Cover image for Living with earthquakes in California : a survivor's guide
Living with earthquakes in California : a survivor's guide
Yeats, Robert S.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Corvallis, Or. : Oregon State University Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
x, 406 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
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Material Type
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Central Library QE535.2.U6 Y42 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Over the past century California has moved from denying the hazards posed by earthquakes -- they were bad for business -- to adopting building codes and protective legislation that are today the most advanced in the world. In Living with Earthquakes, Robert Yeats, a leading expert on earthquake geology, describes California's revolutionary efforts to grapple with the earthquake threat. His book is a general reader's guide to California earthquakes, combining current research with practical safety information.Beginning with a brief introduction to the geological setting of earthquakes, Yeats leads readers through a lively and lucid narrative that-- describes the major faults that threaten Northern and Southern California and Nevada, -- explores topics ranging from earthquake forecasting and catastrophe insurance (the California Earthquake Authority is the largest residential insurer in the world) to the risks of tsunamis and soil liquefaction, -- reviews the current level of earthquake preparedness and disaster response, including the role of government, scientists, and the public in creating awareness and policy, -- suggests actions that citizens can take to protect their families and homes.Living with Earthquakes provides a detailed account of California's violent geologic past and a concise history of the state's innovative approaches to earthquake awareness and preparation. It also serves as a how-to manual for life in earthquake country. Most importantly, however, it's a call to action. Earthquakes cannot be prevented, but the California experience provides a model for how society can learn to live with earthquakes -- and survive them.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Yeats (emer., geosciences, Oregon State Univ.) provides a full and unique coverage of earthquake concerns for all California citizens. A 300-year history of earthquakes and societal response sets the foundation for understanding modern views and problems of California earthquakes. Threatening faults are described and related to the regional seismic framework throughout the state. Local effects of shaking, rupture, tsunamis, slides, and liquefaction are lucidly explained with illustrated examples. Other major issues include earthquake forecasting, preparedness, disaster response, and catastrophe insurance. Suggestions are offered for measures that citizens and government can take in preparing for the next inevitable seismic shock. Significantly helpful appendixes include a highly informative table of major characteristics of more than 140 historical California earthquakes, an extensive glossary, and a lengthy bibliography of Web sites and references. An international expert and author on earthquakes and how to live with them, Yeats writes clearly about the science, engineering, and practical safety options, providing a highly valuable guide for the nonscientist and scientist alike. This is one book all California residents should read. All levels. T. L. T. Grose Colorado School of Mines



Chapter One Part I Boosters and Quakers: Three Centuries of People and Earthquakes in California "And from there [Earthquake and Thunder] went south ... They went south first and sank the ground ... Every little while there would be an earthquake, then another earthquake, and another earthquake ... And then the water would fill those depressed places." Yurok story told to A. L. Kroeber in his book, Yurok Myths "The plain facts are that earthquakes in California ... kill far fewer people than the cyclones in the Middle West, the flood tornadoes in the South Coast states, and the lightning storms and heat waves along the Atlantic states kill every year Californians don't wholly approve of earthquakes, but they prefer them to cyclones or tornadoes or floods or protracted heat or lightning storms. All of the earthquakes which have occurred in California since it was discovered nearly four hundred years ago have not killed so many people as one or two great cyclones of the Middle West." William Randolph Hearst, editorial in the New York American after the San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906. Before the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 Californians have always known they could be struck by earthquakes, including the Yuroks of the north coast, whose legend quoted above might refer to a great earthquake they endured in 1700 A.D. But except for oral traditions, the earthquake experience of Native Americans is lost to us.     