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The Golden State of DENIAL : Disasters: How do many Californians prepare for a quake? By tuning out their fears. Experts call it a normal, primitive reaction to a crisis--that can be taken to unhealthy extremes.

January 26, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dennis Persons is a second-generation Californian who lives nearly atop the San Andreas Fault in Palmdale. He's also a fu neral director who, in the 1980s, worked on an area earthquake contingency plan to deal with up to 10,000 bodies in the event of the Big One.

But when last week's magnitude 6.6 Northridge quake struck, he still hadn't stocked up on food, water or flashlights. And still, after determining that he, his wife and his house were OK, his first inclination was to roll over and go back to sleep.

"Like a lot of people, you think you're going to live forever. You think this happens someplace else," said Persons, 42. "After it's over, it goes to the back burner, then you're not prepared again for the next one.

"I guess it's some psychological thing."

Mental health professionals call it denial. It is, they say, a normal if primitive reaction to disaster, and such a constant companion to Californians that it seems part of their very nature.

All healthy organisms use denial to some degree as a defense mechanism against trauma, loss or impending catastrophe, said Dr. Kirk Murphy, a psychiatrist with UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital. As a coping mechanism, denial is less sophisticated than sublimation (losing ourselves in work or hobbies) and more internal than, say, consuming alcohol, but works in the same way to numb intolerable feelings of helplessness.

"Everyone lives in a state of denial. It's necessary in order to enjoy life. We'd all be walking around barely functional if we thought about all the horrible things that could happen to us," said Encino psychologist Martha Widawer.

But how much denial is too much?

Audrey Riggs, 70, of Westchester, said she doesn't like to think about earthquakes. "I'm afraid," said Riggs, who has lived in California since 1945. When the temblor hit, she was "totally unprepared."

Excessive denial, of course, can be fatal to individuals who insist on remaining in harm's way--such as the man next to Mt. St. Helens who refused to vacate his home despite warnings of an imminent eruption. And it can be costly to society if leaders put off thinking about how to build safer buildings and bridges once the immediate crisis passes.

After a decade of official statewide earthquake preparedness programs, Californians appear to have become increasingly realistic about earthquakes. Disaster researchers said the state is better prepared in building codes, land surveys and awareness programs than such places as Manhattan and Missouri, which also sit atop earthquake faults. Still, most Californians haven't fully prepared for one.

According to a 1993 UCLA study, many people in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay area have done the "easy things"--stocking up on flashlights, radios, food, water and first aid kits.

But very few have done the "hard things," such as creating a family earthquake plan or bolting down their homes. Only one-fifth had prepared for earthquakes at work. Only about 15% had purchased earthquake insurance. A handful, 4%, knew of a neighborhood earthquake plan.

More than twice the proportion of Northern Californians (16%) had structurally reinforced their homes as Southern Californians (6%). Fewer than 15% in both regions had secured their furniture and less than 10% had installed cupboard latches.

Although preparedness rates are generally up from 11% after the 1971 Sylmar quake, UCLA sociology researcher Linda Bourque said: "I'm not sure I can say the denial levels have gone down."

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No one knows, for instance, how many people are like Burbank real estate broker Gary Claussen, 53, who put an earthquake survival kit in his car seven years ago but never touched it again until last week. "The batteries were dead. Crackers were smashed (by the) canned goods. The water had leaked out. Threads broke on the zipper. I went to reach for a candle and only felt a string in melted wax. Everything in there had been cooked."

Claussen doesn't think he'll get another kit. "Those things cost about $100," he said.

One school of thought says Californians are predisposed to denial by their very attraction to a geography with no natural life-sustaining features. Indeed, one woman said that after watching the effects of the disaster on TV, she drove through Manhattan Beach, where people were jogging and walking along the beach as if nothing had interrupted their holiday.

It wasn't until she heard personal stories from friends closer to the epicenter that she was inspired to prepare for aftershocks by taking pictures off walls and taping cabinets shut.

"We live in a culture of denial," said Laguna Beach psychologist Ellen McGrath, who has counseled fire survivors. She believes that people must confront their denial and replace it with "calm awareness" of the disaster in order to remain healthy.

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