Robert Muir-Wood: How Disasters Became the Stage for International Diplomacy

Disaster Training Exercise in Louisiana; Accessed via Wikimedia Commons
Disaster Training Exercise in Louisiana; Accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Muir-Wood is Chief Research Officer at the leading worldwide catastrophe risk modelling organization Risk Management Solutions. He is also Chair of the OECD High Level Advisory Board of the International Network on the Financial Management of Large Catastrophes and Visiting Professor at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College, London. Dr. Muir-Wood has published scientific papers on earthquake, flood, and windstorm perils and written more than 200 articles. His latest book, The Cure for Catastrophe: How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters, was published in 2016.


In 1758, Emmerich de Vattel argued that after a famine or comparable calamity, there was a natural duty for other states to provide assistance.[1]  This moral duty was, however, not the same as an obligation to intervene.[2]

Yet until the twentieth century, disaster victims were largely on their own. There was no ability to call for help from outside the afflicted region, nor was anyone trained in rescue.  After the 1812 Venezuelan earthquake, an English sea captain at the port of La Guaira, close to Caracas, observed “hundreds of suffering inhabitants…mixed with heaps of ruins, and many of them still yet alive with their heads out, imploring assistance from their fellow citizens, who, instead of affording them aid, were throwing themselves prostrate before images, beating their breasts, and imploring for themselves the protection of their saints.”[3]

It was the introduction of ship to shore radio soon after 1900 that first allowed trained official personnel (initially only sailors) of one country to come and assist in another country’s disaster. Throughout the next century, countries discovered the challenges and opportunities presented by such interventions.

The response to a disaster follows three phases: first, locating and rescuing those who are trapped and providing medical treatment to those who have been injured; second, providing temporary accommodation and welfare to those left homeless; and third, repairing and reconstructing substitute buildings for what was damaged and destroyed.

The first phase can last anywhere from mere hours to two weeks. The second phase typically lasts from six months to a few years, while the third phase can continue for years or even decades.

It would be disobliging for a country or city to refuse an offer of help in the acute phase of a disaster. However, the second and third phases of disaster recovery inevitably become increasingly political and contentious. Those who are in temporary accommodation clamor for action, funding becomes allocated for reconstruction, and decisions around where to build and not to build have significant implications for land values.

Meanwhile, national governments are interested in raising their profile internationally, and they see the opportunities presented by the disaster. The challenge is then to reconcile the means of delivering the maximum humanitarian benefits of an intervention with the desire to make political gains for one’s own country. More than a century of experience of one country intervening in another country’s disaster has provided a rich set of lessons for how such interventions should be managed.

Militarized Disaster Response

The first rapid intervention of one country in assisting with another country’s disaster was, by all measures, not a success.

The 14 January 1907 earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica, shook most buildings in the city to the ground before a fire burnt the whole city center. Eight hundred people died out of a population of 50,000.[4] Three days later, two U.S. Naval ships, the Missouri and the Indiana, slipped past the western tip of the Palisadoes spit, sailed across Kingston Bay, and docked at Kingston Docks. The vessels had been informed about the disaster via a Morse code message on their radio receivers and had received the specific backing of U.S. President Roosevelt to intervene.

The British governor of the island, Sir James Alexander Swettenham, was initially unaware of the arrival of the U.S. ships. When he discovered that U.S. sailors were transporting the injured to the ships’ hospitals and supervising clean-up operations, he wrote a letter filled with scathing irony to the U.S. Rear Admiral, demanding that the sailors leave, as the acute phase of disaster rescue had already passed. His letter ended: “not long ago it was discovered that thieves had…pillaged the residence of some New York millionaire, during his absence in the summer, but this would not have justified a British Admiral landing an armed party and assisting the New York police.”[5]

The sailors re-embarked and the two American vessels left. A general denouncement of the governor’s character in the U.S. press, joined with more muted criticism back in London, escalated the diplomatic incident. The crisis was only solved when Swettenham was relieved of his post and returned to England.