The first record-keepers were the Spanish, who, under the leadership of Gaspar de Portolá, founded San Diego, Alta California's first town and presidio, in 1769. Two weeks later, Portolá left San Diego on an expedition to Monterey Bay. On July 28, Portolá's party was shaken by an earthquake along a river they called Río de los Temblores, River of Earthquakes--now known as the Santa Ana River. As described by Miguel Costansó, "At this place, we experienced a terrible earthquake, which was repeated four times during the day. The first vibration or shock occurred at one o'clock in the afternoon, and was the most violent." Portolá's party felt aftershocks as they crossed the Los Angeles Basin, the last one occurring on the Los Angeles River on August 3 as they departed the area, headed north.     The Spanish reported earthquakes rather matter-of-factly, as though familiar with them from Mexico or Spain. Indeed, the great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which was felt over the entire Iberian Peninsula, would have been experienced by many of the California explorers, which might explain why they were not surprised to find that the new lands they had discovered experienced earthquakes as well.     In the next few decades after the founding of San Diego, Franciscan priests, beginning with Father Junípero Serra, established missions from San Diego to San Francisco. These missions, in some cases surrounded by small settlements of Indians and Europeans, were a tenuous foothold on the California coast. They were lonely outposts of church and empire, and times were hard. Adding to their woes were frequent earthquakes, which damaged or destroyed the new churches and outbuildings and caused loss of life. The worst of these struck southern California on December 8 and 21, 1812, but earthquakes twelve years earlier had also resulted in considerable damage. The Spanish experienced earthquakes everywhere they had founded missions, from San Francisco to San Diego, and horrified as they must have been, they buried the dead, repaired the churches, and carried on.     Mexico, including its California outpost, achieved independence from Spain in 1822. Even before independence, the Americans, with little personal knowledge of earthquakes, had been arriving in large numbers, first as hunters of the sea otter and as traders and later as settlers, opening up the interior. Finally, in 1848 Mexico ceded California to the United States, and everything changed. That was the same year gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in the foothills of the Sierra, and California--a forlorn, distant frontier under the Spanish and Mexicans--became the destination of tens of thousands of goldseekers. This was the beginning of American expansion westward, and by 1869 the Central Pacific Railroad had connected the East Coast to California. Wealth created by gold mining, land speculation, and the development of an agricultural empire in the Great Valley became focused on the boom town of San Francisco. As in the rest of the United States in the last half of the nineteenth century, unbridled capitalism reigned supreme, with San Francisco, California's largest city, the seat of power. To flourish, railroad barons needed to attract Easterners to California. They circulated wondrous claims about fortunes to be made and the therapeutic values of living in the gentle climate of southern California--including a cure for tuberculosis. Boosterism was the name of the game.     Great earthquakes struck the Central Coast Ranges in 1857 and Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevada in 1872. But so few people lived in the affected areas that these earthquakes had no dampening effect on the promotion and explosive growth of California.     However, the Bay Area had been experiencing large earthquakes even during the Mexican period, in 1836 and 1838. The first big one under American rule struck on October 8, 1865, centered near San Jose, but resulting in severe damage to the San Francisco City Hall. Mark Twain, then a journalist who had just been fired from his job at the San Francisco Morning Call , apparently believed he could boost his sagging fortunes when he found himself caught in what came to be called the Great San Francisco Earthquake: "As I turned the corner, around a flame house, there was a great rattle and jar ... there came a really terrific shock; the ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent jiggling up and down ... at that moment, a third and still severer shock came, and as I reeled about on the pavement, trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight! The entire front of a tall four-story brick building in Third street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising dust like a great column of smoke!"     The second "Great San Francisco Earthquake" struck three years later, on October 21, 1868, centered across the bay in Haywards (now Hayward) on the Hayward Fault. San Leandro was severely damaged, including its courthouse, as were Haywards and San Francisco, and at least thirty people were killed. Surely, with two earthquakes in such close succession damaging California's largest city, an organized effort would be mounted to protect the population--then numbering about 150,000--from future earthquakes.     