Friday, 28 September was the first and, it turned out, only day of the Nomoni cultural festival in Palu, a city in the heart of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island. Nomoni means ‘resounding’ or ‘ringing’ in the indigenous Kaili language; Palu’s mayor revived the vaguely animist celebration three years ago to attract more tourists. Festivities include throwing live goats and food as offerings into the sea, boat races and live music. Last year, Nomoni was met with heavy rain and floods – a bad omen, but nothing compared to what happened this year, when the city was pulverised by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake and the tsunami that followed it. They struck at around 6 p.m., when Muslims were performing the last of their day’s prayers and Nomoni festivalgoers were taking sunset selfies. The ground beneath their feet liquefied. The death toll is 2000 and rising.
When I landed at Kathmandu airport three years ago, not long after the earthquake that killed almost 9000 people, the streets were eerily quiet. Dim street lights shone down on the devastation. Buildings, monuments and houses had been reduced to rubble. Thousands were living in temporary shelters in rough conditions. But the damage to the capital paled in comparison to areas of the country closer to the epicentre of the earthquake, nearly 50 miles west of the city. Two million Nepalis had been made homeless. They had lost everything.
The background to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a young mother imprisoned in Iran apparently for no good reason, though careless remarks by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove haven't helped – is not unusual, and not very favourable. Part of a diplomat’s job is to support British subjects who get into trouble abroad, including those who get into trouble with the law. But diplomats cannot intervene in foreign courts, any more than foreign governments can intervene in ours. I am no Iran expert, but the country has been the target of espionage, sabotage and even murder and it is no surprise if its vigilance sometimes appears like paranoia. Anglo-Iranian relations are poor; diplomatic relations have only recently been re-established; we do them no favours; they are unlikely to do us favours.
‘Here, the dead are more alive than ever,’ the ad on the radio said. ‘That’s why I love Mexico.’ I was on my way to Tlayacapan, one of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos, a category invented to promote tourism. Tourism is down in this magic village. Located near the epicentre of the earthquake of 19 September, in Morelos state, south-west of the capital, it experienced the worst impact in living memory. There are husks of adobe homes on every street, most of the churches are damaged, and the town hall clock tower fell; the arches where the last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed are still standing, pocked and scuffed as if after a gun battle. I saw a sign flapping taped to a gate: ‘Careful with the wall.’ A woman was organising a tequio, the old indigenous form of community labour, to make adobe bricks. Scrawled in purple all the way across a yellow house, its outbuildings now tidied into piles of rubble, was: ‘Thanks to everyone for your help.’ The state is nowhere to be seen, apparently.
The death toll from the earthquake that struck on 19 September has reached 338, with 199 in Mexico City, while more than 100 perished in the quake on 7 September in Chiapas and Oaxaca. Around 150,000 dwellings were damaged, including 57,000 that were totally destroyed. 250,000 people lost their homes. The federal government puts the amount needed to build or repair affected housing at 16 billion pesos, the equivalent of £660 million. It will cost more than 13 billion pesos to repair 12,932 damaged schools; 577 are a total loss. Around 1500 historic monuments have been damaged, mostly churches, convents and museums, and 8 billion pesos will be required for their repair. The government is appealing to the business community for funds. On Wednesday afternoon, I went to the site of the collapsed four-storey building at 168 Bolívar Street, on the corner of Chimalpopoca.
On Tuesday 19 September, the 32nd anniversary of the magnitude 8 earthquake that levelled large parts of Mexico City in 1985, an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 hit the city and neighbouring states. In 1985 the epicentre was off the Pacific coast, and the death toll reached at least 10,000. When that one set our house rocking back and forth at 7.17 a.m., my wife Betty and I were about to send our daughters to school. They boarded the bus and we turned on the television. For the next three days we witnessed the havoc at collapsed hospitals, hotels, and residential and office buildings. This time I was crossing Chapultepec Park, on my way to pick Betty up from the ABC Hospital. At 1.14 p.m., two hours after a planned earthquake drill and 12 days after a quake in Chiapas and Oaxaca killed at least 98 people, my taxi suddenly halted and began moving to and fro on the undulating road, while trees swayed towards and away from me. At the hospital, staff and patients were hugging the walls.
