Sunday, March 29, 2015

Retrofitting to the tune of $15,000,000,000

I am a great advocate of individuals preparing for realistic and likely natural disasters. Here, I make suggestions on emergency supplies you might gather. (In the US, check for more.) I also have lived in California, where the state and local governments have done a good job of passing zoning laws that protect its citizens. Every time there's a big earthquake, they learn the new lessons and retrofit public projects.

In comparison, the Mississippi River Valley towns that might experience a repeat of the terrible New Madrid quakes (as occur in my novel Quake) are doing a not very good job with zoning laws or retrofits. It's understandable (if not excusable). Human memory fades, and no one is left alive who can describe the terror of that last series of big earthquakes. The lakes that appeared out of nowhere were a shock and wonder to people in 1812; they're the old, reliable fishing spots 200 years later. The brick house that was built 40 years ago is in pretty nice shape, and brick doesn't even need to be painted. (It also falls on your head and probably kills you in a quake, unless you get a pricey retrofit.) You'd think the 4.0 earthquake that comes every ten or twenty years would be a good reminder that it's time to act, but people are good at ignoring warning signs, and politicians are too often short-term thinkers.

Even in earthquake-conscious California, you're going to run into some problems when trying to prepare for the "Big One" that is coming to the LA and to the San Francisco Bay Area. This week we learned that to retrofit the LA water system so that, in the case of a 7.8 quake, most people could still flush the toilet and get water from the tap (which may still need to be boiled before drinking), would cost 12-15 billion (that's US billion) dollars. That's $15,000,000,000 US. Not cheap. For a third of that price, San Francisco is retrofitting its water system, and the expected result is that residents' water bills will triple. (This is not taking into account the current record-breaking drought in California, which will likely drive water bills up more as water has to be transported from hundreds of kilometers away.)

All infrastructure improvements of this type start with an estimate of likelihood of earthquakes over the next 30 years. Here is a rough map of California's earthquake probabilities, for a quake of over 6.7 magnitude. Of course, one day, an earthquake will come along that is so powerful, preparations for a 7.5 or 8.0 earthquake will do little good anyway, but preparing for once-every-millennium earthquakes would be prohibitively expensive. City planners have to play the odds. 

And, let's be honest, human nature being what it is, they are damned if they do and damned if they don't prepare for the earthquake that is likely to hit LA within the next 50 years. People will scream about a tripled water bill, and people will scream more loudly when there's no water at the hospital where they've taken their severely injured child who might die as a result of the inadequate infrastructure. And they'll never admit their own parsimony over the water bill caused their child's death. People are funny that way.

I know what it is to be on a tight budget. I understand no one wants his or her bills to increase. But is it better to save a few dollars per month now, or to save your life in 5 or 10 or 20 years, when the Big One hits? I'm glad I'm not the LA politicians trying to convince citizens that this is in their best long-term interest.

Source for LA water system story: LA Times 24.3.2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday, March 15, 2015

This month in Natural Disaster History: The Great Blizzard of 1888

Imagine emerging from your home, where you've been snowed in for a week, to see a sight like this:

Further, imagine the year is 1888, and you have no electricity. You've enough wood or coal to heat your home, I hope! But don't let a spark escape from your wood fire and start a house fire. The fire department's horse-drawn vehicles cannot reach you. And water may be frozen solid in the water mains in your neighborhood.

Outside, the snow is four feet deep, and the highest drift is fifty-two feet (sixteen meters). That's high enough to cover a three-story house.

The Northeast of the U.S. experienced a blizzard in March, 1888; at least 400 people died in it and perhaps as many as 900. Weather forecasting in 1888 was not particularly accurate, so it came as a complete surprise. People were going about their business, and suddenly, the temperatures dropped. A few flurries that seemed like nothing special quickly became a terrible storm.

The New York Tribune called the storm itself "A furious, blinding gale that made exposure to it an exquisite torture." Another newspaper headline said, "How the tempest howled and raged!" The city of New York would lose transportation, telegraph and telephone lines, and the resulting economic losses would drive the creation of the underground utility lines and subways there and inspire other cities to protect their utilities similarly.

Travelers were stranded (Mark Twain was one, though his letter to his wife about the storm is disappointingly dull), many without food for days, funerals were delayed for weeks, and burials were impossible. People were injured when ferocious winds picked up flash-frozen horse manure and turned it into dangerous projectiles, which helped drive the city to hire street sweepers and institute anti-littering laws. 24 million cubic yards of snow had to be shoveled and moved by wagon in New York City.

It was the second deadly blizzard in the U.S. that year, the first being in January, in the plains states, where hundreds also died.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ancient beliefs: earthquakes

Imagine it's 1500 years ago. There's a rumble beneath your feet, and the world begins to tremble. Stones crash down the slope, water sloshes out of containers, your hut collapses around you. What's going on?

You and I know quite a bit about what's going on: plate tectonics provides us with the explanation. But what did ancient people believe?

Imagine that the earth is held up by four elephants, that the elephants are balanced on a turtle, and that the turtle is balanced on a cobra. With this precarious arrangement, it's no wonder there's an occasional tremor. Or what if your island were held up by a giant catfish? Surely he'd manage to wriggle from time to time, causing earthquakes.

Gods battling, baby gods in the womb kicking, gods getting angry, gods stomping, gods suffering flatulence: all were posited by various cultures as the cause of earthquakes.

It was not until the Lisbon quake of 1755 that early scientists noticed there was an epicenter to quakes--but they still guessed wrong about the cause. And not until the 20th century did scientists begin to suspect there was a hot core to the earth and a mantle that might have something to do with earthquakes.

In 1910, Harry Fielding Reid came up with the "elastic rebound" theory of quakes, and that began the modern era.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Some links on earthquakes

I'm busy writing, so it'll be a quick post this week. I wanted to steer you to some of my favorite links about earthquakes:

USGS Shakemap of a recent Argentine quake

Seismic Monitor: a worldwide map of all 4.0+ quakes in the world over the last two weeks. I check this daily
Educational information on earthquakes for ages 10+: From the USGS
Earthquake preparation from the (USA) website
Shake maps from USGS for worldwide earthquakes, like the illustration above. Here's the 1989 Loma Prieta shake map: