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Los Angeles Times Special Report : On the Fault Line : Southern Californians Take Stock of the Earthquake : The State From Hell? : Southern Californians debate the risk-reward ratio of life in the land of the shifting sand

January 19, 1994|PATT MORRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So which is it: Do we live in Eden or in a hellhole?

Is this place trying to shake us off, or is it only doing this to test the worthy?

Has Southern California made a Faustian bargain with a devil wearing Ray Bans and slouching behind the wheel of a BMW ragtop?

The ground had not yet stopped quivering when the long-distance calls from the frost zones commenced. After "Are you all right?" came the importuning: "Move back here, where it's safe, move back here, where there are no riots, no fires." Where you can get hypothermia just retrieving your newspaper from the lawn. Where, in Rochester, Minn., 24 hours after the earthquake, the wind chill factor was bottoming out at 74 below.

Within hours of the 6.6 at 4:31, a Connecticut expatriate living in the Fairfax district got a phone call that promised her everything--free meals, free rent, free heat--if she would just come back to the Constitution State. Her mom would move all those clothes out of her old bedroom. Her dad would put his barbells somewhere else.

Another New England woman who came here in 1989 fended off calls--more insistent than post-riot, post-flood, post-fire calls--demanding that she return home immediately. The woman answered her L.A. friends more delicately: "Hell, no! We've suffered through the worst L.A. has to offer. I'm not leaving till I get a taste of paradise. Southern California owes us!"

From Minneapolis, early on quake day, a woman wheedled her Los Angeles friend: "At least with 40-below weather, you can plan . And you know it's not going to hit you in August. . . . So for at least part of the year, you're safe. But you're never safe. Guess you'd better think about moving back home, eh?"

Think again.

"Disaster is not an enduring discomfort--cold weather is an enduring discomfort. Cold weather emptied the Midwest and filled California," said author and California sage Kevin Starr. "I do think there's a special ability to live in high-reward, high-risk situations. That's different from a long, steady winter."

After Monday's latest basic training exercise in Southern California connect-the-dot disasters, brace yourselves for another kind of shock: the usual death-of-California pronouncements in any publication with offices east of the Continental Divide.

This one came Tuesday from a news service, solemn, even elegiac in tone: "The covenant was once fun in the sun. Now Southern California's promise seems to have turned methodically bleak: fire, flood, riot, drought, stubborn recession and reprise earthquakes."

*

The first action-news report of a Southern California earthquake--from the Portola expedition of 1769--set the style for civic nonchalance that was to hold for 200 years. Juan Crespi's diary from Aug. 1, 1769, a Thursday: "At ten in the morning the earth trembled. The shock was repeated with violence at one in the afternoon, and one hour afterwards we experienced another. The soldiers went out this afternoon to hunt, and brought an antelope . . . it was not bad."

In 1924, a German geographer ruminated that an earthquake might one day fulfill Southern California's singular destiny, cutting it free from the rest of the continent so it could drift into the South Pacific, there to become a little tropical paradise.

John Weaver, Los Angeles' unofficial historian, watched the latest goings-on from his new Nevada home. "I think it's in the genes. It's the kind of people who come to California--they're the ones who are not satisfied at home. People like that don't give up. . . . If one thing goes wrong, they'll try something else."

Today, the neo-pioneers of Southern California lay bravado bets on the strength of aftershocks and go on, in aplomb and denial and eternal risk, buoyed by the odds--two score people dead among millions--and the same adrenal exaltation Winston Churchill described from his soldiering days in the Boer war: "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."

The exhilaration--and the worry--sent people to Roberta Goldfeder's Extend-a-Life store in Pasadena on Tuesday, where clerks handed out "Don't Panic" buttons.

"Some who are coming into the showroom have heard their neighbors say (they're leaving). We heard it after Whittier Narrows (quake), we heard it after Loma Prieta--'We're going to leave.'

"I don't understand that psychology," the former nurse said. "I would never go back to New York. California is still, as far as I can see, the place to live. Anywhere you go you have problems. I lived through Hurricane Donna in 1960. I was stuck in a subway during the great blackout in New York. It's your daily life that makes the difference--to wake up in January and walk outside with no coat on."

Yet another New Yorker--an actor who just moved to Sherman Oaks and wouldn't give his name--was waiting in the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Quake Day. His wife, an actress, had cut her forehead and wanted it stitched up so it wouldn't get in the way of her getting parts.

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