It was not to be. The Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee of wealthy merchants to assure the financial markets of the East Coast that there was "no damage to well-constructed buildings. Total loss on property will not exceed $300,000." A committee of scientists appointed by the Chamber of Commerce documented damage closer to $1.5 million. One of the scientists, George Davidson, stated in a newspaper interview years later that "the result of our investigation was so startling that we never published our report. It was thought that to do so would frighten people who intended to come here and settle." Davidson later wrote that a businessman who headed the main committee "declared that it would ruin the commercial prospects of San Francisco to admit the large amount of damage and the cost thereof, and declared he would never publish [the report]."     However, Josiah D. Whitney, who headed the Geological Survey of California, wrote that "earthquakes are not to be bluffed off. They will come, and will do a great deal of damage." Funds for Whitney's survey were terminated six years later, in 1874. The Legislature was interested in gold, not earthquakes.     So the 1865 and 1868 earthquakes had no long-term effect. Earthquakes were part of the raw frontier that was California. People simply cleaned up after an earthquake and continued to make money and sell land. Author Bret Harte was ahead of his time when he wrote in 1866, after the first "Great San Francisco Earthquake": "In spite of the fears of alarmists, I do not think that the prosperity and future of California is disturbed by these shocks, and I believe that there is more danger ... from the concealment of facts, or the tacit silence of the public press on this topic, than in free and open discussion of the subject ..." This statement would apply only too well to the San Francisco Earthquake that was to follow forty years later. From San Francisco to Long Beach (1906-1933) On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 A.M., the great San Francisco Earthquake rocked California from Humboldt County on the north to San Benito County on the south. San Francisco, by that time the ninth-largest city in the United States, was devastated. Many buildings collapsed, and water mains, gas lines, and sewer lines ruptured. Escaping gas quickly caught fire, but because of the broken water mains, the Fire Department had no water to fight the fires. A great conflagration fanned by high winds raged for three days, destroying a large part of the city.     The official death toll was less than five hundred people, but even at the time, that figure was believed to be too low. As Jack London wrote in Colliers , "An enumeration of the dead will never be made. All vestiges of them were destroyed by the flames." A recent study showed that at least three thousand people died (Hansen and Condon, 1989). More than two hundred thousand were left homeless, and refugee camps were set up in Golden Gate Park and the Presidio of San Francisco. Property damage was estimated at $500 million--more than $10 billion in today's dollars. The 1906 earthquake and fire combined to create the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States, until Hurricane Andrew struck Florida in 1992.     The earthquake threatened one of California's greatest assets--its reputation as a Mecca for the good life and for making money--particularly because it trashed California's largest and most dynamic city, one that was symbolic of California itself. To counter this insult to the state's image, newspapers, business interests, and chambers of commerce embarked on a massive cover-up: a rewriting of history to de-emphasize the earthquake and magnify the role of the fire. Why? Fires were a common experience in American cities, and Chicago, Boston, and Baltimore had been severely damaged by great fires in the recent past. San Francisco was not unique in experiencing a great fire, whereas an earthquake would expose a severe flaw in the California dream. Insurance companies were more likely to pay up if a building were destroyed by fire rather than by an earthquake. If it could not be denied that a building had collapsed rather than burned, then the cause could be laid to shoddy workmanship.     On the day after the earthquake, as fires raged in the city, Governor Pardee told the Governor of Massachusetts that "[d]estruction was wrought by fire far more than by earthquake." James Horsburgh of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the most dominant business in the State, advised chambers of commerce to say that "San Francisco did not suffer greatly from the earthquake." The Los Angeles Times claimed that "There are more deaths annually by lightning in almost any State of the Union, outside of the Pacific Coast, than all the deaths from earthquake in California." Picture postcards of the disaster were retouched to minimize earthquake damage.     Because of the cover-up, the San Francisco Earthquake, like the 1865 and 1868 earthquakes before it, would not lead to any improvements in building standards nor any moves toward earthquake preparedness. The same was true for the selection of building sites. Debris from the earthquake was pushed into the Bay to reclaim land for an exposition in 1915 advertising San Francisco's recovery from the disaster. This "made land" would fail in the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, repeating on a small scale in the Marina District the fires and devastation of 1906 (see Chapter 9).     In contrast, the Japanese government, following a catastrophic earthquake in 1891, had embarked on a major earthquake research program, including the construction of seismographs that recorded seismic waves from the San Francisco Earthquake at the Imperial University of Tokyo, where seismograms were read and pondered by the world's leading seismologist at the time, Professor Fusakichi Omori.     