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We Live to Tell the Tale

Survivors' stories, some hundreds of years old, are helping scientists understand earthquakes


Live here long enough, and you'll hear the stories unfold--compulsively, reflexively--as part of the local lore, as part of the way we wrap earthquakes into the culture of California. The trip wires are everywhere, 10 seconds after a quake when neighbors circle each others' driveways, or 10 years later, as was the case on a May weekend in the Mojave Desert.

Under a broiling sun, on a daylong field trip, 60-year-old Paul Smith and other locals listened to the science of what happened in the 7.3-magnitude Landers earthquake--and then layered the information with their memories of that morning in June 1992: "My wife ran outside in front of the yard, stark naked, her 10-year-old son wrapped in her arms like this ... " began Smith, an attorney.

The way we think about earthquakes, sociologists say, is shaped by influences such as science and popular culture, and by the stories that are passed on to help make sense of the literal and figurative shifting of the world beneath our feet. Now, the stories that people tell about earthquakes, in centuries-old villages and in wired California cities, are taking on new significance. In a wide-ranging field of study, from seismology to sociology, earth scientists and other researchers, who once ignored or overlooked local lore and myths, now are using the stories in their work.

In one project, stories told by Native Americans from far Northern California to British Columbia played a part in leading scientists to a blockbuster finding--evidence of a devastating earthquake in 1700. Scientists had not previously known about the quake, one of the world's largest at an estimated magnitude of 9, in the Pacific Coast region.

In another project, university researchers are reviewing narratives filed online by California residents in the past 10 years, some of whom provide striking accounts of big earthquakes. The stories are giving researchers an idea of how people think and react when the shaking begins--potentially valuable information in retooling disaster information campaigns.

Whether told by Northridge residents or by Hoh tribal storytellers, the stories can sound strikingly similar. Some rely on enduring literary devices such as simple words, vivid images and cultural metaphor:

* Three hundred years ago or so, a battle between the mighty thunderbird and an evil whale shook the land, a Hoh tribal tale begins, said University of Washington research scientist Ruth Ludwin. Her research suggests that the medicine man who told the story to an ethnographer in the early 1900s added an oral history account: "There was ... great and crashing thunder-noise everywhere ... there was also a great shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great waters."

* In a written observation, a Hollywood resident compared the 6.7-magnitude Northridge quake in 1994 to "having your house drop-kicked like a football with the most violent and deep force you can think of, then imagine how you clean salad in a colander; after rinsing it, you shake it back and forth, up and down to get rid of the water. Add to that almost instant total darkness, the most bizarre and frightening, screeching, groaning, cracking and exploding sounds ... "

Emergency managers in Washington and Oregon are thinking about how to use the thunderbird stories--featuring a supernatural figure who fires off thunder and lightning--in public education campaigns on the area's susceptibility to another deadly, tsunami-causing quake, said Ludwin, a seismologist who has published a paper on using the Native American oral traditions in scientific applications. In the past six months, she has spoken to more than a dozen groups of the topic.

"Eyewitness testimony helps people believe that these events are real," Ludwin said. "I think stories are innately appealing to the human imagination.... We love a good story."

The drumbeat sounds throughout California: The Big One is coming. (According to U.S. Geological Survey scientists, there's a 60% probability that a major quake will strike Southern California in the next 30 years). In the town of Parkfield, which sits on the San Andreas fault in Central California, a faux water tower is painted with the slogan: "Earthquake Capitol of the World ... Be Here When It Happens." In downtown Los Angeles, Epicentre restaurant, which promotes a "playful earthquake motif," offers a "San Andreas Soup," or two kinds of bean puree separated by a jagged line of sour cream.

And throughout California, you hear the lore: hot and dry days known as "shake-and-bake time," or "earthquake weather"; or barking dogs who tip off their owners to impending ground motion.

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