As to what motivated his overreaction, Swettenham clearly feared that U.S. aid was a pretext for an invasion. After U.S. interventions in Cuba and Puerto Rico (1898), Panama (1904), the Dominican Republic (1905), and Cuba again in 1906, this paranoia was not without some foundation.[6]

In terms of why the intervention failed, this was a relatively modest earthquake, and all the rescue of the injured and trapped had been accomplished within a few hours. Having arrived three days after the earthquake, the sailors could only perform non-essential functions.

Above all, the incident highlighted the need for international protocols around dispatching military personnel following a disaster. To attend another country’s disaster, one should be invited. But in the chaos of a disaster, sending such an invitation may not be a priority.

Two years later, a devastating earthquake occurred at Messina in the northeast corner of Sicily. Only one out of fifty buildings was left undamaged and more than half of the population (estimates ran from 80,000 to 130,000) was dead.[7] A general call for assistance went out from what remained of the Messina city government.

The first rescuers in Messina the day after the earthquake were sailors from the Russian Cruiser Admiral Makarov, accompanied by two naval escorts, which had been moored down the coast at Augusta.[8] Two days after the earthquake, a British fleet battleship Exmouth and three cruisers (carrying medical support, supplies, and bedding) were dispatched from Malta while two French battleships were sent from Marseilles.[9]

Towards the end of their 14-month circumnavigation, the 16-battleship U.S. White Fleet was in the Red Sea steaming for the Suez Canal when news arrived of the Messina earthquake. A supply ship was sent ahead of the fleet, arriving in Messina eleven days after the earthquake.[10]  A week later, sailors from the U.S. Battleship Illinois tunneled through the ruins of the U.S. consulate to retrieve the bodies of the U.S. consul and his wife.

A century later, now under Putin’s leadership, the Russia–Italy connection triggered by the Messina earthquake has been reinvigorated. Three streets in Messina have now been named after the Russian sailors and, in 2012, a monument was erected in Russian Sailors Square and opened by a Russian parliamentary delegation who also sought to create a Russia Center at the University in Messina.[14]

After the great earthquake beneath Yokohama on 1 September 1923, the fires burned out of control for almost two days. There were an estimated 84,000 fatalities in Tokyo, and 30,800 in Yokohama. Among the 4,500 foreigners in Yokohama, 167 Americans, 200 Russians, and 61 British were killed. 440,000 buildings were lost in Tokyo, and two out of three residents of Tokyo were homeless.[15]

The initial U.S. response to news of the great disaster was prompt and generous. President Coolidge called for donations to the Red Cross, and two days after the earthquake many people in the eastern U.S. came into work on a Sunday to give their wages to the relief effort. In New York, the Salvation Army sold paper cherry blossoms to be pinned on lapels.  The American Red Cross raised $12 million for the victims.[16]

In the days that followed the earthquake, the Japanese navy took the lead all around Tokyo Bay.[17] Railway communications were badly disrupted, but the navy had a base inside Tokyo Bay at Yokosuka, south of Yokohama. However, the city of Yokosuka had been largely destroyed by shaking and fire, which had also consumed the Naval Hospital, Naval Engineering College, and Naval Barracks. In the Dockyard, two submarines under construction were smashed on the floor of their dry dock, and an aircraft carrier was lost.[18]

It took a day or two for communications to be reinstated, after which the entire Japanese navy was mobilized: 45 warships and 63 destroyers were used for transporting food and other relief supplies as well as for relocating tens of thousands of evacuees.[19]

Within a few days, U.S. naval vessels were dispatched from China and the Philippines, from where, on 5 September, the U.S. supply ship USS Merritt was loaded with a full field-hospital including 3,000 beds, 150 tons of medical supplies, 750 tons of food, and a medical support force of 18 doctors and 60 nurses.

