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Jack Smith

He's already resolved to be ready to rock and roll with the Big One of '87

January 08, 1987|JACK SMITH

My resolution for 1987 is to be prepared for the Big One.

Seismologists tell us that it's coming--anytime within the next few decades. Maybe today.

Why not in 1987?

Those restless plates along the San Andreas Fault are grinding, grinding against each other, and sooner or later they are going to slip.

The trouble with seismology is that it isn't an exact science, in the sense that astronomy is. When the astronomers tell us that Halley's comet will next appear in 2063, we can count on it.

But seismologists have to give themselves 50 years leeway when predicting major earthquakes. That's why we don't really worry that they will ever come. Who can believe in the reality of 50 years from now?

I myself don't believe in that handy phrase "the foreseeable future." There is no foreseeable future. Tomorrow the millenium could come. Or the whole thing could go up in a ball of smoke. I don't even know who is going to win the Super Bowl.

I am going to do everyone a favor, though, and predict that the Big One comes on March 10, 1987. That will be the 54th anniversary of the big one that devastated Long Beach on March 10, 1933. There is no reason for nature to observe anniversaries, but I just feel right about that date. Anyway, it if far enough in the future to give everyone a chance to prepare for it, and not far enough to encourage procrastination.

To reinforce my resolution I went to the Museum of Science and Industry at Exposition Park the other day to see the earthquake exhibit. You take the stairs down from the lobby and turn right.

It has several graphic wall exhibits, including a movable map of the continents. You can shove Africa and South America against each other and see how they almost fit together. Once they were a single continent, which shows you that nothing is permanent. Our own continent is drifting at a rate of one to four inches a year.

The San Andreas Fault is a 700-mile gash in the Earth's crust that runs from Mexico to Cape Mendocino across deserts, farms, highways and towns.

If you think the movement of the two opposing plates isn't serious, look at it this way: In 10 million years, San Francisco will be a suburb of Los Angeles. I hope I'm here to read what Herb Caen says about that.

But the main attraction of the exhibit is the furnished room that reacts to an earthquake at the push of a button.

You step up onto a carpeted platform. The small furnished room is closed off by a three-foot iron fence. In the room are a cane rocking chair, two framed wall posters, a bookcase with half a dozen books, a ceramic vase and a television set, and three potted plants.

You push the red button and the demonstration begins. Or it's supposed to begin. I was standing beside a young couple who pushed the button and nothing happened. They walked away. I pushed the button again. The television screen flashed on in an abstraction of black and white. Finally it resolved into a color picture of Dr. George giving a routine weather report, with his pointer on a map.

Suddenly he lurches and yells "Whoa!" The platform you are standing on begins to shake. The posters on the wall begin to tilt. The rocker rocks. A roar emanates from the walls, accompanied by the sound of crumbling structures. The lights go out.

"It must be the Big One they've been warning us about," cries Dr. George.

The picture changes to a scene of devastation in downtown Los Angeles. Bodies are being dug from the rubble of a fallen building while Joanne Ishimine stands in the foreground, microphone in hand, telling us about it.

Many buildings have collapsed, she says. Many people are buried, alive and dead.

Then back to the ABC studio, which seems to be intact, where Larry Carroll summarizes. "It seems this was indeed the Big One," he says calmly. "The death toll is into the tens of thousands."

The shaking stops. The lights go on. The rocking chair is stilled. The posters are restored to their proper alignment.

It was a good illusion. When the floor began to shake and the lights went out and the pictures tilted and the rocker began to rock and the roar came, my heart beat faster.

However, I have been through several earthquakes, including the Long Beach quake of 1933, and the simulated quake at the museum wasn't nearly that violent. I believe the museum has explained that to simulate a quake of 8.3 on the Richter scale would not only be too scary but also too dangerous.

I am also suspicious that the room didn't shake at all. I noticed that the bookcase didn't tilt; the books didn't slide; the ceramic vase didn't rock, and the potted plants didn't tremble. Evidently only the platform we stood on was actually shaking. The rocking chair and the posters must have been moved by some individual stimuli.

But maybe it will give lots of people some idea of what an earthquake is like.

I do remember that in the Long Beach quake the floor shook so violently that I couldn't take a step, and in the Sylmar quake of a few years ago three of our solid oak bookcases crashed to the floor, shattering their glass doors and splintering the frames.

Remember. The Big One is coming on March 10, 1987. Get ready.

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