BookWatch: The ‘Big One’ is a threat even if you don’t live in California

Everyone knows Los Angeles has an earthquake problem. The second-largest U.S. city sits atop 100 geological faults; a big earthquake is an inevitable part of its future. And almost everyone is afraid of that big earthquake. Many non-Californians cannot imagine how anyone can live in the state.

That fear has controlled how we respond to earthquakes. Human beings hate randomness. In the ancient past, we survived against predators with stronger muscles and bigger teeth because we could use our brains to make patterns and keep ourselves alive. Randomness means that a pattern cannot be found and accordingly, we don’t know how to be safe.  

That earthquakes strike randomly, without warning, that we never know when it will hit, doesn’t just keep us afraid, it keeps us trying to guess when that unknown moment will arrive. We envision the consequences of earthquakes to be only the deaths and the buildings and infrastructure lost.  But this focus on the moment keeps us from seeing the true cost of the earthquake and from understanding that much of the loss could be prevented.

Ten years ago, while at the U.S. Geological Survey I led a team that created the ShakeOut Scenario, our best scientific estimate of the consequences of a big earthquake on California’s San Andreas fault. We estimated about $50 billion in direct losses from the earthquake itself. The fires triggered by the earthquake would double those losses. The business disruption costs over the next six months caused by disruption to water, power, and transportation doubles the total again to more than $200 billion.

The disruption to the U.S. economy goes well beyond this. It is obvious that if a building collapses, the owner loses that value. What is less obvious is that the current building code aims only to prevent collapse as a matter of life safety. If your building is so badly damaged that it must be torn down, current building code considers this your decision to make. A recent study published about a major earthquake on the Hayward fault east of San Francisco suggests that up to one-quarter of the buildings built to the current code will be unusable after the event. If a building has suffered enough damage, the risk of an aftershock toppling the damaged building onto its neighbors means that people will be prohibited from entering those buildings as well.

To see what this means for a city, look at what has happened to Christchurch, New Zealand, in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquakes. The same building code as California is in effect there, and it did everything it was supposed to. No modern building collapsed and no one died in a modern building. But the Central Business District was closed for five years because of the danger posed by damaged buildings and in the end, 1,800 buildings have been torn down. Christchurch is recovering because it provides almost universal earthquake insurance coverage for its buildings.  With less than 20% of buildings in California covered by earthquake insurance, most owners will have no one to help them recover from these losses.

The ShakeOut scenario looked solely at the physical consequences of losing these services.  But in the real earthquake we will be facing the less-quantifiable disruption of people who simply give up. Employees will accept their company’s offer to work in a different city. Parents will decide to take their family to a different state. The only years that Los Angeles has ever lost population were the two years after the 1971 San Fernando earthquake and the two years after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Neither of those major earthquakes can be considered a very large event — the areas affected were just 1/10th of the area that will see strong shaking in the San Andreas earthquake. Many businesses will fail because their customers and employees have left.

The waves of economic disruption will be felt across the country.

The true cost of a future California earthquake will only be seen in the years and maybe even decades after the event. One could argue that San Francisco never regained the central economic role it had before the 1906 earthquake, and that is the last time an earthquake above magnitude 7.7 hit the state. The cost of the next great earthquake will be seen in the ability of California communities to inspire their residents to stay, to put up with discomfort, inconvenience, and even deprivation to fight for the future of their homes.

It is tempting to dismiss this as a California problem, but the waves of economic disruption will be felt across the country. More than 40% of the total imports to the U.S. come in through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Even if the damage to those port facilities is minimal, the railway lines that carry goods to the rest of the country run across the San Andreas fault, where they will be upended by 20- to 30 feet by the earthquake. No other port on the West Coast has the capacity to pick up more than a fraction of the cargo.  Pipelines that carry fuel from the refineries in Los Angeles to supply most of the need in Arizona and Nevada also cross the San Andreas and will be broken. The transport of fuel- and train cargo cannot resume until the fires started when those pipes break have been put out and the roads and railway lines can be repaired.

Just like the true costs will only be manifest after the earthquake, many of the possible solutions can only be found before the earthquake. We do not need to be satisfied with disposable buildings. The National Institute of Building Sciences has estimated that buildings could be built to be immediately usable or at least repairable within days to weeks for about a 1% increase in the cost of construction. The California Assembly is considering a bill (AB 1857) to create such a building standard. Also, earthquake insurance could be treated like fire insurance. It is baffling that mortgage providers are willing to accept the risk posed to their portfolios without insurance. We could require pipelines that cross the San Andreas fault to have shutoff valves at the fault.

Most cities have a potentially catastrophic natural disaster in their future. We locate our cities for immediate benefits that often entail long-term risks. We build them near oceans that bring both ships and hurricanes, on rivers that supply water and sometimes floods, near faults that create oilfields as well as earthquakes.  We cannot know which cities will experience their Big One in our lifetimes. But we can say with confidence that it will happen somewhere. When it does, in our globally connected world, we all will feel the impact.

Lucy Jones is author of “The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them)” (Doubleday). She is a research associate at Caltech and was a seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey for 30 years, most recently as Science Advisor for Risk Reduction.

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