Foreign vessels remained restricted to five ports in Japan, of which only Yokohama was in the earthquake region. The Japanese government did not want U.S. naval personnel to witness the damage to munitions facilities closer to Tokyo, nor the destroyed naval facilities in the fortified zone south of Yokohama. However, individual U.S. vessels were bridling at these restrictions, forcing local Japanese officers to permit vessels to dock only to find their decisions rescinded at a higher level.[20]

On 9 September the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Navy Department met to agree on a set of rules for foreign vessels bringing assistance. On 11 September the Japanese government declared that while it would accept food, it would not allow foreign personnel to land, nor allow foreign vessels to be involved in transporting survivors.[21]

The supply ship USS Merritt and its field hospital arrived at the docks in Yokohama on 15 September (now two weeks after the earthquake). Local officials continued to obstruct any attempt to install the hospital, even after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Home Ministry appeared to have cleared the landing.

Many petty officials believed that the U.S. naval vessels entered Tokyo Bay to take advantage of the chaotic situation in Japan.  In support of Japanese suspicions, private notes written by Frederick Moore, then advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, later acknowledged that “the U.S. Navy vigorously engaged in intelligence operations.”[22]

These official refusals soon became “The Story.” U.S. news agencies had picked up on the damage to the Japanese naval facilities: namely that the “Yokosuka port was completely destroyed, and a number of Japanese warships went down.”[23] One U.S. newspaper claimed that donations to Japan would be used to finance repairs to the Japanese navy. The correspondent for the Chicago Tribune living in Japan passed on a copy of a report acknowledging that the Japanese navy had obstructed U.S. Navy efforts to offer assistance.[24] In an article published on 27 September it was said “The Japanese humiliated the US navy and Japanese government authorities made an excuse […] U.S. vessels were treated as if they were a nuisance.” [25] Eventually, the Americans were permitted to run three small temporary onshore field hospitals.

However, as with the situation in Jamaica in 1907, there had not been any official invitation to help; U.S. Navy ships had simply arrived with the expectation they would be well received. The U.S. vessels arrived far too late to assist in the rescue, and their function in running small temporary hospitals for patients who would speak no English was purely a token gesture. To the Japanese, the U.S. Navy’s determination to be allowed to assist was an irritation.

However, the United States was by far the largest foreign donor after the earthquake. From the U.S. side, there was a view that even with all the assistance provided, the Japanese had not expressed sufficient gratitude.

Any improvement in Japanese attitudes toward the United States as a result of the support offered following the 1923 earthquake was lost the following year after the passage of the Immigration Act, which set national quotas for new immigrants from a range of countries while denying any immigration from Japan (where it was known as the Japanese Exclusion Act).[26] This act increased the militaristic heat in Japan.

Many survivors from the expatriate community in Yokohama did not return after the earthquake. Far from bringing the United States and Japan together, the frustrations experienced by U.S. naval ships trying to provide assistance after the earthquake created fissures that would become exploited by both sides over the next two decades.[27] As with the situation at Kingston in 1907, the provision of U.S. assistance was delayed beyond the acute phase of the catastrophe into the period when the political challenges of disaster response came to the fore.

Internationalizing Disaster Response

By the mid 1920s, rather than assuming some spontaneous intervention, the idea emerged that there should be some ex ante guarantee for the rapid provision of disaster response.

After surviving the Messina earthquake, Giovanni Ciraolo made it his life’s work to ensure effective response following future disasters. He became a senator in the Italian parliament and the leader of the Italian Red Cross. In 1921, he proposed the establishment of a scheme to mutualize the response to disasters in the form of an International Relief Union under the auspices of the League of Nations. Faced with opposition from wealthy and less disaster-afflicted countries, it took until 1932 to launch the mutual scheme.[28] Short of funds, the Union stumbled through the 1930s and eventually became subsumed into UNESCO in the 1960s.

By the 1950s, the ready availability of air transport empowered more rapid and effective interventions. Military planes from France and the United States arrived in Agadir, Morocco in 1960 within hours of the 29 February earthquake, followed the next morning by sailors from the U.S. Sixth Fleet. One third of the city’s population of 35,000 died from the collapse of poorly constructed buildings.[29] In the middle of the Cold War it was important to demonstrate the power of the West, but this was again a military intervention principally faced with the challenge of extricating decomposing corpses.