The San Francisco Earthquake did lead to a scientific inquiry directed by Andrew C. Lawson, a geology professor at the University of California. Funds to investigate the earthquake were obtained not from the U.S. government or the State of California but from a private foundation, the Carnegie Institution of Washington. A State Earthquake Investigation Commission was established with Lawson as its chairman and some of the leading scientists of the day as members, among them John C. Branner (who would later become president of Stanford University), Harry Fielding Reid of Johns Hopkins University, and Grove Karl Gilbert of the United States Geological Survey, who happened to be in the Bay Area on another assignment. Professor Omori of Japan arrived in California a month after the earthquake and was made an associate member of the Investigation Commission.     Gilbert had already visited the village of Lone Pine east of the Sierra, destroyed by the 1872 Owens Valley Earthquake. He found a fault in Lone Pine that had ruptured and moved the ground sideways, and he concluded that this fault had caused the earthquake. He saw the same thing in Marin County, north of San Francisco: sideways motion on the San Andreas Fault, named by Lawson thirteen years before. Branner discovered roads near the Stanford campus that were offset by the same fault. Clearly, the San Andreas Fault was the culprit. Armed with this knowledge and with financial support from the Carnegie Institution, geologists followed the trace of the fault from Shelter Cove on the north to the southeastern California desert. Lawson took another look at the 1868 Haywards Earthquake and found that it, too, was the result of motion on a fault that he traced right across the University of California campus, close to his own office.     The Lawson report was largely an accounting of what had happened, describing the geology of the surface rupture and the damage caused by the earthquake. It was a research report; it failed to issue a call for action to upgrade California's building codes or to locate other earthquake faults in the state.     Instead, Professor Omori was quoted in newspapers as stating that San Francisco would not in the near future suffer another earthquake like that of April 18. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted him as saying that "the city of San Francisco and the surrounding country will be free from these great earthquakes for fifty years or more" and "[i]n all probability ... there will never be an earthquake in the State as severe as the one in April." Omori might have been reassuring San Franciscans that the aftershocks that continued to rattle the Bay Area were to be expected after an earthquake, and these aftershocks were not signs that another great earthquake was imminent. But his remarks were seized upon by the business and booster community as support for their claim that the main concern for the future was fire, not earthquake.     Commission member Gilbert had a different reason for suggesting that San Francisco might not be struck by a great earthquake in the near future. Gilbert had described the fault scarp (a steep slope or cliff) formed during the 1872 Owens Valley Earthquake, and he had observed similar scarps along the Wasatch Fault, which runs through Salt Lake City, Utah. In a letter to the Salt Lake City Tribune in 1883, he wrote: "The old maxim, `Lightning never strikes the same spot twice' is unsound in theory and false in fact; but something similar might truly be said about earthquakes. The spot which is the focus of an earthquake ... is thereby exempted for a long time. And conversely, any locality on the fault line ... which has been exempt from earthquake for a long time, is by so much nearer to the date of recurrence ..."     Applying this reasoning to the San Andreas Fault, Gilbert would conclude that the section that ruptured in 1906 would not rupture again for a long time. As he wrote in 1906, he was interested in testing this idea--as was Harry Reid, who wanted to search for evidence that strain might again be building up on the fault.     Gilbert's view of the 1906 rupture is still held today, as discussed further in Chapter 8. But this does not mean that other faults that didn't rupture in 1906 or 1868 would not be the source of an earthquake. Omori's discussion of aftershocks and Gilbert's views on earthquake recurrence were taken out of context to reinforce what California boosters wanted the world to hear.     It seems strange that members of the Earthquake Commission--especially Gilbert and Omori--were not more concerned about the impact of their statements on the general public. The Commission did not take a stand on upgrading the quality of building construction, nor on searching for other dangerous faults.     Later, Gilbert, in an article published in the prestigious national journal Science in 1909, did take a strong stand: "It is the duty of investigators--of seismologists, geologists and scientific engineers--to develop the theory of local danger spots, to discover the foci of recurrent shocks, to develop the theory of earthquake-proof construction. It is the duty of engineers and architects so to adjust construction to the character of the ground that safety shall be secured. It should be the policy of communities in the earthquake district to recognize the danger and make provision against it."     