My Impending Catastrophe

Today, L.A. is deep into its late summer routines. Kids are back in school. Labor Day is already forgotten. As always, there are fires and, as always, these presage midwinter mudslides. The days have been hotter than average, and the plus-90 days are more frequent than they once were. But this is easy to miss. There are heat waves every year, and none of us keep count of the days. And we are, after all, at the edge of a desert. While Floridians and Texans clean up from their respective disasters, we Angelinos donate money, prayers, and good wishes. We click send and go about our business.

These routines will continue undisturbed until the Pacific and North American plates again scrape against one another. Along a several hundred mile stretch, a twitch – just a few feet of movement – will be more than enough to cause catastrophic damage.

Gradually, I’ve prepared. I bolted the heaviest furniture to the studs. To stop most of the books from tumbling, I’ve installed shock cord across bookcase shelves. Child locks secure kitchen cabinets, minimizing the broken glass and plates. Come a sufficiently powerful quake, a shut-off valve will instantly cut the gas to the house, reducing the risk of leaks and fire. The water heater – replaced and relocated outside the house after it leaked into our laundry room – is securely strapped in place. We’ve rebolted the house to the foundation, one bolt every sixteen inches. I have earthquake insurance – a policy more robust (so we’re assured) than what’s on offer from the California Earthquake Authority.

When I was a kid, I loved earthquakes. None of them was very large, but I found the sensation of the whole ground moving at once a happy surprise. It wasn’t until I was thirteen that I went through the real thing, the 1971 Sylmar quake. The shaking startled me awake at six a.m. I was thrilled: I stood up in my bed so I could feel the violence more acutely. Then I looked out the window. A bright lightning flash illuminated the entire downtown skyline, as if every fluorescent and neon bulb had exploded all at once against the predawn dark. Magnificent!

The district canceled school for the next three days. My sister and I were delighted. There must have been broken glass, fallen books and shattered plates, but I remember none of it. Nor do I remember the anxiety my parents must have felt when they discovered that the quake had jarred a corner of the house right off the foundation.

Elsewhere in the world, quakes the size of Sylmar destroy entire cities and kill thousands. For this magnitude of disaster, L.A. is reasonably well prepared. Most of the damage inflicted by Sylmar, Whittier and Northridge was local, and the death toll was held to under a hundred.

However, a more powerful quake, the “big one” that’s long been predicted for the San Andreas, would overwhelm the entire region.

Carey McWilliams called Southern California “an island on the land.” Look at the region from space and you see what he means: a small gray urban stain confined by the Coast Range and the Tehachapis to the north, the Mojave Desert to the east, and the Pacific to the west.

The region is utterly dependent on far-flung infrastructure. Our water comes from sources hundreds of miles to our east and north. Our electricity reaches us thanks to power lines connected to coal-fired plants in the Mojave. Our food reaches from the Central Coast and the San Joaquin Valley via highways 101 and 5. A rapid organized relief effort would all but require functional ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, functional runways at LAX and, of course, functional freeways. Destroy any of that infrastructure, and we’ll all be in deep trouble.

For that quake, I’m not nearly prepared. I need to put up much, much more water. The standard recommendation, a gallon per person for three days, is fine for the kind of quakes I’ve seen in my lifetime. For a crisis on the scale that southern Mexico recently endured, it could be weeks before the taps actually worked again. The same is true of food. There’s no guarantee the house itself will be habitable. Bolting furniture to the walls doesn’t do much good if the walls themselves crack and shatter.

My greatest vulnerability, though, is that I don’t really want to leave. I toy with moving away – I’ve idly checked out real estate elsewhere in the United States and beyond. But I’m not really serious. Apart from its proximity to the end of the world – and its current experiment in the forced expulsion of younger middle-class families unable to afford its exorbitant real estate – California remains a good place to live.

My own ancestors would have advised me differently. I know my family’s history back ten generations and more. Of the five thousand kin whose names I’ve recorded, most knew something that I’ve never learned: be prepared to leave. Migration is not a recent phenomenon. My ancestors and yours cast aside towns, countries, continents, and languages for others, widening their opportunities, satisfying their curiosity, slaking their own conquistador bloodlust, or saving their own skins.

Love people, not things: that’s excellent counsel, counsel my ancestors would no doubt give me were they at my side.

But I like my skyscrapers of books and my long rows of academic journals. I like covering entire walls with advice on travel and gardening and paper-making. I like old photographs, and I have thousands, in archival boxes, photo albums, and early 20th century frames. I like wooden bookcases and gun-metal file cabinets and art on the walls. I like my ramshackle garden and my broken down termite-weakened picket fence.

This personal preference leaves me ill-prepared for the disaster movie in which I may one day be cast. I will never play the staring role in that film: to do that, I’d have to cut my losses and move on, winnowing my possessions to a few precious pounds I can carry on my back. More likely, I’ll stay until the ground breaks, the water rises, and there’s no way out.

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