The Demilitarization of Disaster Response

The establishment of a civil defense system originated in response to urban bombing in London during the First World War. In 1935, a Civil Defense Service was established under the UK Home Office and was then imitated in many countries, expanding its role from wartime to disasters (and even onto responses to terrorist attacks).[30] Personnel were specifically trained in urban search and rescue. The first specialized U.S. disaster rescue teams were created after the 1964 Alaska earthquake.[31]

The earthquake beneath the city of Managua, Nicaragua on 23 December 1972 was only of moderate magnitude, but on account of its shallow depth, allied with weak buildings situated on thick alluvial soils, 60 percent of buildings were turned to rubble and between 10,000 and 11,000 people died (out of a population of 400,000) while 300,000 were left homeless.[32]

The country’s long-term dictator General Somoza turned his own home into the center of operations for coordinating relief and compensation. On the 24 and 26th of December, two field hospitals were sent from the United States on C-141 aircraft.[33] In terms of the international funds donated for reconstruction, more than one quarter came from the United States (followed by Canada, Spain, and the UK).[34]

After several years of sustained financial support for reconstruction, U.S. aid officials realized that international donations were being systematically siphoned off by Somoza and his cronies. A 1977 investigation found that USAID money was used to buy land at inflated prices and enrich Somoza family construction companies.[35] Six years after the earthquake, one visitor described how the downtown was still filled with rubble while squalid shanty towns sprawled over the central district.[36]

The overall legacy of the years of unchecked corruption after the 1972 earthquake was the 1979 Sandinista Revolution. It took 40 years for all of the damaged buildings to be demolished and the center of the city to be rebuilt.[37]

Following the experience in Managua, donors began to require full oversight of how funds were distributed and employed.

In response to the earthquake on 4 February 1976, the president of Guatemala appealed to the world to provide food, medicines, tents, and other assistance.[38] This was a far larger earthquake than that at Managua in 1972, affecting hundreds of towns and villages across a large rural region. Based on its experience in Managua, the United States demanded that their Ambassador be put in charge of disaster relief coordination.

The United States supplied 17 heavy lift helicopters and a 100-bed field hospital—offering 36 surgeries per day—was in operation for a week (although without the necessary staff to respond to the large number of orthopedic and trauma cases).[39]

The Guatemala disaster provided an object lesson in what was required to be effective around disaster assistance.[40] While the U.S. Ambassador could supervise U.S. aid, there was a failure to coordinate action across agencies arriving from a wide range of countries with no previous experience of collaboration. Later, disaster researchers showed that the provision of thousands of tons of U.S. food supplies had severely disrupted the local agricultural economy in the region of the earthquake.[41] Once again the desire to help through the post-acute phases of disaster response had left a mixed legacy of consequences.

Armenia, 1988

It took until the 1988 Armenian earthquake to fully appreciate the international political possibilities of rapid disaster response.

Before the 1986 explosion and release of radiation at Chernobyl, the Soviet Union had reveled in the country’s technical superiority. Instead, the state was exposed for its inability to even acknowledge the catastrophe. In 2006, former USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that “The nuclear meltdown […] was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”[42] However, another contributory driver to the disintegration was the M7.1 Armenia earthquake that occurred on 7 December 1988.

Gorbachev was first told of the Armenia disaster by Margaret Thatcher in a telegram sent while he was sleeping in his New York hotel suite.  The death toll was estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The previous day, Gorbachev had delivered a speech to the UN calling for an end to the Cold War and announcing that half a million Soviet troops would leave Eastern Europe. The following day, he was on a plane back to Moscow to handle the Armenian crisis.[43]

Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze initially dismissed the suggestion that Soviet agencies could not handle the disaster, but Gorbachev made the extraordinary move, for the first time in the history of the Soviet Union, to open the doors for international disaster response organizations. Two thousand foreign specialists in earthquake rescue, temporary housing, and medical support flooded into Armenia. He also invited the foreign press to witness the rescue and recovery process.[44]

