Will We Freak Out in the Big One?

Post-Quake California Won't Be as Orderly as Japan, But We'll Do Better Than You Might Think


A couple wanders in the wreckage looking for elderly parents lost in the catastrophe. A husband asks around a shelter for his wife, who has been missing since the massive waves washed in. A woman pulls back the blankets over the faces of corpses in a makeshift morgue. Nuclear plant workers battle fires amid life-threatening bursts of radiation.

Heartache is the first response to a calamity like the one unfolding in Japan, and we are still evaluating the Japanese government, Japanese preparedness, and Japanese response. It’s worth remembering that disasters begin suddenly and end slowly, and this one is in its infancy. But for those of us on the seismic west coast of North America, the Sendai earthquake has also forced us to consider our own vulnerability. Would Californians in such a quake fare worse or better? The answer, I think, is both.

We certainly have weaknesses. There is a tendency in the United States to treat major disasters as challenges of law enforcement, to focus on controlling–rather than saving–poor and nonwhite people. During the fires in San Diego County a few years ago, identity papers were demanded of people seeking sanctuary, police began harassing Latinos at the shelters, and one undocumented family was deported as a result of entering a sanctuary. Such methods imperil both those who are excluded and those who may go to rescue them afterward. U.S. television reporters also have a tendency to exaggerate or distort what’s happening on the ground, stoking fears of looters and inflaming hatred and suspicion among groups of people.

We also fall short in training. Japanese citizens, more than 99 percent of whom are born in their country, get plenty of schooling in how to respond to quakes. (Although some newscasters characteristically threw around terms like “panic” in reference to the speedy movements of people responding to the Sendai quake, what they were witnessing was actually people doing the best things they could–securing objects, seeking shelter under desks and away from windows and falling objects. It was hasty, with many people heading in many directions, but it was the very opposite of panic.) In California, only half of the residents were born in the state, and even those of us who grew up here have received mostly spotty, lackadaisical training. In short, there will almost certainly be more less order and unity in California when we experience the Big One than there has been in Japan.

Nevertheless, while fear-mongers like to evoke a picture of California dissolving deteriorating into panic and social chaos, such doomsday scenarios are also quite unlikely.

To start, California is simply less likely to experience an earthquake of a magnitude similar to that of the Sendai quake. Earthquake experts point out that the great earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1906 measured 7.9, which is thought to be at the upper limit of quakes in the area–and much of the destruction in pre-building-code San Francisco was due to a fire exacerbated by lunatic decisions from the authorities. The quake in Japan, measuring 9.0, was 30 times more powerful than the 1906 quake and 900 times more powerful than the Loma Prieta temblor of 1989. The Sendai quake is one of the largest ever measured.

We’ve also gotten very good at constructing seismically sound buildings. As in Japan, stringent building codes will largely spare California from collapses akin to those in Iran, Pakistan, China, Haiti, and other quake-hit places in recent years. The Loma Prieta earthquake measured 6.9, but, in a region of millions, only sixty people died. Los Angeles got off pretty lightly in the 1994 Northridge quake, which measured 6.7. Despite billions of dollars in property damage, only 33 people were killed. When I was in L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009, a few months after a terrible earthquake flattened the town’s medieval center and killed hundreds, a local told me, “In California, no one would have died.”

While California has a long way to go toward anything approaching Japan’s diligence in earthquake training, nearly eight million people have reportedly participated in what is now an annual statewide earthquake drill, a quarter of the population. San Francisco also has the fantastic NERT–Neighborhood Emergency Response Team–training system, wisely created in the recognition that during a major disaster, citizens, not scarce first responders, must be the first line of defense when it comes to putting out fires, pulling people out of unsafe buildings, administering first aid and more. What we need to do now is expand the NERT program all over the state (and all over the city, since only a small percentage of us have received the training).

Finally, while we may not all stand in perfectly straight lines, disasters actually tend to bring out the best in Californians–and in human beings generally. Although the military and National Guard responded in the wrong way in 1906, treating many of the quake survivors as potential criminals–killing and intimidating the innocent and interfering with their firefighting efforts–ordinary citizens rallied with a spirited and resourceful response to the disaster. The San Francisco Public Library has a host of images of the community kitchens (often adorned with humorous signs) that people built in parks and streets after that terrible quake. Even when the authorities have failed us most abysmally–as was the case after Hurricane Katrina in 2005–ordinary people did astonishing things, starting with taking boats and makeshift rafts into the flooded streets of New Orleans to rescue the stranded and continuing with the cleanup and rebuilding effort in the months and years after. It was probably one of the greatest volunteer efforts in U.S. history.

None of this means I don’t worry about The Big One. Seismologists say that the odds of a major earthquake on either the Hayward or San Andreas Fault in the next couple of decades are 100 percent. I worry about the casualties and the damage, about the people I love, about myself and my own home (though my current building came through both 1906 and 1989 just fine).

But we can’t stop the earth from shaking. What we can do is stop rewarding journalism that spreads misinformation or hysteria, stop tolerating government responses that needlessly fracture communities, and start preparing with drills and gear. (Eliminating preposterous dangers, such as the placement of radioactive materials in seismically vulnerable areas, wouldn’t hurt either.) A disaster tests the strength of a society, and that strength in disaster is made up of knowledge, compassion, resourcefulness, and solidarity. Those are things you need beforehand and from which you benefit at all times, not just when the fault lines rupture.

Rebecca Solnit is the author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, among other books. She lives in San Francisco with her earthquake supplies and NERT helmet and badge.

*Photo courtesy of sanbeiji