If death toll is the sole metric used, the world has known worse disasters than Haiti's earthquake--China's 1976 Tangshan quake left more than 200,000 dead, as did the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But few catastrophes have decapitated a city as essential to a nation as Port-au-Prince is to Haiti. It is the country's commercial, political, and cultural heart, and home to one third of its 9 million residents. Disaster historians have to grope for a proper parallel.
In the past century, the only national capital to have been so devastated by natural occurrence was Tokyo in 1923, when an earthquake struck at lunchtime as residents were cooking over open fires. The resulting flames devoured much of Tokyo and nearly all of Yokohama. More than 100,000 died, and 2 million were left homeless. The destruction was so complete that authorities considered moving the capital and starting over. Yet according to historian John Withington, "within days, businesses and shops left standing were trading again." Not so in Haiti, where even water is a luxury. Far from recovering, Haiti has effectively ceased to function as an independent nation, as the U.S. and international aid agencies take control. Before the quake, it was a failed state. Now it's not a state of any kind.
The most relevant historical disaster may be the 1755 quake in Lisbon, Portugal, another small country dominated by a single city. A tsunami and infernos followed the tremors; a quarter of Lisbon's population perished. Europe was aghast: the catastrophe opened a hole of doubt among the continent's most influential thinkers. Voltaire used it in Candide to refute the idea that we live in "the best of all possible worlds." To Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it was proof that cities were inherently unnatural, and prompted his move to the countryside.
Something similar is happening now with Haiti: an international conversation about how to rebuild, even rethink, a society. The world had failed Port-au-Prince well before Jan. 12. But now Haiti is at the center of a debate about the scope of international obligations in the aftermath of disaster. Andrew Natsios, the former head of USAID, argues that rebuilding structures--hospitals, roads, bridges--is fine, and essential. "But if that's all we do," he says, "Haiti will simply revert to dysfunction." This is an excuse, he says, to give Haiti political and economic institutions free from endemic corruption and strong enough to end the country's long flirtation with anarchy. In other words, this is a chance to give Haiti the working capital it has never had.