Friday, May 08, 2009

In defense of earthquakes

American accents are pretty distinctive, especially in a country where most of the television programming is imported from the US. So, it is not surprising when people ask me “what part of the States are you from?” when they hear me open my mouth. What is surprising, however, is the reaction I get when I reply “the San Francisco area.” An astonishing number of people respond, with a little quiver of horror in their voices, “Oh, where they have all the earthquakes!”

I’ve checked and between 1906 and 2009, the San Francisco Bay Area has suffered two…and only two…earthquakes that caused loss of life. Those quakes were the notorious 1906 quake and the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. There was a quake in The City in 1957 that cause some significant property damage, but no deaths, bringing the total number of major quakes in the Bay Area, over a 103 year span, to three. That's right...just three.

So what is the big deal about earthquakes? I lived in the Bay Area for 30 years and actually experienced the Loma Prieta quake, and I just don’t get it. The horror people express at the thought of a quake baffles me. I mean, it’s not like earthquakes level a major American city every year, right? The frequency of deadly earthquakes in California is low, and in the Bay Area, numbers only two in the last 103 years. I mean, c’mon…you are more likely to get hit by a car while crossing the street than to be injured or killed in an earthquake!

As deadly natural disasters go, I think earthquakes get a bad rap. Their frequency, after all, is significantly less than tornadoes, floods and hurricanes. In fact, the Gulf Coast has suffered 40…forty!...significant hurricanes in the 107 years between 1900 and 2007, and loss of life in the 1900 Galveston Hurricane alone was double that of the estimated death toll for San Francisco's entire 20th century quake history!

Then there are tornadoes. In the 44 year period ended 1994, Texas alone suffered 5490 tornadoes! That’s an average of nearly 125 tornadoes per year just in Texas. The top ten tornado states, including Texas (the leader), suffered a combined total of 19, 511 tornadoes during this period, averaging more than 440 tornadoes per year… that’s an average of more than one per day! And since it is unlikely that tornadoes that cause no property damage are even reported, it’s pretty safe to assume that these tornadoes damaged homes and businesses…and we know that some of them cost lives, as well. How is this…an average of 1+ tornadoes per day…less frightening than an average of three damage-inducing earthquakes per century??

Okay, I know I am comparing the expanse of ten states against the smaller region of the San Francisco Bay area and that Southern California suffers its fair share of quakes as well, but the fact remains that such natural disasters as tornadoes and hurricanes occur annually in other parts of America without triggering irrational fear in potential visitors. Truth is, you are more likely to get swept up in a tornado than buried in an earthquake simply because tornadoes happen multiple times per year and the frequency of earthquakes is considerably less. The Bay area has had only two “killer” earthquakes in more than a century: Middle America suffers more killer tornadoes in an average year.

One of the things about earthquakes that I appreciate, vis-à-vis tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, is their brevity. The moment of impact to the moment of cessation is measured in seconds. There are no hours of stressful anticipation, waiting for the hurricane to hit or fretting over whether or not the waters will rise enough to get into the house, no long minutes of hiding in a cellar or in your bathtub…with an earthquake, it is just WHAM! and then it is over and you can get on with the business of cleaning up.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that most earthquakes are unfelt and cause no damage at all. Even quakes that rock the bed and roll under your feet ordinarily don’t cause any property damage, let alone injury or death. Compare that with a tornado that, even if your house escapes destruction, will most likely destroy somebody’s property and possibly inflict personal injury or death. Ultimately, photos of the aftermath of tornadoes, hurricanes and floods show no less destruction than earthquake-stricken areas, and deadly earthquakes happen with dramatically less frequency.

After decades of living in earthquake country…more than 45 years in total, having been raised in Southern California…and a few years living in places given to blizzards, lightning strikes, windstorms, and flash floods, I have to say that earthquakes really do get a bad rap. Given a choice, I’ll take my chances with twice-in-a-century odds over a 440-times-a-year certainty any day of the week!

For more info about these natural disasters and photos of their consequences, see:

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1 comment:

  1. Interesting post! People love generalities don't they? I'm a Chicagoan (suburbs now) and when I travel people will comment "Oh the gangster city!" Yeah. Al Capone left a mark that is still here, for no reason, seemingly forever.


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