzentakata.
“Seeing the way the area is, I thought that perhaps they did not make it. I also cannot tell my siblings that live away that I am safe, as mobile phones and telephones are not working.”
The most urgent crisis centres on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, where all three reactors were threatening to overheat, and where authorities said they had been forced to vent radioactive steam into the air to relieve reactor pressure.
The complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, was rocked by an explosion on Saturday, which blew the roof off a reactor building. The government did not rule out further blasts there but said this would not necessarily damage the reactor vessels.
Authorities have poured sea water in all three of the complex’s reactor to cool them down.
Nuclear expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the authorities appeared to be having some success in their efforts to avert a bigger disaster, but added the situation was still “touch and go”.
“Injection of sea water into a core is an extreme measure,” he said. “this is not according to the book.”
The complex, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co , is the biggest nuclear concern but not the only one: on Monday, the UN nuclear watchdog said Japanese authorities had notified it of an emergency at another plant further north, at Onagawa.
But Japan’s nuclear safety agency denied problems at the Onagawa plant, run by Tohoku Electric Power Co , noting that radioactive releases from the Fukushima Daiichi complex had been detected at Onagawa, but that these were within safe levels at a tiny fraction of the radiation received in an x-ray.
Shortly later, a cooling-system problem was reported at another nuclear plant closer to Tokyo, in Ibaraki prefecture.
A Japanese official said 22 people have been confirmed to have suffered radiation contamination and up to 190 may have been exposed. Workers in protective clothing used handheld scanners to check people arriving at evacuation centres.
“NOT ANOTHER CHERNOBYL”
The nuclear accident, the worst since Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine in 1986, sparked criticism that authorities were ill-prepared for such a massive quake and the threat that could pose to the country’s nuclear power industry.
Prime Minister Kan sought to allay radiation fears:
“Radiation has been released in the air, but there are no reports that a large amount was released,” Jiji news agency quoted him as saying. “This is fundamentally different from the Chernobyl accident.”
Nevertheless, France recommended its citizens leave the Tokyo region, citing the risk of further earthquakes and uncertainty about the nuclear plants.
Mr. Kan said food, water and other necessities such as blankets were being delivered by vehicles but because of damage to roads, authorities were considering air and sea transport. He also said the government was preparing to double the number of troops mobilised to 100,000.
Thousands spent another freezing night huddled in blankets over heaters in emergency shelters along the northeastern coast, a scene of devastation after the quake sent a 10-metre (33-foot) wave surging through towns and cities in the Miyagi region, including its main coastal city of Sendai.
There were also fears another powerful quake could strike, with Japan’s Meteorological Agency saying there was a 70% chance of an aftershock with a magnitude of 7.0 or greater in the three days from 10 a.m. (0100 GMT) on Sunday.
Aftershocks in the 5 to 6 magnitude range have shaken the ground repeatedly since Friday’s huge quake.
Already saddled with debts twice the size of its US$5-trillion economy and threatened with credit downgrades, the government is discussing a temporary tax rise to fund relief work.
Analysts expect the economy to suffer a hit in the short-term, then get a boost from reconstruction activity.
“When we talk about natural disasters, we tend to see an initial sharp drop in production... then you tend to have a V-shaped rebound. But initially everyone underestimates the damage,” said Michala Marcussen, head of global economics at Societe Generale.
Ratings agency Moody’s said on Sunday the fiscal impact of the earthquake would be temporary and have a limited play on whether it would downgrade Japan’s sovereign debt.
Risk modelling company AIR Worldwide said insured losses from the earthquake could reach nearly US$35-billion.
The Bank of Japan is expected to pledge on Monday to supply as much money as needed to prevent the disaster from destabilising markets and its banking system.
It is also expected to signal its readiness to ease monetary policy further if the damage from the worst quake since records began in Japan 140 years ago threatens a fragile economic recovery.
The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world in the past century. It surpassed the Great Kanto quake of Sept. 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.
The 1995 Kobe quake killed 6,000 and caused $100 billion in damage, the most expensive natural disaster in history. Economic damage from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was estimated at about $10 billion.
SOMA, Japan — Dangerous levels of radiation leaking from a crippled nuclear plant forced Japan to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors Tuesday after an explosion and a fire dramatically escalated the crisis spawned by a deadly tsunami.
France’s nuclear watchdog warns the situation at Fukushima’s No. 1 nuclear plant now rates at six on a seven-point scale of gravity, according to AFP.
In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation has spread from the four stricken reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant along Japan’s northeastern coast. The region was shattered by Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that is believed to have killed more than 10,000 people, plunged millions into misery and pummeled the world’s third-largest economy.
Japanese officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency that the reactor fire was in a storage pond and that “radioactivity is being released directly into the atmosphere.” Long after the fire was extinguished, a Japanese official said the pool, where used nuclear fuel is kept cool, might be boiling.
“We cannot deny the possibility of water boiling” in the pool, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official with the economy ministry, which oversees nuclear safety.
That reactor, Unit 4, had been shut down before the quake for maintenance.
If the water boils, it could evaporate, exposing the rods. The fuel rods are encased in safety containers meant to prevent them from resuming nuclear reactions, nuclear officials said, downplaying the risk of that happening.
But they acknowledged that there could have been damage to the containers. They also confirmed that the walls of the storage pool building were damaged.
Though Kan and other officials urged calm, Tuesday’s developments fueled a growing panic in Japan and around the world amid widespread uncertainty over what would happen next. In the worst case scenario, one or more of the reactor cores would completely melt down, a disaster that could spew large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.
“I worry a lot about fallout,” said Yuta Tadano, a 20-year-old pump technician at the Fukushima plant, who said he was in the complex when quake hit.
“If we could see it we could escape, but we can’t,” he said, cradling his 4-month-old baby, Shoma, at an evacuation center.
The U.N. weather agency said Tuesday that winds are currently blowing radioactive material toward the ocean, and that there were “no implications” for Japan or countries nearby.
“All the meteorological conditions are offshore, there are no implications inshore for Japan or other countries near Japan,” Maryam Golnaraghi, who heads the weather agency’s disaster risk reduction program, said.
A World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman warned however that the conditions “will fluctuate as the weather systems progress.”
“We can’t say over the next two to three days what is going to happen,” she added.
