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In the Wake of Cataclysm, Life Goes On


It took only a few minutes on the afternoon of May 31, 1970, for an earthquake to shake loose a giant slab of snow, rock, mud and ice in the Peruvian Andes and hurtle the debris into the valley below, where it extinguished 66,000 lives. The avalanche buried one town, Yungay, but spared 10% of its villagers.

What awed outsiders who studied the aftermath of the calamity was that, within two weeks, farmers and marketers of Yungay had resumed commerce in the resettlement camps. As soon as six months later, people began to remarry, form new families and have children. Now, nearly 30 years later, the Yungainos have reached their original population. There is a new generation that has no memory of the old Yungay. There are new buildings that bear the mark of the outsiders who built them, new customs and new leaders.

"They couldn't ever find a really good explanation for what happened to them," said anthropologist Tony Oliver-Smith, a professor at the University of Florida who studies how societies respond to disaster. "But what they could find was a reason for living--the survival of Yungay."

In Papua New Guinea, an earthquake-triggered tsunami on July 17 swept away villages and an estimated 2,000 people, including what some suggest may be a generation of children. When the shock and the horror of the immediate crisis passes, experts predicted, the islanders, if they are like most survivors of the world's worst storms, fires, hurricanes, bombings or epidemics, will eventually regroup, assimilating the baffling tragedy into their collective identity. The struggle for meaning, experts said, could affect every aspect of the culture, and touch individuals for years, decades and even generations.

No matter if they have defied death by flood in Pennsylvania or by volcanic mudslide in Colombia, survivors first try to explain the event to themselves, Oliver-Smith said. "Events of this nature place in danger that sense of life having a sense of logic, a sense of justice. Very few cultures are equipped to come up with answers for this kind of cataclysm."

Historically, in countries with frequent natural catastrophes such as India and Mexico, cosmologies of destruction and reconstruction developed over time, New York anthropologist and writer Susanna Hoffman said. "Frequently, the god of destruction is also the god of creation, like Pele in Hawaii or Kali in India," she said. Some people in Papua New Guinea may see the tsunami as a portent of the millennium, a punishment or a warning from God, other experts suggested.

Almost all survivors of natural disasters organize ceremonies at the site to reestablish their culture, Hoffman said. But some are so overwhelmed by their experience, they can't even bear to talk about it. Only in the past few years, for instance, have people in Galveston, Texas, started to talk openly about the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, a storm that killed at least 5,000 people on the barrier island on Sept. 8, 1900. Little more than three months after a hurricane and tidal wave destroyed a sixth of the town's population, forcing gruesome mass burials, the Christmas edition of the local paper barely mentioned the event.

"A lot of people don't realize this natural disaster even happened," said David Bush, spokesman for the Galveston Historical Foundation. "The attitude was get over it and move on."

Survivor descendant Linda Macdonald, however, remembers every word of the detailed story her grandfather repeatedly told--every time the wind blew--about the evening of the storm: the howling winds, the cries in the night, how family members saved themselves from being washed away by chopping holes through the second-story floor to let the flood waters stabilize the house. She made sure her children also know the story. "I think it helps to bring about a real appreciation of life," she said. "Some may think it happened in 1900, a long time ago, but no, it happens all the time. It can happen in a fast-food restaurant or in Oklahoma City, where all of a sudden something goes amiss, and your life and the lives of people you care about are changed forever."

Now, everyone wants to share what their relatives went through, said Macdonald, co-chairwoman of a committee to mark the 100th anniversary of the storm in 2000. She said, "Inside every native Galvestonian, there's a story dying to get out."

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