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The Big Shakedown : DISASTER POLITICS : The Charade of Preparedness

January 23, 1994|Mike Davis | Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hill)

How many more Californians will have to die before the Legislature seriously debates seismic safety?

Last Monday's earthquake has a political as well as a tectonic history. If nature defines the hazard, it is human action--or inaction--that translates it into risk. People, after all, are seldom swallowed up by the Earth, they are usually killed by falling architecture. Design mediates geology and is, in turn, supposedly regulated by policy.

But who determines what are the socially "acceptable" levels of earthquake risk? Certainly not the folks who live in $600-a-month apartments in Northridge or trailer parks in Newhall. Not even those whose million-dollar homes perch precariously on the slopes of the Santa Monicas or the Palisades.

In California, seismic safety is an issue superbly insulated from the volatility of democratic politics. Few of us have ever heard a candidate take a position on disaster planning or the contents of a building code. None of us has ever had the opportunity to vote on the trade-offs between public safety and the economic costs of hazard reduction.

What should be an open arena of public controversy is, in fact, a closed circle of collusion between technocrats and the real-estate industry. Earthquake engineering and land-use planning pay homage, first and above all, to corporate bottom lines. Developers have the majority vote--if not a de facto vote--over the calculus of risks and expenses. Lives are literally balanced against rates of return in equations that radically underestimate the restlessness of the Pacific plate.

But what of official reassurances that California is the "state of the art" in comprehensive planning for earthquake survival? Our elected representatives, perhaps unwittingly, are living a lie. For every mitigation achieved, public policy has also allowed an unnecessary magnification of a danger. Consider the four crucial areas of hazard zoning, the building code, disaster education and emergency mobilization.

First of all, local and state governments have utterly failed to manage land use for public safety. Sixty years ago, the nation's leading expert on urban form, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (whose father designed Central Park), urged Los Angeles to adopt "hazard zoning" to prevent the private development of foothills, river channels and wetlands. Recognizing that our landscape evolves through an inevitable cycle of fire, flood and earthquake, he proposed to minimize public risk while simultaneously preserving precious open space for future generations.

Instead of following Olmsted's advice, we have foolishly subdivided hither and yon--placing thousands of combustible wooden homes in the hearth of mountain wildfires, and hundreds of flimsy concrete boxes in the unstable beds of former swamps and lagoons. Like the San Francisco Bay Area (remember the Marina District in 1989?), a large swathe of Los Angeles is built on foundations of jello. The Times could render a public service simply by publishing the official "liquefaction potential" map of the L.A. area.

Second, the seismic provisions of the Uniform Building Code have been minimalist, grudging concessions to catastrophe. The bureaucracy usually waits until a building type fails in a major earthquake before legislating new rules. Reform is driven by body counts.

Thus, scores of public schools had to be reduced to rubble in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake (120 dead) before Sacramento imposed any restrictions on their construction. Similarly, Los Angeles procrastinated until slab-concrete warehouses, a shopping center and two hospitals collapsed in the 1971 Sylmar disaster (64 dead) before addressing elementary deficiencies in their design.

Some have argued that such grim "report cards" are unfortunate prerequisites to understanding the rules of safe construction. This is nonsense. It does not take a Cal Tech degree, for example, to understand that homes or apartments constructed over garages (like many in the Valley) have little shear resistance to shaking. This was a major category of structural failure during the Loma Prieta earthquake, and it should have been anticipated in Southern California as well.

Speculative building types, by definition, play chicken with seismic forces, and Los Angeles has its structural counter-parts to the killer mud huts of Third World cities. Was it really so difficult to foresee that shoddily built tenements of all ages--from the brick rent-mines of Hollywood to that stucco deathtrap in Northridge--would fall like dominoes in last week's quake?

Third, the public has been badly misinformed about the diversity of earthquake hazards in the Los Angeles Basin. The disaster bureaucracy has mesmerized us with its apocalyptic focus on the Big One, rather than providing detailed hazard maps to the faults in our own back yards. If the current tragedy has finally produced a televised teach-in about the treacherous jigsaw of deeply buried thrust faults, we still only know half the bad news.

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