Master of Disaster

Earthquakes aren't the only unmet natural crises this British author sees for America. And he's coming to view another one on Seattle's waterfront.

I'm speaking to Simon Winchester (in New York) about his new book, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 (see review). Sitting here in Seattle, I've got the tape recorder hooked up to the telephone, notebook on my lap, and a view out my office window of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Four years ago during the Nisqually Earthquake, the viaduct was damaged and closed. I remember mortar crumbs vibrating loose and raining on my desk from the brickwork of the historic 1904 building where Seattle Weekly is located. As it shook, there was a brief, shouted debate as to whether we were safer inside or outside—where cornices and parapets might soon be crumbling onto the streets. Now, of course, the viaduct and the seawall and the mudflats on which much of downtown is built are all bound up with the gas tax and its likely repeal this November. Could this book be any more relevant? These were among the many questions I had for the author. You may be able to get others answered during his appearance next week at Benaroya Hall. Seattle Weekly: What did we learn from the 1906 California quake? Simon Winchester: A lot of lessons were learned, and a lot of lessons were not learned—[like] the fact that such a large number of properties, both in San Francisco and on the other side of the bay, are built on landfill. Such a lot of buildings, particularly on the northern part of the bay, are built on sort of marshy ground. Building codes were improved—there's no doubt about that. But in the end, greed sort of takes over, and developers start putting up houses where they shouldn't. And codes are not as tightly enforced as they should be. And also I should say that not necessarily the most competent people are employed in the emergency planning department. And so I think places like San Francisco and certainly Oakland—and I don't know about Seattle—places that are very risky and riskily sited, don't take prudent enough steps. And I think that San Francisco is headed for trouble. What about rebuilding in what we now know to be earthquake zones—as you cite with the city of Portola Valley? Well, there's a community that should not have been built at all. It was essentially built after we all knew about plate tectonics. And, almost willfully, they went and built pretty and unspectacularly reinforced buildings, in many cases right on top of really active traces of the San Andreas Fault. So that was just folly. A city like San Francisco, you can't just move it lock, stock, and barrel. You've got to just improve it, and then stop building in places that are manifestly unsafe. And to a degree, that has been done. And not just in earthquake zones? Taking the longer view, you look at old countries, ancient countries, their experiences allowed them to shake out the cities that should never have been built. I mean, Pompeii is a classic example. There is no city of Pompeii now because you'd be foolish to ever have built a settlement there in the first place. But in young places (without any condescension to America, which is obviously a very young country . . . geologically young and politically young as well), it takes some time before the penny drops. And you realize it's perhaps not a very good idea to build a city in low-lying land on the Gulf Coast when there are major hurricanes every few years, and perhaps not a brilliant idea to build where the ground shakes dramatically once a century. It'll be interesting to look at the geography of America in 1,000 years to see where the major [population centers] are. And I'll bet most of them will be in much more seismically and climatologically safe places. Did last year's tsunami in the Indian Ocean change people's thinking about such issues? I think it probably has. They now are actually funding . . . a tsunami warning system. They should've had one years ago. There is one in the Pacific where lots of rich people live, but there's never been one in the Indian Ocean. To that extent, as our knowledge of the world and the world's dangers becomes more and more sophisticated, we do add layers of protection. The big holy grail, of course, is earthquake prediction. And if nothing else, what's happening at the moment is going to allow lots of money to pour into seismology. And then it'll make cities lots safer. Yet there were San Francisco quakes before 1906, and that didn't stop anyone from building there. There were people alive in 1906 who remembered the earlier earthquakes. San Francisco was very much a young city, full of new immigrants. So memories in San Francisco were short for all sorts of demographic and cultural reasons. There were a few who, when there were knocked out of bed, said . . . ,"This is a reprise of 1886 or 1847." But there wasn't enough memory for anyone to be watchful. It can fairly be said that it came out of a clear blue sky. No one really was aware . . . they were aware of the existence of a short thing, about six miles long, which they called the San Andreas Fault. But no one had the foggiest idea. They didn't realize how it moved, they had no conception of the relative motion of the plates. It was a complete surprise. And in the book you write that fire was blamed for the city's destruction, not its hazardous location. There was . . . this propaganda campaign to reassure the outside world that it wasn't the earthquake that leveled San Francisco; it was the fire, which was man-made and therefore preventable, that leveled the city. It was also the first natural disaster of the modern media era. The fact that such a spectacular imperial Western American city had been devastated so comprehensively—and that the news of it was telegraphed around the country, and photographs of it were sent around the country within hours if not days—had a huge psychological