Too late. The scientists had had their chance--their "teachable moment," as one of my students calls it. In 1906, a strong message might have made a difference. In 1909, San Francisco had moved on, repairing the damage, and the disaster was clearly a fire, not an earthquake. The boosters had won. Shortly afterward, Gilbert was felled by a stroke and his wise counsel was lost to science.     Ironically, the San Francisco Bay Area would not be struck by another severe earthquake for more than eighty years, when in 1989 an earthquake in the Santa Cruz Mountains would create havoc once again in San Francisco. And to this day, the San Andreas Fault has not had an earthquake as large as the 1906 event.     An outgrowth of the earthquake was the organization of a professional group dedicated to the study of earthquakes, the Seismological Society of America, which issued its first formal publication in 1911. John C. Branner of Stanford envisioned it as a large tent, encompassing not only geologists and seismologists but also astronomers, engineers, and architects, a larger community that would focus on analyzing earthquakes. Branner's concern, like Gilbert's, was for public safety, but as the Seismological Society evolved it attracted a number of research physicists interested not in earthquake hazards but in the structure of the Earth based on seismic waves.     Seismographs had been in use for more than two decades. By the time of the San Francisco Earthquake, newer versions could record a large earthquake thousands of miles away, on a different continent, even on the opposite side of the Earth. If the travel time of the seismic wave through the Earth could be determined precisely by the use of extremely accurate clocks, then a seismograph record would open a window into the hitherto-unknown interior of the Earth. Seismographs of the early twentieth century led to great scientific discoveries. Seismic waves showed that the Earth is made up of a series of concentric shells, like an onion, including a crust, mantle, and nickel-iron core (see Chapter 2). For many seismologists, the internal structure of the Earth was the important research question they wanted to ask of their seismographs, and earthquakes were of interest only because they provided the signal that explored the Earth's interior--like X-rays explore the human body. This conflict between pure and applied seismology would continue for decades, both within and outside the Seismological Society of America.     Branner did not trust seismographs or seismographers, however, and he relied on a large group of observers who would report on the effects of earthquakes at different places in California. One of the most meticulous observers of the San Francisco Earthquake was Alexander G. McAdie, head of the San Francisco office of the U.S. Weather Bureau. McAdie paved the way for Congress in 1914 to authorize the Weather Bureau to make such observations at all its weather stations. Branner had a system in place to investigate earthquakes as they happened.     At this time, the scene shifted from San Francisco to southern California, which was overtaking the San Francisco Bay Area as California's great engine of economic growth. Southern California had considered itself free of earthquakes--which were regarded as a San Francisco problem. But damaging earthquakes struck the southeastern California desert in 1915 and 1918, and Branner--at his own expense--sent scientists to study them. The earthquakes were shown to have struck faults on the opposite side of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys from the San Andreas Fault. But these earthquakes, like the great 1857 and 1872 shocks, struck thinly populated territory and they received little attention from the general public.     The burgeoning city of Los Angeles, home of the new movie industry and center of a vast oil, citrus, and cattle-ranching empire, took no notice of earthquakes, unmindful of the Spanish-era shocks of 1812. However, the earthquakes in the southeastern California desert gained new supporters for Branner, including the head of the engineering department of the city of Los Angeles and a well-connected petroleum geologist, one of Branner's former students.     So investigators, including influential scientists from Los Angeles, were ready for a moderate earthquake on June 21, 1920, which did considerable damage to the business district of Inglewood, a western suburb of Los Angeles. Stephen Taber, a former student of Branner's and at the time a visiting scientist at Stanford, was sent to investigate. Taber found that the Inglewood Earthquake struck the Newport-Inglewood Fault, which, at the time of the quake, was known by petroleum geologists to contain vast deposits of oil. Oil companies located their wildcat wells on low hills that were atop great oil fields, including Signal Hill overlying the Long Beach Oil Field, Dominguez Hill overlying the Dominguez Field, and the Baldwin Hills overlying the Inglewood Field. Later research would show that these hills had been forced up by tectonic activity on the Newport-Inglewood Fault.     