Acts of God shatter human laws Earthquake, hurricane: Science soars to space, but it cannot curb the ravages of nature, this time in Italy and Mexico.

October 18, 1997

GIOTTO DI BONDONE painted saints with individual humanity and modeled faces, pointing Italian painting away from Byzantine forms toward the Renaissance. In the early 14th century he painted frescoes of the life of St. Francis of Assisi on the ceiling of the basilica in the saint's home town of Assisi. They have drawn religious and art pilgrims since, indestructible despite invasions, revolution, pollution, earthquakes and even the Allied drive up the Italian boot in World War II -- until September 26.

That's when an earthquake killed dozens of people in central Italy and shook loose the precious plaster. Nothing that seismology has learned about predicting, understanding and building for earthquakes prepared the basilica to withstand the shock. The rush of conservators and volunteers to gather precious plaster fragments of Giotto's frescoes (which will live forever in reproduction) in hope of reconstruction was daunted by the recurring aftershocks.

A hemisphere away in Acapulco, a city of fun for tourists and reality for a million residents on Mexico's southern coast, Hurricane Pauline smashed ashore Oct. 9, destroying flimsy buildings, swamping drainage, killing perhaps 450, depriving 20,000 people of homes. It was sent by El Nino, the warming trend in the far Pacific that deprived Indonesia and Malaysia of seasonal rain, giving them forest fires instead that blanketed Southeast Asia in haze and smoke. With satellites, these phenomena are tracked and understood as never before, not prevented.

These calamities add to the woes of the on-again-off-again government of Italy's Prime Minister Romano Prodi and the shaky credibility of Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo. He rushed to Acapulco from a state visit in Germany, only to be heckled and blamed by the victims. Not that mere governments can blunt the brutalities of nature.

Technology has not tamed acts of God. It has, though, put all the world in instant touch; in previous centuries, similar calamities in far-flung locations went largely unnoticed. Many problems have been alleviated by the march of progress, but with more construction and more people acts of God could become more ferocious in coming decades.

Pub Date: 10/18/97

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