Antonio Tajani, a former spokesman for Silvio Berlusconi, was elected president of the European Parliament yesterday. He dedicated his victory to the people who died in the earthquake in central Italy last August. At 10.25 this morning, a magnitude 5.3 earthquake struck not far from Amatrice. There have been three more of equivalent size in the hours since (and 200 of magnitude 2 or above): an unprecedented phenomenon.
There’s a video online purportedly of the moment last night’s earthquake struck northern Chile. We’re in a small flat, maybe in Iquique. Women scream, a man keeps saying ‘It’ll pass, it’ll pass,’ as the mobile phone, presumably held by a heartless teenager, sways through rooms where everything is bouncing and falling off the walls. The noise is deafening. That’s what scared me most during my first quake, the huge one (magnitude 9.5) in Chile in 1960. I was too small to understand till much later how deadly it was. Apart from the racket – imagine every single object in the house coming to life, banging, sliding, rattling, creaking, and often crashing down – it was rather fun: tiles flying off the roof, the swimming pool slopping from side to side, the cook on her knees, imploring the Virgin at the top of her voice.
Last year the webcomic xkcd compared the speeds of seismic waves and internet traffic (I was alerted to it by a tweet yesterday): Here's one of the jokes that's doing the rounds about the earthquake in Virginia:
The media are giving as much attention to the Fukushima I nuclear power plant as they are to the impact of the tsunami, even though the likelihood of measurable health effects from the former is small, and the number of deaths caused by the latter is certain to be very large. This isn’t surprising: nuclear fear, founded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reinforced by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, is not irrational, though it’s worth noting that many more people have been saved by X-rays and radiotherapy than have been killed by radiation of any kind. What’s happening at Fukushima Dai-ichi Units 1 and 2 is similar to what happened at Three Mile Island Unit 2 in 1979.
I’ve been living in Ichikawa City, on the outskirts of Tokyo, since January. It all feels a very long way from Berkeley, California: my neighbourhood here has a public address system, for example, which quietly reminds us at 4.30 every afternoon that the children are on their way home from school and we should try not to run them over, and half an hour later plays a thirty-second excerpt from the New World Symphony (arranged for organ). With the few minor earthquakes I’ve experienced in California, it’s often been hard to tell whether it‘s really a quake or just a heavy truck going past, and by the time I’ve shambled over to stand in a doorway the whole thing‘s already over, with no harm done except maybe a couple of broken plates. No one I know in Berkeley has a disaster kit or a disaster plan. The consensus seems to be that it probably won’t happen, and even if it does, as long as you’re not on the Bay Bridge you’ll be fine. There was no doubting what was happening when the earthquake struck here this afternoon.
Some days anything will do as news. For example, we learn from the BBC's Earth News that some (though not all) toads may (or may not) have advance warning of earthquakes. Unfortunately, the toad watchers, having serendipitously observed toads leaving home a few days before the 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck l'Aquila in 2009, couldn't quite put their finger on how the toads sensed it was on its way. A bit of a rumble, I shouldn't wonder. But since they were 74 km away, they might just have decided to have a weekend break, since only mating pairs or males took off – spinster toads stayed home. On top of the unknowability of what, how and if the toads knew, the report rather eeyoreishly adds that:
I was woken by a text message from my mother: 'Are you ok news of earthquake.' I live more than 100km from l'Aquila, and didn't feel anything at 3.30 this morning – at least, not enough to wake me up. One of the neighbours says she was disturbed by a noise she thought was her husband walking into a door. The death toll in Abruzzo has now passed 90, and there are more than 50,000 evacuees. Berlusconi cancelled a trip to Moscow to fly over the destruction in a helicopter. The pope said he's praying for the dead babies. The head of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, Enzo Boschi, has pointed the finger at poor building standards.