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I. The capital of catastrophe
In the 17th and 18th centuries, European workers flocked by the thousands to a faraway colonial Dutch port later to be known as Jakarta. The lure of the tough, six-month ocean journey was easy enough to see: seemingly limitless island forests of clove and nutmeg, spices that commanded a fortune back home. But half died horribly within months of getting there, numbering 2,000 and more victims a year. The main culprit was malaria, but the colonizers also succumbed to typhus, cholera, dysentery, and dengue fever. Even when they survived the tropical sicknesses, they suffered rash, heat, and a dozen other grievances in what was called “the unhealthiest town in the world.”
Then, in 1815, there emerged a new nightmare. In a terrifying, week-long eruption, a volcano called Tambora pushed out waves of tsunamis, killing an estimated 70,000 local people and casting a chill shadow across the planet. The subsequent summer, the volcanic pall caused snow and hail storms in Maine, New York, and Virginia, killing their corn and oat crops. In China, Tambora wiped out the rice harvest, and in Germany the potatoes. Tens of thousands of Irish died of starvation and typhus, and famished Swiss rioted and looted.
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And so it has gone. Since before recorded history, Indonesia has been the world’s vortex of natural catastrophe, largely due to its location: The nation of 17,500 islands could not be in a worse place tectonically, within the “Ring of Fire,” a huge, horseshoe-shaped seismic zone that stretches east all the way to California’s San Andreas Fault and Washington state’s Mount St. Helens. Just west of the Ring is the Alpide Belt, the world’s next-most seismically active zone. Together, the Ring of Fire and the Alpide account for 95% of all the world’s known earthquakes since the…