Wednesday, July 30, 2008

LA Quake: No News is News

Most of my family lives in the Los Angeles area, so when I heard about the quake that struck Tuesday, I was concerned. . .

. . . until I heard it was “only” a 5.8 (later downgraded to a 5.4). Anything under a 6, and I think, “not to worry.”

I’ll let the LA Times pick up the story:

The earthquake that rattled Southern California on Tuesday might have caused devastation if it had taken place in some parts of the world, but relatively strict building codes ensured that most of the region's infrastructure -- homes, schools, freeways and rail systems -- rolled with the magnitude 5.4 punch, which was centered near Chino Hills and felt as far as Las Vegas.

The story also points out that most of the buildings in the area had been built or retrofitted since codes were strengthened in the wake of the 1994 Northridge quake, so it’s not just that this temblor might have caused devastation if it had struck in a different place, it very well might have caused destruction and death if it had happened in a different time. Had this been LA circa 1968, the “news” might have been filled with news.

At first blush, that might seem like a matter-of-fact point—big deal, things get better, hooray for science! That sort of thing. But the underlying message is far from run-of-the-mill. Tuesday’s Chino Quake was an example of the triumph of government regulation; it was an example of what a responsible and responsive government can and should do for its citizens. As Sara Robinson notes:

The fact that Los Angeles returned to normal (as if anything in Los Angeles can ever be considered normal) within just a few hours is one of those invisible but important lessons in the collective power of a functioning government -- the kind of non-controvertible, essential fact that conservatives tend to gloss right over when they talk about shrinking government until they can drown it in a bathtub.

California's seismic codes are serious, strict, and effective. The state has been working on them for 80 years now, refining them through the years after every major quake to incorporate new knowledge and engineering practices. (A major revision this year has recently sent all the state's architects, engineers, and contractors back to school yet again.) To see the results of this ongoing effort, consider the 1931 Long Beach quake, a 6.4 shaker that damn near flattened Long Beach, killed 120 people, and caused over $40 million (in 1931 dollars) in property damage. And then reflect on the fact that in 1989, it took a quake eleven times bigger -- the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake -- to create a comparable amount of damage.

. . . .

Generous state support is one reason CalTech was able to build the world's first and foremost seismology department, where the Richter scale and the seismograph were developed. Decades of government competence has also ensured that California's county building inspectors are widely considered the toughest, smartest, least corruptible pros in the country.

Forty years after the Long Beach quake, a very young me lived through the San Fernando (or Sylmar) Quake, which weighed in at 6.6, killed 65, and caused about a half-billion dollars in damage—and scared the shit out of me—but our house was built to post-Long Beach standards, and suffered only minor damage.

My parents’ house was further upgraded to incorporate what was learned and legislated after the San Fernando quake, so when the stronger and much closer Northridge quake rung in a January 1994 morning at 6.7, the house lost its old brick chimney, but otherwise remained intact.

So, the next time a selfish, single-minded Republican (or Libertarian, for that matter) asks what government has ever done for the American people, you can point to me and my family, and the countless other Californians who have survived numerous major seismic events thanks to improvements instituted and enforced by a strong government.

But perhaps my continued existence will not be considered a plus. In that case, point out how much money was saved by the city, state, and federal government because they didn’t have to rebuild as much infrastructure as would have been the case in an unregulated world. And they didn’t have to provide as much disaster relief as they might have, either.

Or point out how much private industry has saved because they have standing buildings with safe, healthy workers inside. Look how fast Los Angeles got back to work on Tuesday—without improved and enforced building codes, things wouldn’t have looked the same.

I have often worried that after nearly thirty years of Republicans underfunding and defunding our social institutions, many in this country have forgotten what government can do for them. They don’t know what to expect, nor do they know what they have a right to demand. A simple contrast drawn between the neglected levees in Louisiana or Iowa, or the neglected bridges of Minnesota, and the highway overpasses, homes, and businesses that stand safe and sound today in and around Los Angeles is a good place to start remembering.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

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