It is important early on to understand clearly what this book is and what it is not. As a scholarly work of social science, "Waiting for Disaster" does an exhaustive job of reporting on the results of a study of community response and media attention centering around a decade-old geological and potentially seismic phenomenon known as the Palmdale bulge.
In February, 1976, five years after the San Fernando-Sylmar earthquake, a mysterious uplift in the Earth's surface in the Palmdale area raised certain concerns and questions: Was this a precursor to an earthquake? And if so, what might be learned about the response of the community and the media from such a warning sign?
Three sociologists, Ralph H. Turner, Joanne M. Nigg and Denise Heller Paz, undertook a three-year (1977-1979) analysis of media coverage and a half-dozen population surveys to study how the media conveyed the news of a potentially impending disaster, how the public interpreted the news and what, if anything, the public did about it.
But the book is regrettably weak in presenting a body of usable knowledge that would, for example, benefit Californians living near earthquake faults or who had a fear of "the big one," or that would help the media do a better job of reporting on the accuracy of "earthquake predictions"--a concept that, for now, remains elusive.
"(E)arthquake forecasts are intrinsically probabilistic rather than factual, and thus they are not strictly subject to belief and disbelief," the authors state in a typical example of fence-straddling reporting. "Instead, they can be taken seriously or dismissed lightly, and . . . may lead people to expect a serious earthquake soon or to retain serious doubts." Is it any wonder, then, that these researchers found that a majority of the people are "fatalistic"?
The authors state that one of their key aims "was to provide a basis for refining our understanding of what community response will be when valid earthquake predictions are released to the community sometime in the future." But there is no foundation in the work to support the notion that earthquakes will ever be forecast with anything approaching scientific accuracy. To date, for example, the only thing the 10-year-old Palmdale bulge has spawned has been this book.
A more useful study might have been to examine the media attention and public response to more reliably predictable disasters--such as hurricanes, tornadoes or volcanic eruptions. If a pattern of response were found, researchers then could make certain logical assumptions about the public's response to earthquake predictions in the future--if and when such predictions ever do become reality.
When the authors state, "The media were as ill prepared as government and private agencies to deal with the newly intensified earthquake threat," the reader must question whether anyone believed there was a threat. The original bulge, after all, was "an uplift of no more than one foot, spread over thousands of square miles, (and which) could only be detected through the most sophisticated mapping techniques."
While there is, to be sure, important sociological information contained within the pages, the authors are reluctant to interpret such data or to make helpful recommendations or constructive criticisms. Nevertheless, the careful and intuitive reader will be able to sift through the voluminous survey results and apply his or her own standards to the information.
Of more urgency to Californians, the authors report that "miscommunication and misunderstanding between authorities and the public" permit people to implicitly and erroneously treat "the near predictions, forecasts, and cautions" as merely long-range preliminary announcements which will be followed by short-term warnings. Despite the authors' bold and accurate claim that this is "a new observation of great importance," it sadly is not accompanied by even a semblance of prescriptive countermeasures.
Finally, they write: "The more responsible media are plagued by fears of the opposing evils of public apathy and panic: One consequence of these twin fears is the practice of presenting items according to an alarm-and-reassurance pattern"--first announcing the alarming threat of impending events (e.g., a possible earthquake) followed by reassurances (e.g., the seismic adequacy of Southern California construction). The authors chide the media: "The reader (of media reports) is then offered little, if any, help in resolving the contradictory message into a reasonable set of conclusions."
Alas, the same can be said of this book.