The radiation fears added to the catastrophe that has been unfolding in Japan, where at least 10,000 people are believed to have been killed and millions of people have spent four nights with little food, water or heating in near-freezing temperatures as they dealt with the loss of homes and loved ones. Up to 450,000 people are in temporary shelters.
Asia’s richest country hasn’t seen such hardship since World War II. The stock market plunged for a second day and a spate of panic buying saw stores running out of necessities, raising government fears that hoarding may hurt the delivery of emergency food aid to those who really need it.
In a rare bit of good news, rescuers found a 70-year-old woman alive in her swept-away home four days after the tsunami flattened much of Japan’s northeastern coast.
The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, along that battered coastline, has been the focus of the worries. Workers there have been desperately trying to use seawater to cool the fuel rods in the complex’s three reactors, all of which lost their cooling ability after Friday’s quake and tsunami.
On Tuesday, the complex was hit by its third explosion since Friday, and then a fire in a separate reactor.
Afterward, officials just south of the area reported up to 100 times the normal levels of radiation, Kyodo News agency reported. While those figures are worrying if there is prolonged exposure, they are far from fatal.
Tokyo reported slightly elevated radiation levels, but officials said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) away. Closer to the stricken nuclear complex, the streets in the coastal city of Soma were empty as the few residents who remained there heeded the government’s warning to stay indoors.
Kan and other officials warned there is danger of more leaks and told people living within 19 miles (30 kilometers) of the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex to stay indoors to avoid exposure that could make people sick.
“Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told residents in the danger zone.
“These are figures that potentially affect health. There is no mistake about that,” he said.
Weather forecasts for Fukushima were for snow and wind from the northeast Tuesday evening, blowing southwest toward Tokyo, then shifting and blowing east out to sea. That’s important because it shows which direction a possible nuclear cloud might blow.
Some 70,000 people had already been evacuated from a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius from the Dai-ichi complex. About 140,000 remain in the new warning zone.
Officials said 70 workers were at the complex, struggling with its myriad problems. The workers, all of them wearing protective gear, are being rotated in and out of the danger zone quickly to reduce their radiation exposure.
Another 800 staff were evacuated. The fires and explosions at the reactors have injured 15 workers and military personnel and exposed up to 190 people to elevated radiation.
Temperatures in at least two of the complex’s reactors, units 5 and 6, were also slightly elevated, Edano said.
“The power for cooling is not working well and the temperature is gradually rising, so it is necessary to control it,” he said.
Fourteen pumps have been brought in to get seawater into the other reactors. They are not yet pumping water into Unit 4 but are trying to figure out how to do that.
In Tokyo, slightly higher-than-normal radiation levels were detected Tuesday but officials insisted there are no health dangers.
“The amount is extremely small, and it does not raise health concerns. It will not affect us,” Takayuki Fujiki, a Tokyo government official said.
Kyodo reported that radiation levels nine times higher than normal were briefly detected in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo and that the Tokyo metropolitan government said it had detected a small amount of radioactive materials in the air.
Edano said the radiation readings had fallen significantly by the evening.
Japanese government officials are being rightly cautious, said Donald Olander, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at University of California at Berkeley. He believed even the heavily elevated levels of radiation around Dai-ichi are “not a health hazard.” But without knowing specific dose levels, he said it was hard to make judgments.
“Right now it’s worse than Three Mile Island,” Olander said. But it’s nowhere near the levels released during Chernobyl.
On Three Mile Island, the radiation leak was held inside the containment shell — thick concrete armor around the reactor. The Chernobyl reactor had no shell and was also operational when the disaster struck. The Japanese reactors automatically shut down when the quake hit and are encased in containment shells.
Olander said encasing the reactors in a concrete sarcophagus — the last-ditch effort done in Chernobyl — is far too premature. Operators need to wait until they cool more, or risk making the situation even worse.
Millions of people spent a fourth night with little food, water or heating in near-freezing temperatures as they dealt with the loss of homes and loved ones. Asia’s richest country hasn’t seen such hardship since World War II.
With snow and freezing temperatures forecast for the next several days, shelters were gathering firewood to burn for heat, stacking it under tarps and tables.
Though Japanese officials have refused to speculate on the overall death toll, Indonesian geologist Hery Harjono, who dealt with the 2004 Asian tsunami, said it would be “a miracle really if it turns out to be less than 10,000” dead.
The 2004 tsunami killed 230,000 people — of which only 184,000 bodies were found.
Rescuers were heartened Tuesday to find one survivor.
The 70-year-old woman was found inside her house, which had been washed away by the tsunami, said Osaka fire department spokesman Yuko Kotani, whose teams had raced to the region to help with disaster relief. It wasn’t clear if the house was still at sea, or if it had returned to the shoreline, when she was found.
The woman was conscious but suffering from hypothermia and is being treated at a hospital, Kotani said.
The impact of the earthquake and tsunami dragged down stock markets. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average plunged for a second day Tuesday, nose-diving more than 10% to close at 8,605.15 while the broader Topix lost more than 8%.
To lessen the damage, Japan’s central bank made two cash injections totaling 8 trillion yen ($98 billion) Tuesday into the money markets after pumping in $184 billion on Monday.
Initial estimates put repair costs in the tens of billions of dollars, costs that would likely add to a massive public debt that, at 200% of gross domestic product, is the biggest among industrialized nations.
The Dai-ichi plant is the most severely affected of three nuclear complexes that were declared emergencies after suffering damage in Friday’s quake and tsunami, raising questions about the safety of such plants in coastal areas near fault lines and adding to global jitters over the industry.
Even the most unreconstructed bull will tell you that what they see happening in Japan scares them, and it’s not just because of the unspeakable, horrific loss of human life and the destruction from the massive earthquake and tsunami, costs for which the Insurance Information Institute now estimates may likely rank as “the worst in the history of the world.”
Specifically, while Wall Street executives say Japan will ultimately survive, privately they worry its recovery efforts could be slowed due to the overly lenient, easy credit policies it has embarked upon over the last two decades, which have made Japan now the most indebted nation on the planet.
Specifically, they worry that Japan has committed financial hara-kiri by blowing out its government debt, now at $11 trillion creating a debt to GDP ratio of 200%, resulting in further credit rating downgrades that have made its borrowing costs rise.
