Dealing with future earthquakes in California
August 7, 2013 5:27 PM   Subscribe

What do Californians think and feel about the possibility of future big earthquakes in that region, especially the so-called "Big One"? I'm looking for articles which really get into how those who dwell there handle that knowledge, respond to it, and so on. Articles about building standards or government response are fine, but I would like to know about individuals, groups, businesses and the like.

Links to articles, please. Articles also welcome from areas such as Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, if appropriate. Thank you.
posted by Thing to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The Los Angeles Times has certainly published articles like that in the past. The LA Times categorizes their articles, so some of those articles might appear in the Earthquake Safety collection on their website.

There was certainly a bunch of stuff published related to the state-wide Earthquake drill held last October.
posted by RichardP at 5:58 PM on August 7, 2013

Maybe Marc Reisner's A Dangerous Place? Book, not an article.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 6:31 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

SPUR, the San Francisco group focused on urban planning, has done extensive research on this. I suggest you start looking through their archives. here's a start.
posted by samthemander at 6:50 PM on August 7, 2013

There will always be earthquakes here in California. Most commercial buildings in SF have been earthquake retrofitted, I believe. But it's a huge state and not every area within it's borders are prone to devastating quakes. If you're deciding on whether to live here, you might research areas that are built away from faults and do not have a history of wide structural damage.
In any case, those of us who care try to be prepared (example:, have a readiness plan, know how to shut off our home's gas valve, and have a quake kit. Btw, only a small percentage of homes carry earthquake insurance...way expensive. But it's not like people can avoid natural disasters, they can happen anywhere, right?
posted by artdrectr at 7:15 PM on August 7, 2013

I didn't live in the Los Angeles region for the Northridge quake, but I was vacationing in Anaheim that morning and awake for the quake. Frickin' scary.

Now that I live here (and work for a municipal government) my earthquake awareness and preparedness is definitely heightened. Lots and lots of people live peacefully just by not thinking about it, but I've found that being well-prepared and having a plan can be just as settling. The city I work for swears all of its employees in as emergency workers, so the 'plan' I have was set up for me and I just have to fulfill my sworn duties. There's supplementary stuff as well (contacting family, caring for my pets and apartment, etc.) but knowing what I'm expected to do in respect to my job is reassuring right up to the point the ground starts moving. Then all bets are off.

The LA Times article linked above about the Great Shakeout state-wide drill is good, and here's a link to the non-region-specific Shakeout website.
posted by carsonb at 7:56 PM on August 7, 2013

[A few comments deleted. Please note that the OP is asking for "articles which really get into how those who dwell there handle that knowledge... Links to articles, please" -- so articles or sites with info that addresses this rather than personal responses or general discussion, please. Thanks.]
posted by taz (staff) at 12:59 AM on August 8, 2013

I grew up in Los Angeles, and remember being terrified by The Big One after Whittier in 1987. There was so much press coverage of CalTech scientists looking at maps, "there is a very good chance we will see a major seismic event in the next ten years. The Big One." Quite a few of my school friends were equally as scared, as that was our first "big" earthquake.

Yet adults didn't seem bothered at all. They laughed and joked about it, in fact. "Oh, did you hear? The Big One is coming! Oh, watch out for The Big One!".

At the time, I asked an uncle about it, and his response was "The Big One has been coming since I was your age. In the 70s, they told us in school that California was going to fall into the sea and float out to Hawaii."

To my knowledge, there have been quite a few earthquakes in California, and the state hasn't created a bloom of beachfront property in Las Vegas and isn't much closer to Hawaii.

How does one deal with it? Acceptance, I suppose. There was Whittier in 1987, and then Loma Prieta in 1989, and then Landers in 1992, and Northridge in 1994. There was never a "Big One", rather lots of medium ones (and tons and tons of little ones.) Each time, the experience was less scary. The media doesn't do any favours by showing collapsed buildings on infinite repeat and comparing the situation to Chile or China. They told us after Northridge that about 100 people had died in that earthquake – that we had a better chance of being in a bad car accident than being harmed in an earthquake.

Also, technology is evolving so quickly to manage potential impacts. When I started traveling, I began noticing how overbuilt everything is in California. The pylons and supporting structures of roadways are thick. The frames of building are a bit stocky. Brick buildings have little patchworks of iron plates on the outside. It's quite common for people to complain about the price of having their house bolted to its foundation.

When I first arrived in the UK, I was mystified by the amount of brick here. So much brick. As a Californian, you are taught to be suspicious of brick. Especially unreinforced brick. Brick is beautiful and all, but not exactly earthquake-proof. Further, the oversized construction of everything in California resonated. The about of rebar used on construction sites. The thickness of concrete liners.

And then there's the preparedness aspect. I had a bag of camping gear in the back of my SUV, and it was always stocked with a bottle of water, old running shoes, iodine tablets, nutrition bars, a flashlight, and dehydrated meals (mmm... Mountain House...). It turns out a well-prepared camping kit is also ideal for earthquakes. Every home I lived in had an earthquake kit, usually in an old milk crate. Check the batteries in the mag-light every six months. Rotate out the plastic one gallon bottles of Arrowhead or Alhambra water. Add a headlamp flashlight or an old analog mobile phone to the crank-powered radio flashlight.

In Oakland, a family member lives on a street where there is a map of all the houses, with who has what role in an earthquake. Meeting point. Generator. Doctor. Nurse. Shortwave Radio. They have an informal service, where one fellow on the street updates everyone earthquake kit each year. New residents can buy one all ready to go from him.