Half a million people were left homeless and 25,000 were killed across 58 devastated towns and villages. Most of the hospitals had collapsed along with large numbers of schools filled with thousands of children. Aid included $6.6 million in assistance from the United States and medical equipment from Israel, with which the Soviet Union had no diplomatic relations.[45]

However, it was the reaction of the survivors in Armenia and the Soviet press that was most remarkable. One senior diplomat commented that people “were overwhelmed by the generosity from Western countries.” In the Soviet press, the assistance was considered “the greatest example of East-West comity since Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe River in 1945.”[46] The news stressed the superior mobility and readiness of Western teams. The earthquake had provided the best ever demonstration of the capabilities of European nations and the United States to protect and care for ordinary citizens.

For the disaster response community, the lessons of Armenia highlighted the need to coordinate across the competing international rescue and relief agencies.

Since the chaotic experience of 22 groups from 21 countries converging on Spitak, Armenia in 1988, rescue missions are now coordinated after catastrophes. Every leading nation has instituted its own rescue team.

For the diplomats, Armenia revealed how the disaster could be employed to transform international relations. In the rescue phase of a disaster, caused by the negligent construction standards of the host country, local people are witness to the humanitarian differences between competing ideologies.

Turkey and Greece, 1999

The catastrophic earthquake on 17 August 1999 at the southeastern end of the Sea of Marmara presented an opportunity for two of Turkey’s estranged regional neighbors to reset their diplomatic relations.

Within hours, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs dispatched a rescue team, while the Greek Secretariat of Civil Protections sent an emergency medical team. Public donations and blood banks spontaneously emerged in the principal Greek cities, and a week after the earthquake, the five biggest municipalities in Greece sent a joint aid convoy. The outpouring of official and personal assistance from Greece caught the attention of Turkish newspapers, who responded with headlines such as “Friendship Time” and “Help Flows in from Neighbors – Russia first, Greece the most.”[47]  When the mayor of Athens came to inspect the earthquake recovery, he was met on the tarmac by the mayor of Istanbul.[48]

In an extraordinary piece of catastrophe theatre, three weeks later, on 7 September, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake hit the north Athens suburbs, killing 143 people and providing the perfect opportunity for reciprocity.[49] Turkey made instant pledges of aid and sent a 20-man Turkish rescue team that arrived within 13 hours of the shock.

Following the 1999 Kocaeli earthquake, Israel sent a field hospital to the most damaged town of Adapazari (and may have involved as many people in the accompanying PR campaign). On August 26, the New York Times reported “Quake Relief Shows Israel Feels Deeply For Turkey.”[50]

Unlike the successful Greece-Turkey reconciliation, the post-disaster afterglow of the relationship between Turkey and Israel soon faded. In March 2010, Turkey rejected an Israeli offer of earthquake aid following a modest earthquake in eastern Turkey. However, after much cajoling, in December 2010, Turkey agreed to help Israel fight forest fires near Haifa, providing an opportunity for the first contacts between the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.[51]

How Disaster Rescue Became Prime Time

If disaster assistance is to achieve its full diplomatic goals, there should be some reciprocity in response: countries play by the same rules as children. Communist China had never allowed any other nation to come to its assistance until the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. However, after a day considering the matter, the Chinese conceded the diplomatic advantage of accepting help and thereafter permitted a rescue team of fifty from Japan, followed by teams from Russia, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore.[52] While not on the rescue party A-list, the U.S. government was asked to review their military satellite imagery to check for earthquake damage to Chinese dams. Separate from the international earthquake rescue teams, medical teams arrived with field hospitals from Pakistan, Russia, Italy, Taiwan, and Germany along with medical teams skilled in trauma cases from Macao, Great Britain, France, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States.[53]

The international response to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake was carefully controlled by the host country. In contrast, with no functioning government, the 2010 Haiti earthquake disaster was a massive humanitarian tragedy.[54] International intervention drove the agenda to offer assistance and raise money.[55] Leading nations demonstrated their influence through their generosity, in particular by sending large teams to pursue urban search and rescue.

