Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The LAT, Including Me, Did Not Fight Sufficiently For Land Use Controls In Hazardous Areas

The article on Page 1 in today's Los Angeles Times (Jan. 12), "Risk Goes Hand in Hand With Beauty," by Daryl Kelley, Catherine Saillant and Steve Chawkins, looking at issues raised by the La Conchita landslide tragedy, does in superb fashion what The Times has not done nearly enough of in the past.

And that is to challenge California Denial, and write extensively and persistently of the need to keep Californians from building homes and living in geologically hazardous areas.

This is time for more than a little mea culpa. As a Times writer on earthquakes for the last 25 years I did not pursue this subject nearly as much as I might have.

Specifically, I now recognize I did not protest as strongly as I should have against editing changes made in a piece I wrote coincident with the 10th anniversary of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. It was published on Page 1 of The Times last January, but only after some of the worst editing changes I was ever subjected to, weakening the piece dramatically.

The article was meant to examine whether the danger to life and property was greater from an earthquake in 2004 than it was in 1994, and I had intended, based on what the great preponderance of experts I interviewed told me, to give a clear warning that it was.

The article, even as written, should have been stronger. By the time the editing was complete, it was a total mishmosh, with negative elements moved down and positive ones up. I was more ashamed of the final product than any other front page story I had in my 39 years with The Times, and I had hundreds.

I violated a cardinal rule in this episode, and that is never to be absent during the editing process. I wrote the article before leaving on a trip to South America and was not present for the editing. An editor who was not responsible for the final editing changes, did send me a copy of early editing by e-mail, but the final editing was not e-mailed to me, so there was no chance to argue about it before the article ran.

I wrote a memo on this when I got home, but I should have been far more insistent on it being it being read by the highest editors and I should have demanded a meaningful response. I never got one.

The fact is that dereliction by state and local officials has actually weakened protections against earthquakes, landslides and other geological disasters since 1994, and as the state's most influential newspaper, The Times should have been covering that story prominently throughout the period.

One problem is that California denial of the dangers in which we live is common not only among officials and the general populace, but at the newspapers and other media as well. The Times is not the only publication to have too brief an attention span in delving into land use issues. As the time since the last disaster grows, the editors and reporters pay less and less attention.

With the state's pitifully weak earthquake insurance system, brought about by the lobbying of the industry, which took a hit in the Northridge quake and was determined to lessen its exposure thereafter, I think I initially did a fairly good job, while the Legislature was caving in, of pointing this out in numerous articles.

But I did less of a good job later, after it was passed. The fact is that the next big earthquake in this state, the victims will find out very quickly that, compared to Northridge, their coverage, even when they have it, is paltry. It was estimated by the first directors of the California Earthquake Authority that on the average, coverage by those who carried it, would only be 43% of that available in the Northridge quake, due to higher deductibles and multiple exclusions. But, even more critical is the fact, that since Northridge many property owners have dropped earthquake insurance altogether. At the time of Northridge, about 30% of homeowners hd coverage. At the time I retired last June, only about 15% did.

Maybe the federal government will come riding to the rescue in the next big quake, but maybe not. Just as with the recent tsunami disaster, terrestial geology is capable of producing an earthquake far more damaging than any California has had in its recorded history, and sufficient federal aid may not be forthcoming.

It's the same with landslides. We could have one in this state far bigger and more devastating than La Conchita.

The newspapers are terribly important in pursuing such issues. Hopefully, my successors at The Times will do a better job than I did.

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