Ironically, it was U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke who advised Japanese central bankers on exactly how they could further blow out their government’s balance sheets in order to arrest a deflationary spiral triggered by a real estate and stock market crash caused by bursting asset bubbles Japan blew between 1986 and 1991. The Bank of Japan had aggravated those bubbles by conducting monetary easing in the late ‘80s.
Japan desperately needs capital for its recovery efforts, to revive its energy, finance and automotive sectors. Will the increasingly tired capital markets again step up to the plate for its most frequent visitor?
All this worry leads to the most serious question many are asking about Japan: Are we witnessing another, more intractable, deeper leg down in one of the world’s great economies, one that could keep it flat on its back for decades, or even for good?
Japan Already Falling Behind
Officials at the credit rating agencies indicate Japan can pull itself out of this current horrific crisis, just as it has done in the past.
But already, China has surpassed Japan in the ranking of the world’s largest economies. The U.S. is number one, China is second, Japan is third.
And the credit rating agencies have already taken notice of Japan’s struggles. Japan was downgraded in 1998 when its debt to GDP ratio hit 115%; just this past January, the credit rating agencies downgraded Japan again because it lacked a coherent strategy to tackle its debt. The ratings agencies are now threatening further downgrades to Japan’s beleaguered insurance industry.
All this has further fueled speculation as to the economic shocks the U.S. faces as it travels down the same debt road as Japan. The ratings agencies have been increasingly threatening the U.S. with the loss of its Triple-A rating which it has held since 1917.
More Than 70 Nations Pledge Support
Japan is now going through its 2011 budget to find funds to deal with the crisis, at the same time it is struggling — like the US — with an outsized fiscal 2012 budget heavily reliant on more government spending.
To date, more than 70 nations have pledged financial support to Japan, including Russia and China, two of Japan’s historic arch enemies. Japan is also scrambling for assets to sell off for cash, including oil out of its strategic reserves, which rank second behind the United States’ Strategic Petroleum Reserves.
Japan will need all the help it can get, because it is decades deep in a debt crisis that could be blown out further, as its economy has been doing the metaphorical equivalent of trying to bicycle through quicksand ever since its stock and real estate markets crashed in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. Japan is now in its second decade of lost growth, what market experts call its “zombie” decades.
Ten Stimulus Bills in Eight Years
Specifically, Japan answered a 1990 recession by passing 10 stimulus spending bills over eight years, but its economic growth remains flat.
Quite a comedown for a country that, by the end of 1989, accounted for more than half of the world’s stock market capitalization. At that time, Japan was so feared by the U.S., that the government grew publicly concerned over Japan’s U.S. asset purchases, including the Mitsubishi Estate Co.’s $2 billion stake in Rockefeller Center. At that time, even the grounds of the Japanese Imperial Palace alone were reportedly worth more than the entire state of California.
Fed Chief Bernanke Instructed Japan on Easing
Since the late ‘80s, Japan has been going full throttle, stoking its liquidity furnaces to battle deflation via more government spending and easy monetary policies.
Ironically, it was Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke who advised the central bank in Japan, the Bank of Japan, to drop its interest rates in order to keep borrowing costs cheap, and to buy government bonds to reflate assets and arrest its deflationary spiral downward.
Earlier this decade, Bernanke previewed the Federal Reserve’s own, current easy monetary policies in the U.S. in a speech where he instructed Japanese central bankers to artificially hold its domestic interest rates at the zero bound level.
Unfortunately, the Japanese government embarked on even more borrowing, because such leverage was cheap. The speed and breadth of Japan’s borrowing may have never hit such dramatically high proportions had the free market set domestic interest rate levels.
What Bernanke Told Japan to Do
In his speech, “Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here,” before the National Economists Club in Washington, D.C. on November 21, 2002, Bernanke urged Japan to keep interest rates low so as to reflate assets—a little inflation will do you good was the message. And Bernanke advocated novel ideas such as the central bank buying government bonds, with the quid pro quo that fiscal policy makers would use the money subsequently raised to finance tax cuts to boost consumer demand (never really happens that way, does it?)
In this speech, Bernanke also made his famous “helicopter drop of money” quote, where he said that central bankers can’t do economic rescues alone, and that tax cuts are helpful, specifically, “a money-financed tax cut is essentially equivalent to Milton Friedman’s famous “helicopter drop” of money.
All of those moves, Bernanke indicated, would keep rates low and take the pressure off of Japanese debtors reeling from high real interest rates, and also help break deflationary expectations.
U.S.-Japan Analogies Not Picture Perfect
Still, beyond the debt picture, any attempts at drawing analogies between the U.S. and Japan won’t be pitch perfect. Japan has more older citizens, its banking sector has been less-profitable and it protected many industries from international competition, introducing rigidities.
Also, Japan is a big exporter, while the U.S. is a big net importer. About 90% of Japan’s debt is owned by its own savers, where as the U.S. is a big debtor to the rest of the earth. Also, Japan has a high savings rate, meaning it can fund its deficits internally.
And to this day Japan is still fighting a years-long battle with deflation, while the U.S. is battling disinflation in extremis.
Raising Cash by Selling U.S. Bonds
But for now, Wall Street traders see a new “known unknown,” and that is the effect on US Treasury yields from the massive amount of capital Japan will need to rebuild. About 90% of Japan’s bonds are owned by its domestic savers, many of whom may need to cash out in this time of crisis. Japan is the third largest buyer of U.S. Treasurys, more than $882 billion worth, putting it behind the Federal Reserve and China.
The U.S. central bank currently holds $1.2 trillion in Treasuries and is expected to own $1.6 trillion by the end of June when its second round of quantitative easing comes to an end.
The question is, will Japan not only stop buying U.S. debt, but will it have to sell its U.S. government bond holdings to raise desperately needed cash?
Japan’s thinly capitalized banks also may need to dump Japanese bonds, as will insurers, to raise cash.
When a country is in crisis, foreign assets tend to be liquidated first when there is an urgent demand for capital. For example, in the weeks after the Kobe quake in 1995, Japanese insurance companies sold off US Treasury bonds, their most liquid holdings so as to meet mounting claims by their Japanese clients.
