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'Disaster Guy' Studies Quake Effects : Professor Is Interested in How Whittier Victims Are Faring

August 20, 1989|TINA DAUNT | Times Staff Writer

At the New Mexico State University campus in Las Cruces, professor and researcher Robert Bolin is known simply as "the disaster guy."

Since 1973, the 40-year-old sociology professor has studied scores of disasters across the county. He has researched the sociological effects of just about everything from deadly floods in Utah to tornadoes in Texas. He has written books and given lectures on how people cope after disasters.

Through all his studies, Bolin said he has found few natural disasters as frightening as an earthquake.

"Tornadoes give clues, there are storm clouds," Bolin said. "Before a flood it could rain for days and even weeks. But there are no clues before an earthquake. When they occur, they occur rapidly. Sixty seconds later, you've lost everything.

"You grow up with weather, but you don't grow up with the ground heaving up and down beneath you. It's an alien, unfamiliar feeling."

And worst of all, there is no place to hide from an earthquake, Bolin said.

The researcher's interest in earthquakes has prompted him to take a closer look at the Oct. 1, 1987, Whittier Narrows earthquake.

Federal Grant Awarded

Recently he was awarded a $70,000 federal grant to study how earthquake victims of the Whittier temblor are recovering. Bolin's assistant, Helaine Prince-Aubrey, has been in Whittier for two weeks organizing the two-year study.

So far, field workers have interviewed about 70 people in the Uptown area of Whittier and plan to survey between 30 and 50 more. They have found that some Whittier residents are jumpy, depressed and anxious.

The earthquake, which measured 5.9 on the Richter scale, resulted in the deaths of three people and caused $368 million in damage in 55 cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Whittier, the epicenter of the quake, was most dramatically affected by the disaster and reported about $60 million in damage.

Bolin, who has been overseeing the project from his office at New Mexico State University, plans to join the researchers in Whittier next month.

Meanwhile, the professor is preparing to publish the results of a short-term study of the effects the earthquake has had on victims.

Bolin said he is often impressed at how communities join together in times of tragedy and help each other. But there is usually a group that misses out on much-needed assistance, he said.

'Usually Relates to Poverty'

"It usually relates to poverty," Bolin said. "The poor people with the greatest needs often get locked out of the aid. It's a matter of winners and losers."

Somehow the system always breaks down, Bolin said, which is why he believes it is important to study communities after disasters. By identifying the problem spots, policy makers and social service workers prepare for the next disaster, he said.

"Disasters are a very complex social process," Bolin said. "You can see the workings of society more clearly during a disaster. It's almost like an experiment in a lab. You get to see how society does under stress."

Choice of Location

Bolin said he also has noticed that people rarely consider the possibility of a catastrophe when they decide to live in an area.

People build houses on hills without thinking about landslides. Some live in reservoirs that are prone to floods. Others live in "tornado alley" and wonder from year to year whether their houses will still be standing after the tornado season.

And in California, "the pretty beaches and the great weather" seem to make up for the risks of earthquakes, Bolin said.

After a disaster, he finds that most people will make their homes again at the scene of the tragedy. In Whittier, for example, Bolin said he found that six months after earthquake, 75% of the 200 residents interviewed said they would not leave the place even though they had been through the quake. He said 25% indicated that they "probably" would leave.

Like many other sites of disasters, "there is a strong commitment to the community," Bolin said. "As a species, we're setting ourselves up for a lot of disasters."

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