Life in a Bubble or Life on the Edge

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After reading both Mike Davis’ and Ted Steinberg’s articles about the buildup of California and specifically Los Angeles and San Francisco within the past century, I could not help but be drawn to numerous ethical and psychological dilemmas faced by all those associated with the region.  Both articles paint an ominous forecast for California and imply inevitable devastation.  They clearly show how vulnerable the area is and how likely a massive catastrophe (most likely greater than the 1906 earthquake) is in the near future.  Nevertheless, I find their arguments pushing for relocation shortsighted.  I think they draw on some unique scientific proof, but their suggestions seem unrealistic.  Individuals residing in California have understood the risks and still proceed with their lives.  Scaring residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco will ultimately change little, for they have understood the risks for some time.

Let me begin with some of the facts that Davis points to.  He notes the unusual climate and geological location of California implying how the region is susceptible to weather anomalies.  He notes that the rivers hardly ever reach their flowing average, but on the rare occasion they do, can flow at 3000 times their capacity.  How after taking land samples, the area had experience catastrophic droughts comparable to Mayan proportions.  Finally, he notes how the vaults are ticking time bombs ready for explosion.  Forecasters predict an 80-90% chance of a big earthquake by 2025 and that in the past 195 years there should have been 17 catastrophic earthquakes, yet only 2 have actually occurred.  Essentially, the area is doomed.  At any point there could be a flood, a drought, a heat wave, or a massive earthquake.  But isn’t the climate what makes California so beautiful and appealing.  I’m not implying that people live in California for the risk of disaster, but that people see this tropical, Mediterranean mix as an appealing hybrid.  The risks are a natural consequence for living in such a nice area.  Even if there is a “dry spell” of earthquakes, people continue to play the game of chance.  We are always playing the odds and clearly the climate of the west coast is appealing.

From an economic prospective, the growth of the region makes relocation impossible. People moved out west for economic promise and hope for a better life.  As Steinberg notes, even in the immediate aftermath of 1906, the region quickly rebuilt.  By the 1930’s people began building for profit and in the 1950’s there was an explosion of housing.  The Redwood shores are a great example.  Real estate moguls built up the area and even hired scientists to prove that their housing was no greater risk than anywhere else.  Basically, if they didn’t do it, someone else would have.  Sherwood makes some great points in his post that I believe support this claim.  The conspiracy about the blame on businessmen for the improper memorialization of the 1906 earthquake is unwarranted.  Capitalism is part of our United States’ culture and someone took the opportunity that was there.  There was now an economic draw because people were moving their businesses out west and families therefore relocated.  By the middle of the century the reward in terms of livelihood was too great to ignore and risk became almost a non-factor.  Even today, as Davis notes, the government (Clinton administration) pumped money into Southern California so there is an economic investment that cannot be ignored.

Finally, while both authors note the costs of abandoning the west coast, the reality is impossible.  Who would fit the bill for disaster fortification?  From the governments prospective they have four choices: 1. Stop people from living in dangerous area (but the California government would lose millions in taxes and lose residents) 2. Force earthquake remodeling (California would lose millions again because people would sell buildings at lower costs and relocate) 3. Pay for remodeling out of their own budget (but as Davis notes, the people in CA not from the vulnerable area would feel their tax money is wasted) or 4. Do nothing and proceed as is.  Unless there is a disaster, the government will always do number four.  From an individual prospective, it fiscally does not make sense to remodel.  Insurance agencies pay up to 43% for a destructed house.  If you put in twice the money that your house is worth remodeling for earthquake prevention and the house still gets destroyed, you basically double your losses. From an economic standpoint, people are willing to task the risk.  Steinberg notes that a city like San Francisco would need to spend $835 million to save 415 lives.  While you cannot put a dollar amount on a life, neither the city nor an individual will willingly sacrifice that much when it is still a game of chance.  We cannot expect people to live in a bubble or alter their lives completely to construct this bubble.  Californians know their risk and we should all step back praying that they continue to beat the system.

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