By R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
There can be few more frightening experiences than an earthquake, and last Friday’s quake that has devastated Japan will rank among the strongest ever recorded. Ranking 9.0 on the scale of magnitude, the Sendai, Japan quake ranks fifth among earthquakes in recorded history, coming after the 1960 quake in Chile (9.5), the 1964 quake at Prince William Sound, Alaska (9.2), the deadly Sumatra, Indonesia quake of 2004 (9.1), and the 1952 quake at Kamchatka, Russia (9.0).
But then, adding misery and terror to the devastating damage caused by the earthquake, a massive tsunami caused by the quake inundated countless miles of Japan’s coastline, taking several villages completely out to sea. The loss of energy caused by the quake and tsunami then led to another looming disaster - at least a partial meltdown of the reactor cores at two, and possibly more, nearby nuclear power plants. As if all that was not enough, a volcano in southern Japan erupted on Sunday, underlining that fact that the island nation rests atop the Pacific’s feared “Ring of Fire.”
Japan is perched on the edge of the Tuscarora Deep, a cleft in the earth’s crust five miles in depth that runs alongside the nation’s coastline. The massive stresses that build up along the Tuscarora Deep produce the historic earthquakes that Japan has experienced throughout its history - but never before so severe as on Friday.
The death toll from the disaster is not yet known, but early on Monday the Japanese government warned that the loss of life would likely be far greater than first thought. The deaths are not likely to come even close to the 230,000 who died in the 2004 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, but the suffering and grief will be incalculable. The economic devastation to Japan may exceed that of any previous natural disaster anywhere in the world.
Japan is the most disaster-ready nation on earth. Its building codes, warning systems, emergency services, and disaster response teams are the best in the world. But there was no amount of human planning that could have stopped this destruction. This disaster lies far outside the range of human control or preparedness.
We must pray for the people of Japan. We must pray for the lives that can be saved and for the grieving families who have lost loved ones. We must pray that this horrible disaster may be used to call the people of Japan to the Lord as their only hope and refuge. The nation is still shaped by its Shinto, Buddhist, and Animist roots.
Disasters like this often bring out the most reckless forms of theologizing. The earthquake and tsunami are indeed horrifying reminders that this world shows all the marks of God’s judgment on sin, and that the whole creation groans under the weight of sin.
Nevertheless, Jesus warned his disciples about drawing the conclusion that a natural disaster can be traced to the sins of those who directly suffer its effects (Luke 13:1-5). God causes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). We must remember that when we read the headlines and see the images of a disaster wherever it may happen.
In 1755, a great earthquake devastated Lisbon, Portugal, causing great loss of life throughout the Iberian Peninsula. This tragedy caused many Europeans, recently shaken by the secularism of the early Enlightenment, to abandon their belief in God. This just compounds the tragedy. We must affirm both the sovereign power and the loving character of God, and that means that we must know that disasters like this will test both our faith and our faithfulness.
The people of Japan are now on our hearts. We must pray for them even as we do all within our power to help. And then, when the grieving turns to the hard work of recovery and rebuilding, the true test for American Christians will be whether our commitment to the Gospel of Christ will lead to a renewed effort to reach the nation of Japan with the message of Jesus Christ, the Solid Rock.
Residents of Japan have endured an 9.0 magnitude earthquake, a tsunami with waves up to 10 metres high and the ever-increasing threat of a nuclear meltdown as workers scramble to cool the reactors at the Fukushima plant located 240 km north of Tokyo.
Since Friday, 290 aftershocks have been recorded. The destruction caused has been so devastating that Japan’s top government spokesman says the country will need to consider setting up a Ministry of Reconstruction. Airports in Japan have been packed as thousands of people attempt to flee the disaster-stricken nation.
The hardest-hit prefectures are situated along Japan’s northeast coast: Fukushima; Aomori; Iwate; Miyagi (the capital of which is quake-stricken Sendai); Ibaraki; Kokkaiso; and Tokyo.
In a situation report released Wednesday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs identified food, water and fuel shortages as the primary concerns facing the Japanese right now. After the jump, the Post takes a look at life post-earthquake in Japan.
FOOD and WATER
* The Japanese government estimated that at least 1.4 million homes do not have water.
* Queues snaked across hard-hit Sendai city on the northeast coast as people waited patiently to stock up on essentials. Customers were allowed to buy up to two grapefruits, two oranges, chocolate, five bags of chips, and up to two tins of tuna.
* In Tokyo, many stocked up on food and stayed indoors or simply left, transforming one of the world’s biggest and most densely populated cities into a shell of its usual self.
* The government of Japan has requested that franchised supermarkets stay open in affected areas to ensure access to essential supplies.
* The Japanese government has also asked the private sector to increase production of food products including rice balls, water bottles, bread, formula and instant food.
* Radioactive materials spewed into the air by Japan’s earthquake-crippled nuclear plant may contaminate food and water resources.
* People without water and electricity extend well beyond the four most affected prefectures.
* 210,000 people have been evacuated from a 20 kilometre radius around the Fukushima nuclear plant.
* Half-a-million people are currently living in evacuation centres.
* Schools, sports centres, community centres and other public buildings are being used as temporary shelter.
* The Japanese government has ordered the construction of 600 temporary shelters in the next two weeks. Another 4,200 shelters will be built in four weeks and 30,000 in two months.
* Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) announced Wednesday that multiple units in the company’s thermal power stations remain shut down. TEPCO’s hydro stations have all been restored.
* In total, 11 of the roughly 50 nuclear reactors in Japan shut down following the earthquake.
* The Japanese nuclear industry provides around 30% of Japan’s power needs and TEPCO expects to be about 25% short of normal power supply for the time of year.
* The government on Thursday warned Tokyo’s 13 million people to prepare for a possible large-scale blackout but later said there was no need for one. Still, many firms voluntarily reduced power, submerging parts of the usually neon-lit city in darkness.
* The biggest portion of Japan’s electricity is generated at coal-fired plants. However, Japan’s coal-fired generators are already working close to capacity and can’t boost output or imports to make up for any shortfall.
* 843,000 households serviced by TEPCO and Tohoku Electric Power Company experiencing power shortages.
* About five million households are affected by rolling blackouts – lasting three hours per day by rotation – as TEPCO struggles to offset the drop in power capacity.
* Japan will have a shortfall in output of ultra-low sulphur diesel of at least about 100,000 barrels-per-day (bpd) after one-quarter of its refinery capacity was knocked out by the quake.
