Portuguese great response to 18-century tsunami remembered

Despite the limitations of 18th-century tools and the imperfect scientific knowledge of the time, Portugal's handling of a massive earthquake and tsunami 250 years ago was impressive. "The response was exemplary," says Joao Duarte Fonseca, a lecturer at Lisbon's Superior Technical Institute and an expert on the Nov. 1, 1755 quake that killed thousands of people and reduced much of Lisbon to rubble.

There were no food or water shortages in the city, which at the time was one of Europe's largest with some 275,000 inhabitants. Swift burials prevented epidemics.

Fonseca describes the quake as "the first modern disaster" because it brought the first centralized state response to a catastrophe.

On the day of the quake King Jose I summoned his first minister Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho e Melo, better known as the Marquis of Pombal, and granted him overriding powers to handle the disaster.

Unencumbered by the checks and balances of a democratic society, Pombal moved quickly and ruthlessly.

The day he assumed command he deployed infantry and dragoon regiments across the city to maintain order. An artillery regiment took charge of food distribution from two depots he established in the city center.

On the second and third days, Pombal ordered all able-bodied men to begin clearing the streets of rubble and collect bodies. He consulted with the Archbishop of Lisbon before giving instructions for bodies to be tied with weights and dumped into the sea to prevent the spread of disease.

To crack down on looters who were spreading panic, he requisitioned judges from outlying towns and introduced summary verbal trials and public executions at hastily erected gallows, the AP says.

He wrote a new law condemning food price gougers to four months rowing in galleons and also waived new food taxes.

He ordered neighboring districts to send bread and flour to Lisbon and appointed a superintendent of transport and an inspector of building safety.

It was a massive task, fires raged through the city for six days after the quake and some streets were still impassable a month later, but prompt action prevented a bigger disaster.