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

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