* Countries such as South Korea and Russia have pledged to supply the country with extra oil and gas.
* With mobile signals patchy in the disaster zone, lines stretched from the few remaining phone boxes.
* Aid supplies to ravaged Ishinomaki, a coastal city of about 165,000 just north of Sendai, have faltered due to transport damage. Half of Ishinomaki is estimated to have been engulfed by the tsunami.
* More than 10,000 people are stranded due to inundation from the tsunami waves and are unreachable in Iwate. An additional 1,000 are also stranded in Miyagi and Fukushima.
* There have been landslides in dozens of regions, and roads, bridges and railways have been washed away. Major highways to the ravaged northeast are closed to all but emergency traffic.
* Transportation systems remain paralyzed but the National Police Agency says at least 128 roads and 21 bridges damaged by the earthquake and tsunami have been repaired.
* Boats, planes and helicopters are being used to ferry supplies and effect rescues, but teams are facing significant logistical problems.
* Many people have shown up at nearby airports without tickets, hoping to book flights out of Tokyo.
* Gas stations have been emptied of fuel across the country as panic buying took hold.
* The Japan Times reported that when train services were suspended, many people opted to buy a bike rather than face a much longer commute home on foot.
ECONOMY AND CULTURE
* Most economists now believe that the Japanese economy – the third largest in the world, and one that had been starting to recover when the earthquake struck — will contract in the second quarter of 2011.
* Sony Corp. has halted production at 13 sites due to damage caused and voluntary stoppages to assist with the alleviation of widespread power outages. Thousands of other factories have also shut down following the quake and tsunami. Prices for key technology components such as computer memory chips have since spiked.
* A number of major events have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely, including the World Figure Skating Championships, Japan Fashion Week and the Tokyo International Anime Fair whose organisers cited uncertainties about power supply and accessibility.
Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara apologized Tuesday for saying the tsunami that recently struck Japan is divine punishment for the country’s egoism.
Shintaro told reporters during a press conference that he takes back the comments he made Monday and offered “a deep apology,” according to Japan’s Kyodo News.
He had originally said the tsunami was needed “to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time.”
“I think [the disaster] is tembatsu (divine punishment), although I feel sorry for disaster victims,” he had said.
Last Friday, gigantic waves generated by an undersea tremor leveled entire coastal cities and towns, leaving an estimated 10,000 people dead or missing.
The earthquake is reportedly the fifth most powerful quake to hit the world since 1900 and the worst in Japan’s recorded history.
Just a day before Shintaro made his controversial remark, the Rev. David Yonggi Cho, senior pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church – the world’s largest church – also came under fire for calling the recent Japanese quake and tsunami “God’s warning” in a Sunday interview published in an online newspaper.
“Japan sees a lot of earthquakes, and I think it is regrettable that there has been such an enormous loss of property and life due to the earthquake,” Cho had said in the News Mission interview.
“Because the Japanese people shun God in terms of their faith and follow idol worship, atheism, and materialism, it makes me wonder if this was not God’s warning to them.”
There are only around 2 million Christians in Japan out of a population of 127.5 million.
The South Korean minister added that he hoped the “catastrophe can be turned into a blessing” and that the Japanese would “take this opportunity to return to the Lord.”
In postings made in online social networks, Cho was blasted by his own countrymen.
Jing Joong-gwon, an influential social critic in Korea, called Cho a “lunatic” via Twitter. “While pastor speak nonsense, true Christian virtues are taking place outside of the church,” he added, in reference to the international community’s relief work in Japan.
Later, News Mission withdrew its interview with Cho.
The Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea is regarded as having the largest congregation in the world, boasting a membership of at least one million people based on reports in 2007. The church was founded in 1958 by Rev. Cho, who continues to serve as its senior pastor.
In America, no prominent Christian leaders have come out to say that Japan’s disaster is due to divine punishment. But last year, controversial televangelist Pat Robertson outraged prominent evangelical leaders by calling the earthquake in Haiti a curse because of the country’s alleged historic ties to voodooism.
TOKYO - Japan hoped power restored to its stricken nuclear plant may help solve the world’s worst atomic crisis in 25 years, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami that also left more than 21,000 people dead or missing.
Facing their darkest moment since World War Two, Japanese are in shock at both the ongoing battle to avert deadly radiation at the six-reactor Fukushima plant and a still-rising death toll from the March 11 disaster.
The world’s third largest economy has suffered an estimated US$250 billion of damage with entire towns in the northeast coastal region wiped out.
Easing the gloom briefly, local TV showed one incredible survival tale: an 80-year-old woman and her 16-year-old grandson rescued from the rubble of their freezing house after nine days.
At Fukushima, around 300 engineers are working round-the-clock inside an evacuation zone to contain the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.
While spraying the coastal complex with sea-water so fuel rods will not overheat, their hopes for a more permanent solution depend on connecting electricity cables to reactivate on-site water pumps at each of the six reactors.
“I think the situation is improving step by step,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama said amid news that the workers, in suits sealed by duct tape, managed to connect power cables to the No. 2 and 5 reactors.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said workers aimed to extend power to No. 1 reactor, which is linked to No. 2, and then test systems later on Monday.
The UN atomic watchdog in Vienna said there had been some positive developments in the last 24 hours but that the overall situation remained very serious.
If the pumps cannot restart, drastic and lengthy measures may be needed like burying the plant in sand and concrete.
Even if the situation is contained, cases of contaminated vegetables, dust and water will continue to stoke anxiety though Japanese health officials insist the levels are not dangerous.
The government prohibited the sale of raw milk from Fukushima prefecture and spinach from another nearby area, and said more restrictions on food may be announced on Monday.
Tiny traces of radioactive iodine have been found in Tokyo, 240 km (150 miles) south of the plant. Many expatriates and local residents have left the capital. Those who remain are subdued but not panicked.
“There’s no way I can check if those radioactive particles are in my tap water or the food I eat, so there isn’t much I can really do about it,” said Setsuko Kuroi, an 87-year-old woman shopping in a supermarket with a white gauze mask over her face.
Official tolls of dead and missing are rising steadily — to 8,450 and 12,931 respectively on Sunday.
They could jump dramatically since police said they believed more than 15,000 people had been killed in Miyagi prefecture, one of four that took the brunt of the tsunami.
Scores of nations have pledged aid to victims, but little is visible in many devastated towns and villages.
“All we have had is the clothes on our backs. But they are good enough. They’ve kept us warm through all of this,” said Machiko Kawahata as she, her daughter and granddaughter looked for clothes at a drop-off point in Kamaishi, a coastal town.
“We will make do and we will make it through this.”
The 9.0-magnitude quake and ensuing 10-metre high tsunami made more than 350,000 people homeless.
Food, water, medicine and fuel are short in some parts, and low temperatures during Japan’s winter are not helping.
About 243,000 households in the north still have no electricity and at least 1 million lack running water.
While Japanese have been focused on the rescue operation rather than recriminations, media and others have raised questions over the government and TEPCO’s performance.
There have been some suggestions the nuclear drama was taking priority over the human suffering, and that parts of officials’ early response was slow and opaque.
TEPCO head Masataka Shimizu issued a statement on Saturday expressing regret for “causing such trouble” at the plant, but has not visited the site or made a public appearance in a week.
Economics Minster Kaoru Yosano put the overall economic damage at above 20 trillion yen (US$248 billion).
Japan’s crisis spooked markets last week, prompted rare intervention by the G7 group of rich nations to stabilise the yen, and fuelled concerns the world economy may suffer because of disrupted supplies to the auto and technology industries.
Japanese markets are closed on Monday for a holiday.
The crisis has prompted an international reassessment of nuclear power. Physicians for Social Responsibility, a U.S. advocacy group, called for a halt to new nuclear reactors there.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has kept a low profile during the crisis except for one outburst at TEPCO, was to visit the affected region on Monday, Kyodo news agency said.
The commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, Robert Willard, was also due to meet Japanese officials on Monday to offer support for disaster relief and the nuclear operation.
How should an economist react to a catastrophe such as Japan? Even thinking about the financial and commercial impact of the country’s most serious earthquake since seismological records began can appear callous – given the scale of the human suffering.
The official death toll, as it climbs up grimly, is now above 7,000. The eventual total is likely to be three times bigger. The impact on those left behind – families, work colleagues – is unthinkable. And words can’t describe the courage of the engineers at the Fukushima nuclear power station, as they battle to prevent more fall-out, exposing themselves to surely fatal doses of radiation.
These human tragedies aside, though, Japan is a place of cardinal economic importance. Last year, total GDP was $5,300bn, according to the International Monetary Fund. So we’re talking about the world’s third largest economy, after America and China - some 60pc bigger than Germany, Europe’s commercial power house.
Japan is also among the world’s most important creditors - not least to the governments of some ailing Western nations. So while the tsunamis didn’t reach Europe, and the West should mercifully be spared any radiation, there could be a world-wide financial aftershock from Japan’s worst ever peace-time disaster.
Not so long ago, the Japanese economy, while not yet fully escaped from its long-term malaise, was in relatively good shape. During the third quarter of 2010, GDP grew by a buoyant annualized 3.9pc, with consumption leading the charge. This was unusual for Japan, given the population’s neurotic savings habit - a reluctance to spend which has contributed mightily in recent years to keeping this once-dynamic economy locked in a deflationary spiral.
During the middle of last year, though, consumption temporarily boomed, in turn boosting investment. One reason was that many Japanese punters bought fuel-efficient cars ahead of the expiration of a popular government subsidy programme.
Then, towards the end of 2010, growth collapsed. During the fourth quarter, in fact, the economy shrank 0.3pc, as consumption dipped once more. So this earthquake, and related tsunamis, have hit Japan at a time when it’s already down.
The destruction of Japanese homes, commercial buildings and infrastructure is, of course, an enormous blow to the country. While shocking, though, such damage has no direct impact on GDP – because this measures economic activity, rather than the capital stock.
Having said that, the disruption to commercial life caused by this disaster will have a major, and immediate GDP impact. That’s why, unfortunately, it seems to me that Japan is likely to endure a further economic contraction between April and June, tipping it back officially into recession.
The four parts of Japan most affected – Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Ibaraki – together account for around 6.5pc of GDP, according to official statements. Across these regions, factories have been closed, as inspectors check for damage. Much of the local workforce, as well as being traumatized, are now homeless – effectively, economic refugees. Normal commercial life in these areas has largely ground to a halt and won’t return to normal for months and possibly years.
In addition, Japan is at the start of what is likely to be a prolonged power shortage. The country has more than 50 nuclear reactors, which produce 30pc of its electricity. While the numbers aren’t clear, informed sources say around a third of these facilities, right across the country, have now been shut for inspection. So, Japan has a gaping electricity deficit – which will also undermine economic activity, even in areas well away from the blighted North Eastern regions.
These are the negatives – and although they will take time to put right, they are temporary. The positive point for Japan, if anything positive can be taken from the cataclysmic events of March 11th, is that the reconstruction effort, while adding to recorded GDP, could also serve to get the economy moving in a more profound sense, countering the country’s long-entrenched deflationary mind-set. There is a good chance, in my view, that this could happen.
Having spent some time in Japan, I am not surprised to see the current stoicism with which the country is enduring its ghastly predicament, and the extent to which communities appear to be pulling together. The reconstruction effort, when it engages, as it will, is likely to be executed with the requisite skill and determination which propelled Japan, in just a few short post-War decades, from a relatively small Pacific economy into a world-beating commercial powerhouse.
So, after dipping for a few quarters, Japanese GDP could, eventually surge. Only time will tell – but, in my view, medium-term investors bet against Japan at their peril. In the here and now, though, the forthcoming slowdown could be sizeable. If the regions directly affected lose, say, a third of their economic activity in 2011, that amounts to an annual GDP drop of 2pc or more.
Beyond Japan, there is much talk of the country’s importance in the global supply chain. Westerners have now also noticed that Japan’s biggest trading partner is no longer the US, but China. The People’s Republic has lately been making a big contribution to the nascent global recovery. So there are fears that a recession-bound Japan could impact an already slowing Chinese economy, casting a pall over broader global growth.
The real economic danger, though, isn’t the impact of this catastrophe on world-wide commercial activity, but on global investor sentiment. Japanese stocks fell over 10pc last week. The Nikkei 225 share index suffered its biggest two-day fall since the game-changing 1987 crash.
