Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

In 2015, Kathryn Schulz, a writer at The New Yorker, published “The Really Big One,” a meticulous evocation of the oceanic earthquake that will someday drown the Pacific Northwest beneath a tsunami.

I lived in Seattle then, and the quake was all anyone talked about: at coffee shops, in elevators, on buses. Many articles and books had been written about the coming 9.0, but Schulz’s Pulitzer-winning story was the first to grab the slumbering Northwest by the shoulders and shake it awake—until, that is, the news cycle shifted; people got on with their lives; and earthquakes receded again in society’s consciousness.

Earthquakes, writes another Kathryn—Kathryn Miles—in her new book, Quakeland, are our most confounding natural disaster. We can watch hurricanes spinning in the Atlantic weeks before they land; we usually detect the rumbling of volcanoes months pre-eruption. Earthquakes, though, often provide no warning at all. Our grasp of what triggers them is tenuous; we are flying blind when it comes to predicting them. Hence the complacency: Why stress the incomprehensible? “How could we know so little about our planet and the risks it poses to all of us?” Miles asks.

Quakeland is a sprawling, painstaking attempt to answer that question. The author travels the country, from quake-overdue New York City to Yellowstone National Park, whose slumbering caldera, if we’re lucky, will hold off on annihilating us for a few more millennia. She is primarily concerned with how various sectors—schools, hospitals, oil tank farms—are preparing, or failing to prepare, for Big Ones in their own backyards. No facility goes untoured: Miles descends into an Idaho silver mine, wanders the bowels of the Hoover Dam, and visits the Berkeley seismology lab where researchers are designing quake warning systems for your phone.

You can’t write a book about quakes, of course, without dwelling on California. The San Andreas Fault, which we all know passes right through the northern Coachella Valley, plays a starring role in Quakeland. Miles wanders West Hollywood with an engineer who exposes alarming construction vulnerabilities. (Wood, counter-intuitively, is more resilient than stone or concrete, which “tends to explode.”)

But it’s the obscure hot spots—the intraplate faults, far from the junctions of colliding tectonic masses—that seem scariest, precisely because we’re so ill prepared for their rupture.

Salt Lake City overlays the Wasatch Fault Zone, where a 7.0 would be catastrophic: The region could expect 2,000 deaths, 9,000 injuries and 200,000 rendered homeless. Miles is ruthlessly pragmatic about the attendant logistical nightmares: “How would (building) inspectors get into a city whose highways and runways had crumbled? … How would the city get its dead and injured out?”

We’re not just unready for disaster—we’re exacerbating the risk. Miles is especially concerned about induced seismicity, earthquakes caused by human industry, particularly the injection of fracking wastewater into the ground. The phenomenon’s epicenter is Oklahoma, which went from one of the least seismically active states to the most active after a drilling boom. Agencies, beholden to industry, denied the connection until the evidence became irrefutable; other states still skirt the problem. The debate uncannily resembles the conflict over climate change: Fossil-fuel interests exploit uncertainty about the magnitude of the problem to justify inaction—never mind the overwhelming scientific consensus about the threat’s reality.

Occasionally, Miles’ reporting is so thorough it’s exhausting: I have no doubt that a Southeastern quake would cause headaches for FedEx’s Memphis headquarters, but I’m not sure I needed a chapter to belabor the point. In leaving no seismic stone unturned, though, Quakeland discovers alarming Achilles’ heels in our infrastructure and emergency systems. That at least 30 faults underpin Nevada’s Yucca Mountain does not make me feel more comfortable about someday storing nuclear waste there.

Fortunately, there are success stories as well as potential apocalypses. Though most Northwesterners may have again forgotten that they live in a future flood zone, disaster managers have not. Near Quakeland’s end, Miles visits a school in Westport, Wash., that constructed a $2 million rooftop tsunami shelter. No grim detail had been overlooked: “Surrounding the platform is a 6-foot-high parapet … mostly to protect the kids from witnessing the devastation.”

Quake preparedness is partly a matter of personal responsibility—but it’s something every Coachella Valley resident should heed: Stock an emergency kit with food, water and warm clothes today. Mostly, though, it’s a public policy problem. We must invest in modernizing bridges and developing early warning systems; retrofit our schools and hospitals; and advocate for regulations to reduce induced seismicity.

Gearing up for inevitable earthquakes won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap—but we can’t bear the cost of doing nothing.

Ben Goldfarb is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in Community Voices

If you love Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and you think L.A. sucks balls, you are going to love San Andreas.

In this movie, you not only get two hours of The Rock’s winning smile; you get to see Los Angeles and San Francisco smacked down with a fury matched only by The Rock in the ring during his fake-wrestling heyday.

Seriously, if you hate the San Francisco Giants, the Hollywood sign and that triangle skyscraper thingy in San Francisco, this movie is total porn for you. The film contains plenty of glorious visual mayhem involving earthquakes, tsunamis and Johnson’s totally out-of-control upper body art.

Sadly, it also contains dialogue so vapid, and so shitty, that it crushes you like The Rock’s enormous, meaty hand squishing a beer can.

Johnson plays rescue-pilot Ray, a gutsy and virtuous man on the job who can’t keep things together on the home front. He gets divorce papers from his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), on the day he’s supposed to take his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), on a trip. Before he can pout and dwell on things much, the earth starts shaking.

The first quake hits the Hoover Dam—and we soon learn that director Brad Peyton has no sentimentality for treasured landmarks: The dam is history. World-renowned scientist Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) just happens to be standing next to it when it goes, and he heads back to his lab, where he sets out to warn the world of impending, bigger quakes via the worst dialogue of Giamatti’s career—and this guy was in Lady in the Water.

These quakes are The Big Ones, with catastrophic temblors starting in Los Angeles and leading up to San Francisco. Johnson commandeers a helicopter and sets out to rescue the wife in L.A. and then his daughter in the Bay Area, because, you know, millions of people are dying, but he has this little inkling that he can still work things out with the wife and kid.

Now, I don’t go to a movie like this expecting dialogue equivalent to the latest Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Films like this are meant to kill a few brain cells, and I’m willing to sacrifice a few cells to see Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson race a boat straight up a tsunami’s ass. However, when the dialogue becomes so bad that it makes the dialogue from a Michael Bay film comparatively sound like dialogue from the latest Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I cry uncle. Or, I just cry in general. Lost film opportunities hurt me so.

The special effects in San Andreas are good enough to keep you fighting through the movie, even when it devolves into the worst of soap operas. Personally, I was on the fence until the final scene, when Ray and his family are surveying a completely annihilated San Francisco. They are rather happy and smiley for people who have just witnessed the death of millions. Then, a huge flag unfurls on the wreckage of the Golden Gate Bridge. Let me make this clear: Given that the worst earthquake in recorded history just ended mere minutes ago, procuring a flag of this magnitude, securing it on a very unstable structure, and getting it to unfurl just so would be virtually impossible. Then The Rock’s final line of dialogue did me in.

As disaster movies go, San Andreas provides plenty of visual carnage. Unfortunately, one usually has to listen to a movie while one is watching it, and when the words sneak past the ears and up to the brain, bad faces and disgruntled throat sounds ensue.

San Andreas is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews