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Where disaster comes with the geraniums

October 29, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

California remains, as Carey McWilliams styled it more than half a century ago, "the great exception," but it never has been an undemanding one.

As the wildfires now scorching hillsides, dreams and lives remind us once again, the state's dislocations -- like its achievements -- are of epic scale. Part of the price Californians pay for lives so generally free of the inconveniences and vicissitudes of less benevolent climes is periodic catastrophe.

Ingenuity and prosperity have subdued famine and pestilence, but fire, earthquake, drought and flood -- like the poor -- will always be with us.

In fact, their persistence has given rise to a distinctive California genre that might be called "Apocalypse journalism." There's something about the coming of hellish fire or El Nino's high waters or the earth moving beneath our feet that summons the best from the state's news media. In 1995, The Times' staff was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of a natural disaster, but the fact is that these periodic catastrophes regularly summon journalism of genuine courage and vigor from newspapers from Oregon to the Mexican border. At moments like the one through which we're now living, even the less somnambulant of our local television news operations recover some dim memory of their public duty and energetically deploy their ever-diminishing reportorial resources.

Apocalypse, it appears, brings out the best in California's news media.

At least it does in most of it. When it comes to what editors and producers like to call "the analytic component" or "context" -- stuff of the sort you're reading right now -- things often have become a little tedious and, in an important sense, unhelpful.

Whether flaming, watery or trembling, the catastrophe du jour inevitably summons up the old California on the edge metaphors -- you know, edge of the continent, edge of destruction, cutting edge of progress etc., ad nauseam. This metaphor usually is followed by the trusty "state of contrasts gambit" or what might be termed the cognitive dissonance ploy: gentle breezes suddenly turned to devil winds, tall buildings on unstable ground, trickling rivulets transformed to torrents, etc.

All this is rhetorically harmless, if somewhat repetitive. Less so is the quasi-moral conclusion many analysts now insist on drawing from it. Here we encounter the tsk-tsk school of commentary.

Pointing fingers

Refined to its essential insight, the message is they -- the foothill fire victims, the sufferers through mudslides, the families who formerly lived atop a known earthquake fault -- had it coming. They insist on living in places prone to natural disaster and when those disasters occur, as they inevitably will, the rest of us are put to a lot of expense and trouble.

Urban theorist Mike Davis, whose controversial "Ecology of Fear" contains a chapter entitled, "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn," is one of this tendency's intellectual godfathers. That he is a gifted polemicist with a sometimes glancing appreciation of facts troubles his admirers not at all. Nor does the unconscious irony displayed by commentators who think that Los Angeles' and California's population reached its sustainable limit the day they arrived or that urban sprawl reached its tolerable conclusion on the afternoon the wall around their back garden went up.

Much of what passes for serious comment in this regard is a kind of faux insight -- true, in part, and generally irrelevant.

When it comes to building new housing tracts in the foothills, for example, the argument against their construction has been moot for a very long time. As Hasan Ikhrata, director of transportation planning and policy for the Southern California Assn. of Governments told The Times' Geoffrey Mohan and Doug Smith this week: "We passed that point 10 years ago."

Why do people live in the foothills? They live there for the same reason that people live anywhere in California: for the beauty, for the satisfaction of some inner need, for convenience and out of economic necessity. That latter point is one often lost in the censorious finger-pointing that follows closely on one of these natural disasters. People may choose to live in Malibu, but most of those most hurt by the current wave of wildfires live where they do because that's where the affordable housing has gone.

Of human nature

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