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The Big Shakedown : NATURE'S FORCE : Building a Life on Dreams

January 23, 1994|Michael Ventura | Michael Ventura is the author of "Letters at 3 a.m.--Reports on Endarkenment" (Spring Publications).

Once upon a time, many millions of years ago, the top of Mt. Everest was miles beneath the sea and New Jersey was on the west coast of Africa. Those facts may seem quite far from the frayed nerves of Ange lenos, weary with loss and anxious with aftershocks, but it's worth our time to ask: How did limestone from the ocean's depths move thousands of feet into the air and become the world's highest mountain? And how did a piece of West Africa voyage across what is now the Atlantic Ocean and become--New Jersey?

The answer: earthquakes. Many, many, many earthquakes.

We think of movement in terms of miles per hour, not inches per century, so it's hard for us to grasp that it not only took millions of years for West Africa to become New Jersey, or for the ocean bottom to become Everest. It also took millions (yes, millions ) of earthquakes.

What we of Los Angeles need to realize is that earthquakes are one of the basic formative activities of the planet, and that the process never stops. Geologically, New Jersey and its surroundings are calm compared with Los Angeles--yet New York had a small earthquake only a few years ago. So did Maine. And the biggest quake recorded in North America was in the Midwest, circa 1812--it was felt as far east as Washington. Nobody knows when these sites will be active again. But we do know that even the quietest places, geologically, can suddenly and violently waken. And we know that, compared to other regions, Los Angeles is a place where the rocks never sleep.

The scientists assure us that things are never going to calm down around here, at least not for long. This is what the geologist at Cal Tech was referring to on Wednesday, when she cheerfully told a rather baffled room of journalists that the city of Los Angeles is headed northwest.

In about 15 million years, she said, we'll be right next door to San Francisco. That's because Los Angeles is on a Pacific "plate" or segment of the Earth's crust, and SanFrancisco is on a continental plate; and these plates, like all the Earth's plates, are always moving and bumping into each other. We're going north whether we like it or not. What that geologist didn't elaborate on was that it will take several million earthquakes to get us there.

This poses a problem for Mayor Richard Riordan. And President Bill Clinton. Not to mention the rest of us. We can clean up from this quake the way we cleaned up from the quake in '71. We can make up new codes (since old ones clearly aren't adequate); we can get data about newly discovered faults; we can hand out money; help folks, and rebuild. We can do everything but change the basic situation. Because we're just cleaning up for the next quake. And the next.

The question is, can we stand that? As individuals, as a city and as a civilization?

Our recent 6.6 teaches that a 6.6 is about all this area can manage. Some four dozen are dead, thousands homeless, millions are nervous and a lot of structures are now unusable--but for the moment we can manage. Yet, what this quake indicates is that a larger quake will take down many more structures and kill many more people. And the scientists assure us that larger quakes are coming.

Geologists and seismologists agree that sometime soon, within our lifetime, "the Big One" will hit. They expect a 7 or 8 magnitude event that will affect most of California. Think: If a 6.6 is giving us magnitude 5 aftershocks, then a 7.6 will probably cause magnitude 6 aftershocks; and 8.6, magnitude 7.

"Waiting for the Big One" doesn't mean waiting for one major event, after which we can breathe easy. It means waiting for a monster quake that will, in turn, usher in a storm of shocks on the scale of what we've just gone through. You don't need a geology degree to see we haven't the technology to withstand that--all you have to do is drive around Santa Monica or the Valley and see how many structures have been declared uninhabitable.

And after the Big One, and its consequences, what then? If we have the resources to rebuild most of Southern California (and we may not), then the pressure will build for another five or 10 decades and we'll be right back where we started, over and over, until Los Angeles is next door to San Francisco.

A rational civilization might decide, in its private and collective deliberations, that it's time to move the population and industry of California to less geologically volatile areas. Plans could be made to do that gradually, over the next decade or so.

But this is expecting too much. No civilization I know about ever behaved that rationally. A few will leave. But most will stay, hoping against hope (as the strange phrase goes). But hope never stopped an earthquake.

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