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THE BAY AREA QUAKE : What Next? : PONDERING THE LESSONS, HEALING THE SCARS : This Wasn't the Big One for State's Economy : Business: High survival rate of newer structures leads forecasters to say the tremors will have little long-term effect.

October 20, 1989|HARRY ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seismologists say the Bay Area earthquake was not the Big One they expected to devastate wide areas of California by the end of the century. That's still to come, they warn.

But was it the economic Big One--the disaster that, combined with congestion, pollution and other ills, will finally push the booming California economy off the cliff?

The initial evidence suggests that the answer is no. And over the long run, man-made threats to growth are more likely to curtail the state's boom than natural forces.

Throughout the 1980s, economists have marveled at the state's economic strength. Its traditional industries, including defense, agriculture and entertainment, have remained healthy, and a flood of new businesses--among them, financial services, apparel, international trade and technology--have had phenomenal growth. Meanwhile, immigrants from all over the world, from low-wage day laborers to highly trained technocrats, have kept the California "growth machine" well oiled.

For some, it has amounted to a "Don't Worry--Be Happy" economic situation, with no clouds on the horizon. The Pacific Age has dawned, with California at the hub; virtually nothing can quickly derail the huge economic forces that set in motion the state's growth.

California's economy, coupled with the fortunate accident of its geographical location at the crossroads of Pacific trade, has built to a critical mass--a term economists use to mean that momentum has built to such a velocity that it's hard to imagine anything that could slam on the brakes.

But most economists who have written such sanguine forecasts for the state have usually included at least a footnote warning that California's growth could, of course, be disrupted by the Big One. Effects of a cataclysmic disaster, such as an earthquake or war, can't be factored into a computer-generated economic forecast, the economists have said. If the region is physically devastated, all bets are off.

What seems clear in the wake of the temblor in the Bay Area is that the worst damage was suffered by older buildings and the so-called infrastructure, most notably roads, bridges and public utilities.

The physical facilities used by business--from skyscrapers to warehouses--were remarkably unscathed. Much of that is credited to the fact that business facilities tend to be newer buildings built under modern construction codes that mandate a fairly high resistance to earthquakes.

Telephone lines, the vital arteries that keep business alive in the Information Age, were disrupted, but not for very long. Most companies were able to reassure customers and employees throughout the world within hours. Pacific Bell credits technological improvements and experience gleaned from prior quakes for its quick ability to get the phones working again this time.

What's more, over the past decade most major businesses have practiced disaster preparedness to reduce injuries and damage. For the most part, the plans worked well on Tuesday, particularly emergency power systems that kicked in to save computer memories and delicate high-tech equipment.

So, will fear of physical devastation from more quakes likely prevent business from expanding in California? The consensus is probably not.

"It's reassuring that the newer structures in the Bay Area withstood the quake so well," said Jane Pisano, executive director of Los Angeles 2000, a quasi-government group that has studied future trends in Southern California.

Investors who put up the money to build skyscrapers and factories will be looking at what survived the quake, not what was destroyed, she said. "Will a Japanese investor rather invest now in Memphis . . . ? Probably not."

The biggest worry that future investors may have, she adds, will be the cost to rebuild the infrastructure that proved so vulnerable in the Bay Area. If business is tapped to pay a significant share of the rebuilding costs for this disaster, investors may fret over the costs they may bear for rebuilding after future quakes in California.

A number of experts also subscribe to the so-called "jitters" school of thought, which basically argues that the emotional impact of two major quakes in California in the past two years--the Whittier quake occurred in October, 1987--will scare away some businesses that might otherwise come to California and cause those here to plan any expansion outside the state.

"It will stunt our growth," one Los Angeles banker says. "No one will ever know by how much, but it's certain that the fear of quakes by people living elsewhere will hurt us."

In the short run, California will suffer economic harm from the quake, especially from an expected reduction in tourism as nervous travelers go elsewhere on vacation. And it's possible that, at least for awhile, the breathtaking run-up in California real estate prices may slow as worried investors hold off.

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