effect on America. And spectacularly, of course, America responded to the disaster with extraordinary promptitude. I wrote a piece about it for The New York Times the other day, how the speed with which the relief was sent was so much better, so much better than today [Katrina]. Today we're debating how much of New Orleans to rebuild, and San Francisco's rebuilding was also scaled back, as you write. Subtly, the focus of California life began to shift toward Southern California and away from the north. For the simple reason that although there are faults running under Los Angeles, not one of them is as potentially devastating as the San Andreas Fault. So Los Angeles is a safer place. And San Francisco remains dangerous. Did it rebuild and respond better by the time of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake? You still had a pancaked freeway. You still had an antique dinosaur of a bridge, the Bay Bridge, hugely important, carrying I-80 over the bay, break. And you had the Marina District—no one in their right mind should be building houses in the Marina District or living there. It is ground that in an earthquake—even in a relatively moderate earthquake—will liquefy. And all those houses will be brought down. People should simply not be allowed to live in the Marina District. So who makes those decisions? How does the government balance risk and cost in urban planning? If you want to live in risky places, you've got to pay the price. If you want to live in places where you don't want to pay premium for things like seismic strengthening, go and live in Nebraska. But then you've got tornados. So there's no place to run. To protect costs an immense amount. The biggest [earthquake] in terms of magnitude . . . was in New Madrid, Mo., in 1811. If you go to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site and look at their map of the United States, which is refreshed every five minutes . . . you will see there are always one or two little yellow dots showing earthquakes of minor significance in southern Missouri. One day there's going to be a big one. No doubt about it whatsoever—200 years since the last one. That will devastate St. Louis. It may damage Cincinnati. Have they made any preparations? People just get lulled into a sense of false complacency. Particularly when not to be complacent about something like this involves spending lots of money and putting a huge tax burden on people. It's a difficult choice, but we know where earthquakes happen. We know where hurricanes strike. We know where tornado alleys are. Are there any examples of where government leaders are willing to step up and take such measures, impose such costs? Japan, without a measure of doubt. They had their Kobe [quake in 1995], which was terrible. But it would've been an awful lot worse if they hadn't had these regular earthquake drills, where they evacuate cities on a very regular basis, and build buildings and railways and roads to very high tolerances. So it can be done. So you view such plans and costs more as an investment? You don't get suddenly faced with a tax bill of $60 billion dollars or whatever the Bush regime is having to pay for this current disaster. All too shortsighted. Geology is so pitiless. It takes the long view. We should take the long view. In addition to earthquake emergency planning, we here in Seattle have Mount Rainier and other volcanoes to worry about. I suppose the one thing you can say about volcanoes is that they generally do give some warning, whereas earthquakes don't. But it's still small comfort. And the whole business about earthquake prediction is that it'll be a bold mayor who says you've got to evacuate Los Angeles, because we've been warned there's going to be an earthquake, then nothing happens. And the U.S. doesn't have a good track record in this regard? I'm sure there was a pretty comprehensive emergency plan written in the state of Louisiana. And I'm sure that Baton Rouge's emergency operations center has got lots of lovely plasma-screen televisions and digital telephones. But it seemed at the end of the day to be an intellectual failure rather than a technological failure. And that's what I fear may happen when there's another disaster: It'll be the people that fail; they don't rise to the occasion. They don't have the intelligence or the initiative to respond to an appalling catastrophe. So you saw a failure of U.S. planning and leadership both before and after Katrina? Who in their right mind would build a city below sea level in a place where there are regular hurricanes? The bold decision would be to say, "We're going to re-create New Orleans somewhere else." And one has to say the same thing about Oakland: Is it sensible to have such a teeming city situated slap-bang on top of the Hayward Fault, which every . . . geologist knows is going to rupture in the next 25 or 30 years? It just doesn't make sense. Could we follow the Japanese model with its high tax costs and rigid social requirements? This is a very, very different society than Japan. People don't take orders so kindly—black helicopters, all that kind of thing. This is "Don't tread on me" territory. So I don't think earthquake drills would happen here. Yet I remember doing duck-and-cover drills as a schoolkid during the '70s. That sort of Cold War preparedness was once mandatory. You're quite right, I think. In earthquake-prone or hurricane-prone places, this sort of preparatory psychology should be embedded in everyone's mind. Just look what was happening in Houston last week [evacuated before Hurricane Rita]. You had people roasting in their cars, no gasoline in the flight to get away. Some serious stock has got to be taken in cities that are vulnerable. Seattle Arts & Lectures presents Simon Winchester at Benaroya Hall (200 University St., 206-621-2230,; $10–$25), 7:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 19.

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