It was the 1995 Kobe earthquake which led indirectly to the collapse of Barings, as “rogue trader” Nick Leeson upped his bets on Japan to avoid discovery of his growing losses. Some investors will no doubt see this disaster, and the “unknown unknowns” which may result, hard on the heels of Arab unrest and rocketing oil prices, as one uncertainty too many.
That’s why some big economies, including the US and the UK, are now jointly intervening to weaken the yen. Just as in 1995, this latest Japanese earthquake has caused its currency to surge. That may sound strange, given that the country’s productive capacity has been hit. But the yen has just climbed to post-war high against the dollar, as markets foresee cash repatriation following big sales of Japanese assets overseas, not least by insurers, to pay for reconstruction.
Japan has sovereign debts equal to 200pc of GDP. But 95pc of those IOUs are held by Japanese institutions and households. In terms of its balance sheet with the rest of the world, Japan is a huge creditor.
And therein lies the rub. During the immediate aftermath of this earthquake, global financial markets followed their well-rehearsed “emergency drill”, which led to the usual net buying of “safe haven” assets like US Treasuries. A realization is now dawning, though, that if Japan starts cashing in some of its vast $980bn stock of American government debt, the market for Treasuries could take a serious hit, causing the US government’s borrowing costs to escalate, together with those of other Western nations.
Traders estimate that more than $25bn has been spent in recent days by the G7 economies, reportedly to bring down the yen, and help Japan’s recovery effort. The Japanese people are no doubt grateful.
The fact that this is G7 currency initiative, though, a body that doesn’t include China and the world’s other large net creditors, won’t be lost on the Japanese authorities. They will be well aware, as should we be, that this currency intervention is driven almost entirely by Western financial self-interest.
With the terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami that have devastated Japan, the only good news is that anyone exposed to excess radiation from the nuclear power plants is now probably much less likely to get cancer.
This only seems counterintuitive because of media hysteria for the past 20 years trying to convince Americans that radiation at any dose is bad. There is, however, burgeoning evidence that excess radiation operates as a sort of cancer vaccine.
As The New York Times science section reported in 2001, an increasing number of scientists believe that at some level — much higher than the minimums set by the U.S. government — radiation is good for you. “They theorize,” the Times said, that “these doses protect against cancer by activating cells’ natural defense mechanisms.”
Among the studies mentioned by the Times was one in Canada finding that tuberculosis patients subjected to multiple chest X-rays had much lower rates of breast cancer than the general population.
And there are lots more!
A $10 million Department of Energy study from 1991 examined 10 years of epidemiological research by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health on 700,000 shipyard workers, some of whom had been exposed to 10 times more radiation than the others from their work on the ships’ nuclear reactors. The workers exposed to excess radiation had a 24% lower death rate and a 25% lower cancer mortality than the non-irradiated workers.
Isn’t that just incredible? I mean, that the Department of Energy spent $10 million doing something useful? Amazing, right?
In 1983, a series of apartment buildings in Taiwan were accidentally constructed with massive amounts of cobalt 60, a radioactive substance. After 16 years, the buildings’ 10,000 occupants developed only 5 cases of cancer. The cancer rate for the same age group in the general Taiwanese population over that time period predicted 170 cancers.
The people in those buildings had been exposed to radiation nearly five times the maximum “safe” level according to the U.S. government. But they ended up with a cancer rate 96% lower than the general population.
Bernard L. Cohen, a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, compared radon exposure and lung cancer rates in 1,729 counties covering 90% of the U.S. population. His study in the 1990s found far fewer cases of lung cancer in those counties with the highest amounts of radon — a correlation that could not be explained by smoking rates.
Tom Bethell, author of the The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science has been writing for years about the beneficial effects of some radiation, or “hormesis.” A few years ago, he reported on a group of scientists who concluded their conference on hormesis at the University of Massachusetts by repairing to a spa in Boulder, Mont., specifically in order to expose themselves to excess radiation.
At the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine in Boulder, people pay $5 to descend 85 feet into an old mining pit to be irradiated with more than 400 times the EPA-recommended level of radon. In the summer, 50 people a day visit the mine hoping for relief from chronic pain and autoimmune disorders.
Amazingly, even the Soviet-engineered disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 can be directly blamed for the deaths of no more than the 31 people inside the plant who died in the explosion. Although news reports generally claimed a few thousand people died as a result of Chernobyl — far fewer than the tens of thousands initially predicted — that hasn’t been confirmed by studies.
Indeed, after endless investigations, including by the United Nations, Manhattan Project veteran Theodore Rockwell summarized the reports to Bethell in 2002, saying, “They have not yet reported any deaths outside of the 30 who died in the plant.”
Even the thyroid cancers in people who lived near the reactor were attributed to low iodine in the Russian diet — and consequently had no effect on the cancer rate.
Meanwhile, the animals around the Chernobyl reactor, who were not evacuated, are “thriving,” according to scientists quoted in the April 28, 2002 Sunday Times (UK).
Dr. Dade W. Moeller, a radiation expert and professor emeritus at Harvard, told The New York Times that it’s been hard to find excess cancers even from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, particularly because one-third of the population will get cancer anyway. There were about 90,000 survivors of the atomic bombs in 1945 and, more than 50 years later, half of them were still alive. (Other scientists say there were 700 excess cancer deaths among the 90,000.)
Although it is hardly a settled scientific fact that excess radiation is a health benefit, there’s certainly evidence that it decreases the risk of some cancers — and there are plenty of scientists willing to say so. But Jenny McCarthy’s vaccine theories get more press than Harvard physics professors’ studies on the potential benefits of radiation. (And they say conservatives are anti-science!)
I guess good radiation stories are not as exciting as news anchors warning of mutant humans and scary nuclear power plants — news anchors who, by the way, have injected small amounts of poison into their foreheads to stave off wrinkles. Which is to say: The general theory that small amounts of toxins can be healthy is widely accepted —except in the case of radiation.
Every day Americans pop multivitamins containing trace amount of zinc, magnesium, selenium, copper, manganese, chromium, molybdenum, nickel, boron — all poisons.
They get flu shots. They’ll drink copious amounts of coffee to ingest a poison: caffeine. (Back in the ‘70s, Professor Cohen offered to eat as much plutonium as Ralph Nader would eat caffeine — an offer Nader never accepted.)