And then there's more subtle aspects. Choosing routes to work for example. I sat on the Bay Bridge once in San Francisco for two hours in traffic, idly wondering "what if The Big One hit now? What would I do? I resolved that I would run back to Yerba Buena Island because the border of San Francisco is landfill, and the worst word to hear about during an earthquake is liquefaction. Everyone in San Francisco knows about liquefaction. Nobody in London seems to think about it much.

I was actually on the overpass between the I-10 and I-405 in Los Angeles when an earthquake hit. My car spontaneously changed lanes and there was a loud boom. Everyone immediately slowed down, and proceeded cautiously onto the 405. At which point they sped back up to 80mph with 10 feet in between cars. "OK, so there was an earthquake. Nothing fell down. I'm hungry."

But liquefaction. No building code can contend with liquefaction. Not really relevant in much of LA, but very relevant in San Francisco. House leap in price as one goes up the hill from the Marina to Cow Hollow, ostensibly because at some point, the ground switches from landfill to rock. As it turns out, rock is much more desirable and therefore expensive. Would you like an overpriced house built on landfill, or a massively overpriced house built on rock? A four bedroom that may sink back into the bay? Or a two bedroom where you can watch houses sink back into the bay?

Then there's earthquake insurance. Like all insurance, you hope you never have to use it, but it can be required by any mortgage, and it can be reasonably expensive in some areas.

Earthquakes are always there. They're not that uncommon. My grandmother can rattle them off going back to the 60s. She considers them more of an inconvenience than anything else. She's been hearing about The Big One for a long, long time. It's part of the ambient background noise of California. Have your kit ready. Maintain your kit. Buyer beware in terms of houses and building in general. When there is an earthquake, they will show a picture of San Francisco in 1906, lit on fire, and talk about how destructive an earthquake can be... when really they should be celebrating how destructive earthquakes are not, thanks to the building codes.

Although I will say the weirdest thing about earthquakes is that sometimes you know they're coming. The birds are silent. Or the dog goes crazy the day before. My aunt spoke about 'earthquake weather', when the heat seems to be coming from the earth rather than the sky. A subtle humidity in the air.

And you can 'hear' them coming, if it's the rolling kind, and not the crazy vertical shear type. The rolling ones sound like a low-frequency vibration, like a giant truck rumbling by, only it gets louder not fainter. And then the shaking starts and things vibrate and maybe crash. Car alarms go off and maybe the power flickers on and off for a second. The shaking can be quite intense, and you get under something, or in a doorway, and ride it out. Sometimes there's a pause, it seems done. Oh no, it's not quite done. Just a little more. And then it stops. Whatever you were thinking about a moment before is gone, and now you are thinking about the earthquake.

You call the people you love. "Feel it? Yup. We're alright. You alright? Good. Do you know where it was? Oh, it was much stronger here. Yup. Okay. Love you bye." Then there's an aftershock, a smaller rumble a short time later. The next day, everyone will talk about where they were, what they were doing. Someone will be in a car and have not even felt it, only to find out when they returned home. Someone will have slept through it. Someone else was in a building that almost collapsed – oh my god – until it didn't. Everyone will be sad about the buildings that did collapse, and mourn for the dead. There will be a little bit of chatter about The Big One. Everyone checks their earthquake kits. And then life goes on.

The two most memorable moments were juxtaposed. The first was on the twenty-something floor of an office building in Koreatown. The building was on rollers, with a counterweight at the top, and we could here the mammoth rollers through the building's skeleton. We felt as if we were at sea, as it rocked subtly back and forth. Nothing violent, just a very smooth rocking, and the tremendous sound of the rollers – subtly thunderous. The emergency lighting came on briefly. All the phones still worked. Our dial-up internet connection proceeded to get the email. Our clients from the East Coast panicked, and literally ran out of the building as soon as possible, taking twenty flights of stairs, although the elevators were fine. ("They all have emergency brakes," they said at the safety meeting. "The elevator is probably one of the safest places to be, as it's in the centre of the building," they said.

The other was at a campground out in the high desert. The earthquake hit about 4AM. It was strange because myself and a few mates all woke up at the same time, about twenty minutes before. It was summer and it was hot inside the campers, so we ended up outside to get drinks. We stood around the remnants of the campfire, and were chatting a bit – talking about the hike the next day. When it hit. But it was largely silent, save the creaking of the shock absorbers attached to one of the campers. There was just the rumbling and shaking, under a huge star-filled sky. In stark contrast to Koreatown, we weren't afraid of anything. There was nothing to fall on us. We were in a clearing surrounded by low trees and brush. There were no gas pipelines around to burst. We had generators, water, and all the food we needed for a week. So we stood, and rode it out. It was oddly sedate. Nobody screamed or panicked. We were a big group, and everyone just came out of their campers and tents. We rode it out, and then lit up the campfire again and made breakfast. Nobody really talked about it, for there was nothing to talk about. There was an earthquake, and now it was over. We wondered if anything had happened at home. A guy used his cell phone to call a few people, came back, and said everything was fine.

I'll always remember that moment – I was probably about 14 – because I realised that I wasn't afraid of earthquakes themselves, but being trapped inside something during an earthquake. That earthquake seemed so innocuous, and natural as a thunderstorm. I remember laughing at myself for having been afraid a few years before. The only thing I feared about earthquakes was being inside or underneath something people had built – not the earthquake itself.
posted by nickrussell at 3:23 AM on August 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I echo A Dangerous Place linked above, and also suggest Assembling California. It's probably more of the geology than you're looking for, but also includes the human parts of living in earthquake country.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:48 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live in California and I'm not worried. The only explanation I have for my own mind set is optimism bias.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 3:01 PM on August 8, 2013

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