One hundred and thirty people were extricated by international rescue teams in Haiti, far higher than for any other recent disaster, reflecting the chaotic local rescue capacity and the vast number of partially demolished buildings.[56] Rescue teams competed with one another to be assigned the locations most likely to deliver survivors. More typically, even during the largest recent earthquakes, international rescue teams have only located five or 10 additional survivors (two live survivors in China in 2008), at a cost estimated at more than one million dollars per live rescue.[57] For the teams the experience also provides an opportunity to practice skills for when some emergency occurs in their home country.  However, measured purely in terms of costs and numbers rescued, it would be hard to argue in support of international earthquake rescue missions.  Many disaster professionals condemn these missions as expensive, publicity-seeking distractions.

Yet, international rescue increasingly performs a symbolic role, manifesting the public response to help. With guaranteed home-country television coverage, rescue team operations have become central to how disasters are reported. When we see terrible misfortune we want to give, and we will be angry if our government is not responding appropriately.

International donations continue to respond to the intensity of the media coverage of rescue and how a catastrophe holds the headlines. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake made the premier league for international funding, while the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar or the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan failed to supply televisual stories that achieved a strong “connection” with the victims.[58]

The television cameras have all gone when the difficult long-term work to care for the displaced and help move people back to safe housing gets underway. All the complexities of the post-disaster work in Port-au-Prince, Haiti—such as the cholera outbreak in the camps, people moving back to their damaged homes before they could be reinforced, and the problems of fraudulent land titles—all happened away from the world’s attention.

There is a much higher expectation for what could be accomplished in the long term when intervening in another country’s disaster. There is also much more opportunity for negative publicity around outcomes, which is why some countries now choose to focus their assistance only on the short term: rescue and medical care for the injured.

The Diplomatic Opportunity of a Disaster

Since 2000, many countries have established agencies with the mission to dispatch rescue personnel, along with emergency shelter and medicines, immediately following a disaster, wherever it should occur.

In 2001, China established the International Search and Rescue team, comprising (as of 2015) 480 personnel.[59] The organization provides 24/7 worldwide disaster monitoring and an airplane on permanent stand-by to provide search and rescue personnel within one day of a disaster. In the foreign affairs department of the Earthquake Ministry in Beijing, the seismographs are watched around the clock. The rescuers are not civilian but rebranded military personnel from the 38th division of the military search and rescue corps allied with medical teams from the Chinese armed police military hospital. The team measures their performance in the number of people they have rescued (63 as of April 2015) and the medical treatment provided: “40,000 over 12 missions.”[60] There is also the race to arrive at the disaster scene; the team celebrated that they placed “first” after the earthquake in Algeria on 21 May 2003.

China was particularly proud of the 62-person rescue team sent to Kathmandu immediately after the April 2015 M7.9 earthquake in Nepal, helping raise their influence with an all-important foreign policy priority. China was also widely perceived to have been the reason that Nepal refused a Taiwanese offer to send a rescue mission.[61]

Since the 1980s, Israel has also seen the strategic opportunity afforded by rapid disaster response.[62] After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Israel sent 60 tons of aid to Indonesia, a country with which it previously had no formal diplomatic relations. Israel also provided assistance to Pakistan after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, this time delivering aid through an Israeli NGO (Israeli Flying Aid) rather than a team linked with the military.[63]

After the 2015 Nepal earthquake, the Israel team was said to be among the largest – comprised of more than 250 doctors and rescue personnel (only exceeded by India), although it was conspicuous among donor countries in not providing money.[64] After the M7.1 earthquake on 19 September 2017 near Mexico City, an Israel Defense Forces team was dispatched comprising 70 Air Force and Home Front Command personnel, including experts in engineering.

The United Kingdom has also created a 24/7 capability to provide immediate aid after a disaster: from two airport hangars in England and Dubai.[65] In 2017, these centers responded to three international crises, delivering 827 tons of aid for those made homeless by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean, 10,000 shelter kits for the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, and 20,000 kits for Somalia. Britain maintains a destroyer in the Caribbean through the hurricane season, to assist any island of the British Commonwealth or dependent territories that have been afflicted.

