It happens all the time. I am traveling and meet someone new. We plunge into the identifying chitchat: “Where are you from?” When I say that I live in Los Angeles and have forever, an eyebrow goes up. I know why. Sure enough, there comes the question: “Aren’t you scared?” I tend to play dumb, though I know exactly what the person is talking about. “Of what?” I say. With an accompanying shudder, as if to mimic the very thing he or she is alluding to, the speaker responds with one word: “Earthquakes.”
Often these conversations happen in Manhattan, which I frequently visit for work. They therefore have an ironic quality, in light of the troubles the folks of that metropolis recently suffered with Hurricane Sandy, which not only decimated the coastline but sloshed destructively through the city streets. Yet the thought of the earth moving
underfoot, tossing us humans and all that we have built this way and that, as if a giant had picked up the end of a tablecloth and given it a mighty tug—that hits a panic button other acts of nature don’t seem to.
I understand that there is something primal about the notion of the ground splitting apart. On a certain level we are waiting for the Big One, though we generally push the idea far out of our minds. So the answer is, No, I don’t live in fear. Nor do most people I know, even as we keep a nerve ending on alert for an-out-of-the-blue jolt and keep an ear cocked for the unmistakable rumble. Whatever trepidations we have go way up in the aftermath of a serious quake, like the 1994 Northridge temblor. Then we scurry around and stock up on provisions: bottled water, pet food, cans of beans or dried meals, and flashlights and batteries for our old-fashioned radios that we keep for this purpose. But according to the city Emergency Management Department, only 10 percent (at most) of Angelenos are truly prepared for any natural disaster.
Those tectonic plates will shift and the crust upon which we rest will crack, yet we go cheerfully about our business. Even I, a to-the-toes native, am amused at how we carry on so blithely. There was a nice jolt in May, the epicenter near Marina del Rey, a handful of miles from where I live. I talked about it with other shoppers at the grocery store while picking over the kale. I was tempted right then to grab extra dog food or bottled water, but thought, Eh, I will wait and go to Costco when I have a chance. Call it the Dance of Normalization.
Admittedly there is in us locals some bravado, too, the feeling that we are cool and courageous to live atop a spiderweb of potentially lethal fault lines, that we are surfers in effect, ready to ride out the rockin’ and rollin’ when it comes. After all, we are the country’s ultimate pioneers—or offspring thereof—having settled at the continent’s edge. We will not be chased away. We will hang tough, embracing the daily pleasures of living in our wonderland with its unmatchable climate. That’s the trade-off. This is our paradise, and if it sits on shaky terrain, well, that’s just part of the price, the bargain we are happy to make. It almost seems apt in a perverse way: With so much bounty and beauty, there is bound to be a potential threat, one that adds piquancy to the loveliness of the days.
At least the wildfires, our other major natural disaster, have a predictable season: during the hot, dry months when the Santa Anas blow. That gives us a chance to prepare—somewhat. You can clear the brush around your house, make sure your hoses haven’t sprung a leak, and compile a checklist of the portable heirlooms, family photos, or jewelry you might want to grab in the panicked moments before you are evacuated. Quakes have no time period, however, although we talk of “earthquake weather,” those eerily quiet, furnacelike days that can give us hardened Angelenos a case of the heebie-jeebies. But this is a superstition, never borne out. Taking place deep underground, quakes can occur anytime, even in mid-January, which is when Northridge happened. The capricious nature is at the heart of what disturbs people from other climes. They can avoid hurricanes if they don’t visit a given region during a given time. But for an earthquake there is no safe chunk of the year, no reliable predictor. Despite the degree to which seismic studies have advanced, the scientists still can’t tell us when one is coming. Earthquakes are literally underworldly. They spring from the molten center, the terrain of the devil. It’s that punitive fire-and-brimstone stuff, writ large in disaster movies like Earthquake and Escape from L.A.
So too do the wildfires engender a kind of fascination, a telegenic, tangerine-colored beauty that is played and replayed around the world via TV. When my late husband worked at the local CBS station and there was a conflagration, his colleagues would send up a cynical cheer, knowing that it inevitably meant increased viewership for that night’s news. Flames make great ratings—that was the morbid mantra. I would chide him when he called home to report on a new hot spot. He wasn’t phoning to warn me; I was nowhere near the problem. “I think it’s time for you to get out of the so-called news business,” I would say.
No question, the media has helped stir people’s fears, made a lot of outsiders phobic about this coast. I am thinking about those Manhattanites I talk to. They remind me of one of my close friends, who couldn’t bear the uncertainty of the quakes and left L.A., never to return. I cannot persuade her to visit. She is sure that her presence, her footprint on this terra unfirma, will annoy, challenge, excite the earthquake gods, and they will set the place to jumping. This, I should add, is a terrific, funny, normal person—as normal as any of us.
I have tried to reason with her, tried to plumb the depths of her reflexive terror. Look, I say, earthquakes are few and far between, and they are less lethal in many ways than the hurricanes that have been ravaging other coasts. The death toll from Katrina was more than 1,800 versus 33 in our last major quake, in 1994. But she and others I know cannot be swayed, even though some of them live in states like Florida, where tropical storms wash away homes as if they were made of cardboard. We don’t have that here, I tell them. You will be fine. Come stay with me, come play with me. I will show you a city magical in its parts: bold and wild, full of fantastic hiking trails, restaurants, concerts, beaches. What’s not to love?
But they have seen those news pictures and those films and think this entire metropolis might turn to rubble. That is, of course, a misreading of our geography. If a particular piece gets hit, the whole will not crumble as well. Yet those images cannot be dislodged or refuted, I have found. They are ingrained. Our general unconcern here strikes some non-Californians as another sign of L.A. nuttiness and/or hubris. There is definitely a bit of that, a decided streak of arrogance that runs through this place. I myself wax nervous and judgmental when I see the houses clinging to hillsides or perched on stilts, as if the owners were upping the ante, daring the Fates, asking for trouble. A lifelong flatlander, I would be queasy putting myself more in harm’s way. No mountaintops for me, no canyons. I don’t want to test my native luck. My moxie has its boundaries.
As for disaster films, I don’t go to those movies. They are just dumb. I also don’t want to see the city I love reduced to cinematic rubble. No need to have those pictures in my head. I am not going anywhere, never wanted to, never will. But I do think I will make that trip to Costco. Sometime soon. Maybe.