The problem was not the oil fields. The problem was that the fault ran through heavily populated suburbs of Los Angeles. As part of his report, Taber stated that it was "of the utmost importance that all active faults [in the Los Angeles area] be located so that engineers and architects can take precautions in the location and construction of aqueducts, buildings, and other structures."     Then the propaganda machine of California boosters swung into action. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce issued a pamphlet reassuring people that the soft sedimentary layers in the city would absorb earthquake waves--which led an astonished Branner to retort that exactly the opposite would happen. Unlike San Francisco in 1906, scientists and engineers were vocal in countering the arguments of the boosters that California had nothing to fear from earthquakes.     Despite the increase in scientific interest in earthquakes, there was no earthquake research center in Los Angeles comparable to Berkeley and Stanford in the Bay Area.     Harry O. Wood had earlier been an instructor at the University of California under Lawson at the time of the San Francisco Earthquake and had participated in the study of that earthquake under the sponsorship of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. After World War I, Wood found a job in Washington with the newly established National Research Council, where he developed important contacts including the director of the Carnegie Institution and George Ellery Hale, head of Carnegie's Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena. In 1921, Wood persuaded the Carnegie Institution to sponsor seismological research in southern California, and he was hired as a research associate, with office space provided by Hale at the Mt. Wilson Observatory.     Another scientist who became interested in the project was Robert Millikan, an internationally renowned physicist and future Nobel laureate who took over the former Throop Institute in Pasadena as the California Institute of Technology. Millikan and Hale shared a goal of making Caltech a world-class scientific institution, and their method was to bring to Pasadena top scientists in a few selected fields, notably physics and chemistry, with the help of private benefactors. Carnegie's support of Wood at its astronomical observatory provided an opening in applied physics, the study of earthquakes.     A recent Stanford graduate, uncertain about his future and employed as a bookkeeper at the warehouse of the California Hardware Company, stopped by Pasadena to hear a lecture by Millikan. The young man was so inspired that he decided to undertake graduate studies in theoretical physics at Caltech. His name was Charles Richter.     Together with John Anderson, an astronomer at the observatory, Wood set about designing a new seismograph that would specialize in local earthquakes instead of the distant earthquakes that so excited other seismologists interested in the structure of the Earth. Funds were secured from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and from Caltech to establish a central seismograph station at Pasadena, followed by outlying stations elsewhere in southern California.     At the same time, Andrew Lawson, with the support of Wood, persuaded members of the California congressional delegation and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to direct the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to resurvey California to see if crustal deformation had occurred since the 1906 earthquake. Preliminary results showed that since the 1880s, survey benchmarks west of the San Andreas Fault in Santa Barbara County had moved an alarming twenty-four feet northward relative to points east of the fault.     At Stanford, Branner's campaign for earthquake awareness was taken up by Bailey Willis, who came to Stanford after a distinguished career with the U.S. Geological Survey. Willis briskly expanded on Branner's program of applied seismology. He pressed for publication of a map of active faults of California with support from the Carnegie Institution, the Seismological Society of America, and private donations, and this map was published in 1923. Willis promoted earthquake studies and advocated stronger building standards and, at the same time, expanded membership in the Seismological Society of America. In addition to seismologists and geologists, Willis followed Branner's lead by recruiting advocates among engineers and architects.     On June 29, 1925, an earthquake hammered the small resort city of Santa Barbara, destroying much of the downtown area and killing twelve people. The boosters again claimed that earthquakes were an anomaly, not to be concerned about, but this time they were met by sizeable opposition from scientists and engineers. Nevertheless, the boosters carried the day; there was no decrease in the number of people moving to California and the real estate boom of the 1920s continued unabated. Citizens of Santa Barbara complained bitterly that the booster campaign was so effective that it was hard for them to convince charitable organizations that their losses, about $15 million, were serious and that they did indeed need assistance.     