Meanwhile, the United States has restated its intent to “remain the world’s leading humanitarian donor.”[66] In the 1980s, Maurice Williams (the U.S. presidential coordinator for major disaster relief efforts) wrote that “disaster relief is above politics.”[67] Today, the humanitarian goal is recognized as “a form of politics in which it is useful to assert that one is non-political.”[68]

A disaster provides a unique world stage on which nations can parade their charity and reset relations with the impacted country—an unanticipated lacuna in the planned affairs of the world, where new alliances can be forged and ancient grievances set aside. As reported, it only took the actions of one Samaritan, responding to a personal disaster, to transform deeply-held tribal animosities.[69]  Countries wishing to shift preconceptions and demonstrate their soft power now practice to be among the fastest respondents in the next opportunity to manifest generosity on the disaster stage.


[1] Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations, or the Principles of Natural Law, Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns, trans. Charles G. Fenwick (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1916).

[2] David P. Fidler, “Disaster Relief and Governance after the Indian Ocean Tsunami: what role for international law?,” Melbourne Journal of International Law 6, no. 2 (2005): 458–73.

[3] Stuart McCook, “Nature, God and Nation in Revolutionary Venezuela: The Holy Thursday Earthquake of 1812,” in Aftershocks: Earthquakes and Popular Politics in Latin America, ed. Jurgen Buchenau and Lyman L. Johnson (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 43–69.

[4] Charles W. Brown, “The Jamaica earthquake,” Popular Science 70 (1907): 385–403.

[5] Christienna Fryar, “The End of Alexander Swettenham’s Imperial Career: British Sovereignty, the United States Navy, and the 1907 Jamaican Earthquake” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, New Orleans, January 3–6, 2013).

[6] Dana G. Munro, Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1900–1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964).

[7] Risk Management Solutions, The 1908 Messina Earthquake, 100 year Retrospective, RMS Special Report, 2008,

[8] “The feat of Russian sailors in Messina,” Encyclopedia of Safety,

[9] “Imperial and Foreign Intelligence. The Earthquake. Enormous Death Toll. Destruction of Messina,” The Times, December 30, 1908.

[10] “US Naval History, Great White Fleet Assists Following Messina Earthquake,” Naval History Blog, January 3, 2015,

[11] J.W. Wilson and R. Perkins, Angels in Blue Jackets, the Navy at Messina 1908 (Chippenham, UK: Picton Publications 1985).

[12] “The feat of Russian sailors in Messina,” Encylopedia of Safety,

[13] Antonello Battaglia, “Italian Mediterranean Policy and Russia Between ‘Risorgimento’ and the ‘Great War,’” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 2, no. 3 (2011): 261–64.

[14] “Russian Sailors’ Square to Appear in Messina, Sicily,” Russkiy Mir Foundation, April 23, 2013,

[15] Joshua Hammer, Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

[16] Joshua Hammer, “The Great Japan Earthquake of 1923,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011,

[17] Kuratani Masashi, “Disaster Relief Operations by the Imperial Japanese Navy and the US Navy in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake: Focusing on the activities of the on-site commanders of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the US Navy,” JMSDF Staff College Review 1, no. 2,

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Shiho Imai, “Immigration Act of 1924,” Densho Encyclopedia,

[27]  Hammer, Yokohama Burning.

[28] Peter Macalister-Smith, “The International Relief Union of 1932,” Disasters 5, no. 2 (1981): 147–54.

[29] Lee Allyn Davis, Natural Disasters (New York: Checkmark Books, 2008).

[30] Tim Essex-Lopresti, ed., A Brief History of Civil Defense (Matlock: Civil Defense Association, 2005).

[31] Ted Steinberg, Acts of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 174–75.

[32] James C. Cornell, The Great International Disaster Book, 3rd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976).

[33] Nicaragua Earthquake 1972 (Washington, D.C.: Agency for International Development, 1972),

[34] Ibid.

