Sunday, May 18, 2008

Chinese Quake A Wake-Up Call For California

Written on M.S. Prinsendam, in Western Mediterranean Sea--

The earthquake in China's Sichuan province was measured at magnitude 7.9, and some measures of the San Francisco quake of 1906 were that it was magnitude 7.8. Others put it at 8.1 or 8.3.

Regardless which San Francisco figure is correct, the earthquake's power in China is roughly about the same, and that in itself should give us in California cause for reflection. In 1995, at the time of the Kobe quake in Japan, Shelby Coffey, then editor of the L.A. Times, sent me to Japan to do stories on what bearing the quake there had on California quake issues, and I think those stories were quite useful. This time, from what I can read on the L.A. Times Web site, the newspaper, which has grown smaller, has relied on its Asian correspondents to provide all the China quake coverage, and they went in without much quake expertise.

The fact is, a quake the size of the Sichuan earthquake is going to cause terrible damage and casualties in California, were a similar quake to occur there. The high rise buildings constructed since 1906 might well be vulnerable, if the temblor were centered anywhere close to one of the big cities. Also, today, there are all kinds of aqueducts, computer systems and modern highways that have proven in other locales to be susceptible to great damage by intense shaking. Scientific studies have indicated a major quake could occur within a few years in the San Francisco Bay Area or the Inland Empire, San Bernardino, Riverside or Palm Springs, although, of course, no one can be certain where it might strike.

The Sichuan earthquake occurred at a time of day when many children were in school, and there are horrific stories of the schools collapsing, burying hundreds of children, of whom few have been rescued.

In California, several of the great earthquakes that occurred in the 20th Century took place at times of the day when the schools were closed. This was true with the San Francisco quake, the 1933 Long Beach quake, the 1971 San Fernando quake, the 1994 Northridge quake and so forth. That was fortunate, because school casualties were minimized, but we cannot count on such propitious timing being the case in future big quakes.

After 1933, California adopted the Field Act, mandating quake-related construction codes that afforded considerable protection to the state's public schools, although higher education was left uncovered. Since then, there has been an effort to extend safeguards to hospitals and to the general building codes. Many hospitals, however, have won delays in implementing the new standards.

In 2004, the year I retired, I did a story that found that in many respects that in the 10 years since Northridge, California had fallen back on earthquake safety. Many experts told me that California had failed to really improve earthquake construction standards, according to the latest findings, with the exception of retrofitting bridges on the freeways. There was also much less devotion in both the Davis and Schwarzenegger Administration to quake safety, and the state's Seismic Safety Commission had suffered devastating budgetary cutbacks and from the governors' lack of support.

Unfortunately, my story was watered down considerably before it appeared in the newspaper. Chiefly responsible for that was David Lauter, who in my absence on a South American trip before the story actually appeared, took it on himself to weaken the story, without consulting me, which he could have by telephone or e-mail. When I returned and read the story, I was very distressed and wrote a strong protest letter to Lauter and other, higher, editors.

There was never a meaningful response to my complaint. And when I retired, and science writer Lee Hotz subsequently left the newspaper for the Wall Street Journal, the coverage that had won the Times a Pulitzer Prize for Northridge coverage was allowed to languish. There is no one at the paper today who has the concern, or I daresay the knowledge, that we had on earthquake coverage.

I bring all this up now to urge in the strongest terms I can muster that the Times revive its interest in California quake protections. Sharon Bernstein and Hector Becerra have both done some good work in this area, and Shelby Grad has quite a bit of interest in it. But more detailed, tougher coverage is needed. (Another writer who contributed valuable stories on the Northridge quake, Doug Smith, also would be a great earthquake reporter).

We don't want to wake up some day to a major earthquake and find that as a result of not being ready, the quake had caused much greater loss of life and property damage than might have been the case had more protections been approved and implemented.

Incidentally, the Washington Post has an excellent story today about how the Chinese press has been covering the Sichuan quake with much more openness than was in evidence in China in the past.

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