Saturday, September 17, 2005

L.A. Times Gets Around To Confessing L.A. Not Ready For Big Disaster

At long last, the L.A. Times gets around today, Saturday, Sept. 17, to confessing that Southern California is not ready to cope with a big disaster, say an earthquake that could dwarf the size of the 1994 Northridge quake.

The article by the talented and careful Sharon Bernstein, running as the lead story in the paper, goes far to undo the damage done by the editing of David Lauter to a story I had in the Times last year. In that story, I tried to convey the notion of virtually all the quake experts in the state I interviewed that California was less able to meet the demands of a quake disaster than it had been 10 years before.

Lauter reedited that story into a positive mishmosh, and my subsequent written protest to sundry editors drew very little reaction.

Fortunately, in the newspaper business events have a way of inspiring corrective stories after a while, and that has now happened at the Times as a result of Katrina, the catastrophic hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

As soon as the Times editors saw what happened down South, it dawned on them that they really owed the readers a frank report of how unready Southern California is for massive evacuations and everything that went on in New Orleans.

The result is today's Bernstein story. It is a factual summary of the present situation here, and to some extent also a corrective of a recent interview in which Tim Reiterman talked to the Michael Brown-like head of California's Office of Emergency Services and was told by him that everything was going great in California disaster planning.

Bernstein's story represents a good start, but it should only be a start. For instance, she mentions in one paragraph the state's woeful rollback of deadlines for improving the readiness of hospitals for a big quake. That deserves a story in itself, about how the hospitals' lobby conspired in state government against the ultimate interests of their own patients and staff. In New Orleans, people were left to die in flooded hospitals. It was one of the worst episodes reported from that city, and the fact is that Los Angeles hospitals aren't ready either.

It's now been 15 months since I was forced into earlier-than-I-wanted retirement from the Times, and yet the editors have yet to name anyone to take over the earthquake beat. Yet earthquakes are not only the quidessential California story for cultural reasons, but a dire threat to public safety that deserves extensive continuing coverage.

Elsewhere in today's first section, indeed, is what passes for the paper's science section these days -- a truncated partial page of stories that virtually all deserve much more attention. The Times' weekly science page was abandoned shortly after Miriam Pawel terminated the talented Joel Greenberg as its editor and moved him, without a word of appreciation for years of hard work, to a less consequential job.

Coming back from my long Alaska-Canada trip this week, I again noticed just what a good newspaper the Times can be. But it needs many more stories of the kind Bernstein gave it this morning, and it needs a restoration of the science page.

Maybe it's time to restore Joel Greenberg to the duties he was so eminently qualified to do.

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