British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill is credited for having once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This saying can carry both positive and negative connotations: If Churchill said it (it cannot be found in his recorded speeches, personal notes, or his books), he was probably using it in a wartime context, such as the Battle of Dunkirk. But when then–Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel said it in 2008, he added an explanatory extension, “What I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.” Neither Churchill nor Emanuel were talking about natural disasters, but they very well could have been.
Indeed, the optimism that great good can come in the aftermath of disaster—whether it is natural, military, financial, or otherwise is universal, deeply held, and has deep roots. Almost every mayor, governor, senator and president has said something to the eaffect that a better city will arise from the ruins of disaster. Disasters are spoken of as providential events—opportunities for civilizations to start over with a clean slate, to correct mistakes, and to make changes that do not often avail themselves otherwise. What actually happens in the wake of disasters, however, is not as straightforward as this positive rhetoric might appear.
The most commonly cited example of great good following from disaster is that of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Following the quake was a tsunami and fire that ravaged the city on the morning of All Saints Day. Left to pick up the morale and civil rebuilding responsibilities was the Marquis de Pombal. When asked what to do by the King of Portugal, the man who would become Marquis famously said, “Bury the dead and feed the living.” Jesuit priests held great influence over the Portuguese monarchy, and advocated for a week of prayer. The young Portuguese king, Joseph I, was uninterested in this solution, opting to follow Pombal’s advice instead, and he handed him with the
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