Willis and engineer Henry Dewell published a detailed account of the Santa Barbara Earthquake and its damage in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America . In addition, he and other scientists and engineers continued to give speeches and write articles about the need to focus on earthquake hazards. These had some effect: the cities of Santa Barbara and Palo Alto passed ordinances upgrading their building codes to protect against earthquakes. The new seismographs designed by Wood and Anderson began to be deployed in the Bay Area. And an earthquake engineering testing laboratory was established at Stanford.     Still, Willis was frustrated by the opposition to earthquake preparedness from the newspapers and business interests, despite the evidence from the damaging Santa Barbara Earthquake. To get their attention, he took a drastic step: he predicted that a catastrophic earthquake would strike southern California within the next ten years! Harry Wood had argued as early as 1920 that southern California had experienced earthquakes in 1769, 1812, and 1857, at approximately forty-five-year intervals, and the absence of any large earthquakes since 1857 meant to him that one was overdue. Willis was also influenced by the resurvey that showed twenty-four feet of northward motion west of the San Andreas Fault relative to the area east of the fault.     Probably because Willis was considered one of the most distinguished scientists in the United States, his prediction was quickly picked up and embellished by the media. Time magazine reported that "within the next ten years Los Angeles will be wrenched by a tremor worse than that of San Francisco." In a speech to the National Board of Fire Underwriters in New York City, Willis did not put a specific time on his predicted earthquake, but in answer to a question, he stated that the earthquake "is more likely to come in three years than in ten and more likely to come in five years than in three."     Although California boosters were ignoring the prediction, the insurance industry was not: earthquake insurance rates increased dramatically.     Lawson, frequently at odds with Willis, offered little support for his prediction, but Wood, together with two professors at Caltech, geologist J.P. Buwalda and civil engineer R.R. Mattel, stated that the arguments for the prediction were more convincing than the arguments against it. A positive outcome was a concerted effort to upgrade California building codes to protect against earthquakes.     Then the business interests went on the attack. Henry M. Robinson, a Caltech trustee and major financial benefactor, wrote to the Caltech administration stating: "I wonder if you have any idea how much damage this loose talk of these two men [Buwalda and Mattel] is doing to the [property] values in Southern California ... if we ... can not stop their talk about the earthquake problem I for one am going to see what I can do about stopping the whole seismological game." This threat temporarily silenced Buwalda, Mattel, and Wood.     Meanwhile, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Los Angeles attacked Willis and his prediction directly. They hired a petroleum geologist, Robert T. Hill, who had worked for the U.S. Geological Survey many years before, and was now working as a consultant. Hill was engaged as a geologist familiar with California faults to attack Willis's prediction, both in speeches and in print. He also rechecked the Coast and Geodetic Survey's new measurements and found that the preliminary report of twenty-four feet of northward movement west of the San Andreas Fault was incorrect; the actual movement was closer to seven feet in the opposite direction--south, not north. This undercut one of Willis's main arguments for a forthcoming earthquake. In addition, Hill discounted the earlier earthquakes as catastrophic, concluding that there had been no catastrophic earthquake in southern California in more than one hundred fifty years. Hill's conclusions were published in 1928 in a heavily promoted book.     As the controversy over his prediction raged, Willis abruptly found himself undercut as president of the Seismological Society of America, largely due to S.D. Townley, a Stanford astronomer and the secretary of the society. Townley opposed Willis's involving the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America in public education and in political stances regarding earthquake safety, stating that this had no place in a scientific journal. Townley also was unconvinced of the merits of Willis's earthquake forecast. As a result, in the late 1920s, Willis was largely forced out of a leadership role in seismology, except for support of the earthquake engineering laboratory at Stanford.     So the scientists were silenced. Once again, the boosters had won. But Willis, Wood, and others had built an infrastructure that would be able to deal with the earthquakes that followed.     On July 8, 1929, after several foreshocks, a moderate earthquake rattled the cities of Whittier and Norwalk in east Los Angeles, causing considerable damage to the East Whittier School. By this time, the new Seismological Lab at Caltech was in full operation, and among its employees was Charles Richter, who had turned his attention from theoretical physics to seismology. The Whittier Earthquake was felt by Richter at home, and he and Harry Wood described the earthquake in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America two years later. The earthquake was not a disaster, but it enabled the Seismological Lab to deal with its first local earthquake. It was a trial run for the larger earthquake that followed four years later.     