Special to The Washington Post
After 40-plus years in earthquake country, I should know better. But if you pop the trunk of my car or check the shelves of my home in Southern California, you won’t find any jugs of water or emergency supply kits. Never mind that as a journalist I’ve reported on two big quakes and seen what can happen. Or that another pair of jumbo temblors jolted the region last week. I’m like a clueless horror film character in a haunted mansion at midnight. Even though a monster lurks just around the corner, I keep walking down the hall, oblivious to the screeching violins playing in the background.
I’m not alone. Something about earthquakes seems to bring out the gambler in people - occasionally literally. In Oregon a few years back, state lottery officials devised a plan to make sure their video poker and game operations would be back in action within a few hours after a quake. Because, hey, if the Big One levels your house, you may need a scratcher ticket or two to finance a replacement.
Then again, one lesson that stuck with me after reporting on the San Francisco Bay area’s 1989 Loma Prieta quake - a 6.9 on the Richter scale that killed five dozen people and caused $6 billion in damage - was to rent rather than buy a house. I had interviewed a man in Los Gatos whose beautiful Victorian residence was hurled off its foundation, sort of like a West Coast version of Dorothy’s home in “The Wizard of Oz” (minus the wicked witch). As a tenant, you can simply walk away in such a circumstance.
But most of the other tectonic tips I vowed to follow after that quake soon fell by the wayside. Scientists call this phenomenon “earthquake amnesia.” A scene in the movie “L.A. Story” illustrates the syndrome. As Steve Martin dines out with friends, a strong temblor strikes. Glasses rattle, tables slide along the floor and an ice sculpture snaps in two. Yet everyone at the restaurant carries on as if nothing is amiss.
Like traffic jams and smog, earthquakes are just part of the landscape here. On average, Southern California records 10,000 tremors a year, although most are too small to be felt. So, it’s easy to disregard the existential threat.
Yes, there are occasional reminders of the danger - school safety drills, disaster flicks and ominous Steely Dan lyrics (“California tumbles into the sea”) - but they quickly fade from consciousness. When Friday’s 7.1 quake rocked Dodger Stadium, the organist played a few notes from Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” while fans sat tight and the game continued without interruption, according to news reports.
Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that fewer than 12 percent of Californians carry earthquake insurance policies. Adding to the false sense of security are quake-resistant building codes, a flurry of new retrofit laws for older structures and a dearth of major temblors in recent decades. Until last week’s shakers, Southern California had dodged the big-quake bullet for a remarkable 25 years. And even the new temblors were too remote to do much more than rattle nerves in populous areas.
For me, that’s been the case all along. Although haunting images occasionally come to mind as I drive the freeways (such as the Los Angeles police officer whose motorcycle plunged off a collapsed overpass in 1994’s predawn Northridge quake, which killed 57 and racked up $49 billion in damage), I’ve never been at the epicenter of a killer temblor. Most of the dozens of jolts I’ve felt were more reminiscent of a 1960s-era Magic Fingers hotel bed.
Loma Prieta was a different animal, according to the Northern California residents I interviewed at the time. The scene unfolded like an acid flashback, one man told me: “The walls were rippling, the floor was breathing and the windows undulated like liquid glass.” Outside, streetlamps and trees flailed around as if made of rubber. And parked cars bounced in the street like basketballs. Power outages were widespread, food went bad, water was scarce and frequent aftershocks led people to sleep outdoors. “It’s kind of like we’re homeless, except there’s my home right in front of me,” said a Los Gatos girl whose family was camped on the lawn by their damaged residence.
Seeing all this, I of course returned home and loaded up on canned food, batteries and other survival items for the inevitable Big One. Right?
Wrong. Like many Californians, I remain woefully unready for the large quakes in experts’ crystal balls. And the devastation of San Francisco’s monster 1906 quake - a 7.9 that killed an estimated 3,000 people and destroyed much of the city - is too abstract to motivate me. I don’t know if it’s denial, fatalism, procrastination or something else. But every time I read one of those sensible yet interminable earthquake preparedness checklists (strap bookshelves to the wall, outfit kitchen cabinets with baby-proof latches, keep a flashlight near your bed, don’t let your gas tank fall below three-quarters full, and so forth), the tips go in one eye and out the other. Or I rewrite them:
· When you feel an earthquake, immediately run to an area where there is not an earthquake.
n Animals often sense temblors in advance. Be on guard if you notice your cat storing dry food or phoning a travel agent about flights to Kansas.
n Setting your phone on vibrate during a temblor will double the quake’s power.
n Any pool becomes a wave pool during a quake, so keep your surfboard handy.
n Always serve white wine during a quake, never red.
Luckily, Arizona is picking up the slack. In 2018, the state conducted a three-day practice drill for handling an influx of 400,000 California quake refugees - assuming our electric cars and scooters will have enough juice to cross the desert. Or we can surf over on the tsunami.