[35] Alan Riding, “Nicaraguans Accused of Profiteering on Help the U. S. Sent After Quake,” New York Times, March 23, 1977.

[36] “The 1972 Managua Earthquake – A City Destroyed,” The Backpackers Handbook, November 4, 2009,

[37] Tim Rogers and Sara Miller Llana, “Nicaragua quake survivors get new homes – 40 years after the disaster,” Christian Science Monitor, June 16, 2011,

[38] USAID, Recovery, aid and development: a longitudinal study of the 1976 Guatemala earthquake, ed. Frederick L. Bates (Athens: University of Georgia, 1982),

[39] Ibid.

[40] Observations of the Guatemalan relief effort (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Comptroller General of the United States, Report to the Congress, 1976),

[41] “U.S. Food Aid Seen Hurting Guatemala,” New York Times, November 6, 1977,

[42] Mark Joseph Stern, “Did Chernobyl cause the Soviet Union to explode? The nuclear theory of the fall of the USSR,” Slate, January 25, 2013,

[43] Jonathan Steele, “What happened next?” Guardian, October 19, 2005,

[44] Ibid.

[45] David Brand and Ann Blackman, “Soviet Union: When the Earth Shook – A killer quake devastates Armenia, and the West responds with unprecedented aid,” Time, December 19, 1988; “Israel sends assistance to Armenia quake victims,” UPI Archives,

[46] Bill Keller, “From Soviet Quake, Echoes Widen,” New York Times, December 18, 1988,

[47] Panagiotis Karkatsoulis, “Rationalism and irrationalism in disaster management. The example of Greek-Turkish Cooperation in the aftermath of the 17.8.99 Earthquake” (paper presented at the Annual American Society for Public Administration National Conference, Newark, March 10–13, 2001).

[48] Ibid.

[49] Stephen Kinzer, “Earthquakes help warm Greek-Turkish relations,” New York Times, September 13, 1999.

[50] Stephen Kinzer, “Quake relief shows Israel feels deeply for Turkey,” New York Times, August 28, 1999,

[51] Nimrod Goren, “Analysis – Disaster diplomacy: The attack that brought Israel and Turkey closer,” i24 News, March 22, 2016,

[52] “China open to foreign assistance in disaster relief,” Government of the People’s Republic of China, June 4, 2008,

[53] Fei Liu et al., “The Role of International Rescue Teams after the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake,”

[54] Priscilla M. Phelps, “What the Haiti earthquake really taught us about disaster response,” World Economic Forum, 2015,

[55] Vijaya Ramachandran and Julie Walz, “Haiti’s earthquake generated a $9bn response – where did the money go?” Guardian, January 14, 2013,

[56] Congressional Research Service, Haiti Earthquake: Crisis and Response,

[57] Ian Davis and David Alexander, Recovery from Disaster (New York: Routledge, 2015), 75.

[58] Saundra Schimmelpfennig, “The Dirty Truth About Disaster Fund Raising,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 29, 2011,

[59] Tania Branigan, “China boosts international rescue squad to match its growing world role,” Guardian, February 26, 2010.

[60] “China International Search and Rescue Team,”, May 1, 2015,

[61] Emily Rauhala, “China rushes aid to Nepal after deadly earthquake: Taiwan is turned away,” Time, April 27, 2015,

[62] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Worldwide Aid, “Israel on the Frontline of International Aid,” 2013,

[63] Ibid.

[64] “Israel’s aid team to Nepal among the largest,” Times of Israel, April 29, 2015,

[65] “International Development Minister praises British humanitarian heroes at Kemble Disaster-Aid Hub,” Department for International Development, December 22, 2017,

[66] Mark Green, “Briefing on US Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief,” USAID, September 21, 2017,

[67] Randolph C. Kent, Anatomy of disaster reliefthe international network in action (New York: Pinter Publishers, 1987).

[68] Thorsten Volberg, The politicization of humanitarian aid and its effect on the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality (Masters’ Thesis, Ruhr-University Bochum, Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict, 2005), 63.

[69] Luke 10:30–37, World English Bible.