But in the case of radiation, the media have Americans convinced that the minutest amount is always deadly.
Although reporters love to issue sensationalized reports about the danger from Japan’s nuclear reactors, remember that, so far, thousands have died only because of Mother Nature. And the survivors may outlive all of us over here in hermetically sealed, radiation-free America.
A poll released Thursday questioning respondents about God and natural disasters reveals that evangelicals, more than any other group, tend to believe that natural disasters are signs from God.
Nearly six in ten white evangelical respondents believe that natural disasters are signs from God, according to the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service news poll. By comparison, only about one-third of Catholics (31%) and mainline Protestants (34%) believe that natural disasters are signs from God.
The PRRI/RNS poll finds that 67% of evangelicals believe natural disasters are evidence of what the Bible calls the “end times” compared to 58% of all respondents who see it as evidence of global climate change. Among Republicans, 52% believe that natural disasters are evidence of the end times.
Daniel Cox, PRRI research director, said of the poll, “Evangelical Protestants and Republicans are much more likely to believe that natural disasters are evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’ rather than evidence of global climate change.”
A lesser but still significant portion of polled evangelicals – 52% – believe that global climate change caused the recent natural disasters.
The poll also finds that 53% of white evangelicals believe that God punishes nations for the sins of its citizens.
Last year, televangelist Pat Robertson had exclaimed that Haiti’s earthquake was a curse for its voodoo history. Robertson made similar remarks about the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast, linking the tragedy to abortion.
But no prominent evangelical leaders in America have publicly interpreted the recent tragedy in Japan as being punishment from God.
Americans are strongly supportive of financially helping Japan, according to the poll. More than eight in 10 respondents say that providing financial assistance to Japan is either very important or somewhat important despite economic challenges at home.
The PRRI/RNS poll is based on telephone interviews with 1,008 U.S. adults conducted March 17-20, 2011.
TOKYO – Japan’s economy shrank much more than expected in the first quarter and slipped into recession after the triple blow of the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis hit business and consumer spending and tore apart supply chains.
The Bank of Japan (BOJ) expects the economy to resume growing in the second half of the year, but some economists say the surprisingly grim gross domestic product figures in the first quarter increase the risk that the pace of recovery will be slower than anticipated. Manufacturers are moving to repair supply chains, but fears of power shortages in the summer and an ongoing nuclear crisis also pose risks, economists say.
The negative surprise came as inventories fell and imports jumped following losses in factory output. Still, economists expect the BOJ to keep monetary policy steady when it ends a two-day meeting on Friday while declaring readiness to ease further if the quake’s impact proves more lasting that thought.
Gross domestic product fell 0.9% in January-March, nearly double the 0.5% forecast by analysts, translating into an annualized 3.7% decline compared with a 2.0% forecast, government data showed on Thursday.
The economy shrank a revised 0.8% in the fourth quarter of last year, so a second consecutive quarter of contraction puts Japan in recession. Analysts also project the economy will shrink again in April-June as supply bottlenecks triggered by the March catastrophe continue to weigh on output and exports.
Most economists still see growth resuming in the second half of the year as supplies are gradually restored and reconstruction spending kicks in, though there are still risks to such a scenario, including the possible power shortages.
Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano sought to reinforce that view, saying the economy was going through a temporary rough patch.
“The economy has the strength to bounce back,” Mr. Yosano told a news conference after the data release, saying the economy should grow nearly 1% in the current fiscal year to March 2012.
Mr. Yosano also sided with the central bank, which said it had done enough to support the economy when it eased policy just days after the quake, doubled its asset-buying scheme and pumped record amounts of cash into the banking system.
“The Bank of Japan is taking utmost measures allowed under the BOJ law. I have nothing to request from them,” Mr. Yosano said.
DEMAND STILL THERE
Yosano stressed that in contrast with the deep and severe recession during the global financial crisis, the post-quake slump in output was caused by supply concerns and there was still demand for Japanese goods and services.
Currency and government bond markets showed little reaction to Thursday’s data as the negative surprise did not shift investors’ expectations.
Economists said, however, that the data highlighted how difficult will it be for the world’s third-largest economy to recover from a tsunami so powerful that it turned entire villages into piles of tinder and left large fishing vessels strewn atop buildings like children’s toys.
The 0.9% contraction in the first quarter of this year was the largest since a record 4.9% plunge in the first quarter of 2009 as the financial crisis raged. It will be a challenge for the economy to return to where it was before the natural disaster, with many economists predicting only a sluggish and gradual recovery later this year.
“The effect of the disaster was very significant and it will take a long time to get back to previous levels,” said Yoshikiyo Shimamine, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute.
Mr. Shimamine said growth should resume in July-September, but there was a risk any recovery could come even later, though there was no need for further monetary easing.
“The Bank of Japan has done what it needs to do in terms of emergency action, so I don’t think these figures will prompt any further action.”
Some economists said, however, the initial damage to the economy was so severe that it might still need extra help.
“The size of the downturn highlights the need for much more fiscal and monetary support than has been forthcoming,” said George Worthington, chief Asia-Pacific economist with IFR Markets in Sydney.
Among the biggest damper to growth was inventories, which shaved 0.5%age point from GDP, the largest negative contribution since the second quarter of last year.
Private consumption, which accounts for about 60% of the economy, also fell 0.6%, hit by a slump in automobile sales and worsening of sentiment.
Corporate capital spending fell 0.9% against a market forecast of a 1.2% decline.
Separate data showed capacity utilization in March fell 21.5% in March, declining at a record pace, as the quake crippled manufacturing activity.
The annual GDP deflator was minus 1.9% in the first quarter, larger than minus 1.6% for the fourth quarter, suggesting the incredible loss of output wasn’t enough to narrow the gap between supply and demand.
Looking beyond the first quarter, recent data supports the central bank’s base scenario of a gradual recovery.
Businesses polled by Reuters in May were markedly less pessimistic than in April, when sentiment plunged after the quake, while official data showed earlier this week manufacturers expecting more orders to keep coming in after a surprising rise in March.
Carmakers, among the hardest-hit by the disaster because of their reliance on elaborate supplier networks, are making progress in restoring production.
Honda Motor said this week the recovery in parts supplies was speeding up, while Nissan Motor Co said it was aiming to bring production back to pre-quake levels ahead of its October target.