At 5:54 P.M. on March 10, 1933, the Long Beach Earthquake rocked Los Angeles, taking 120 lives and inflicting damages of more than $40 million (more than $400 million in today's dollars). The earthquake was about the same size as the Santa Barbara Earthquake of 1925, but because it shook a densely populated suburb of Los Angeles, it was a much larger-scale disaster. The epicenter was off the coast of Newport Beach in Orange County, but the major losses were in Long Beach, twenty miles to the northwest. The source of the earthquake was the southern end of the Newport-Inglewood Fault, the northern end of which had been the source of the Inglewood Earthquake in 1920.     Some people suggested that this earthquake fulfilled Willis's prediction of a catastrophic earthquake within ten years, but in fact the earthquake was too small to fit his prediction.     As before, the boosters came out in full force, led by the Los Angeles Times , to downplay the danger from California earthquakes in comparison to other natural disasters in the country. A representative of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce went on a national tour to make the point that earthquakes rarely produced the devastation that severe storms did elsewhere.     But compared to previous earthquakes, the booster response was weak and dispirited. The earthquake struck during the depths of the Great Depression, and the California real estate boom had run out of steam several years before. The business community was in bad straits financially and was unable to mount the attacks that it had done before. In addition, the depressed condition of the California economy meant that only the federal government had the resources to help the stricken communities. But to receive federal assistance, the California congressional delegation had to admit that the earthquake had done a lot of damage and that the state needed help from Washington.     Furthermore, the residents of Los Angeles had had enough. Everyone had felt the earthquake and many had suffered damage. In addition, the earthquake had destroyed fifteen of the thirty-five schools in Long Beach, and many schools elsewhere in Los Angeles were damaged. Because the earthquake had struck after school was already out for the day, few children had died, but it was pointed out that if the earthquake had struck during school hours, thousands of children could have been killed. The Los Angeles Examiner published graphic photos of collapsed school buildings, which fueled the outrage of Los Angeles parents. Demands were made that school building contractors be prosecuted for shoddy workmanship.     Engineers and seismologists seized on the public outcry as an opportunity to upgrade the quality of building construction and build on the legacy of Bailey Willis and his predecessors. This time they directed their efforts at legislation. The Long Beach Press-Telegram endorsed a call by Harry Wood to regulate building construction, and similar pleas for stricter construction standards from geologist J.P. Buwalda and engineer R.R. Mattel of Caltech were published in the Examiner . John C. Austin, an architect and former president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, added his strong support for upgrading building codes. An inquest by the Los Angeles County coroner on earthquake fatalities turned into a forum during which leading earthquake professionals, questioned by Austin, advocated more stringent construction standards. The coroner's jury recommended that Los Angeles County adopt the earthquake resistance standards of a new building code proposed by the State Chamber of Commerce.     In the month following the earthquake, professional meetings were held in Los Angeles by architects and mechanical engineers, and solutions for the earthquake problem were discussed at length. Harry Wood wrote an article about earthquake preparedness for the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America . The Los Angeles Board of Education convened a panel chaired by Robert Millikan, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Caltech. Millikan had persuaded world-renowned seismologist Beno Gutenberg to flee Nazi Germany (Gutenberg was Jewish) and join Charles Richter and Harry Wood at Caltech. Secretarial expenses in preparing the committee's report were covered by none other than that former booster, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.     All of these groups repeated the same theme: the need for better earthquake preparedness. The Millikan report concluded that destructive earthquakes would continue to strike southern California, including the possibility of an earthquake as damaging as the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Therefore, "earthquake resistant construction is absolutely necessary in this region in order to avoid great loss of life and heavy damage to property." The Millikan report was even endorsed by the Los Angeles Times , which had voiced the boosters' view immediately after the earthquake.     Architects in San Diego, yet to be visited by a damaging earthquake, expressed interest in the recommendations. And in San Francisco, the chief building inspector and a major contributor to setting up the new state building code called for stronger construction standards in the Bay Area, a position advocated by the San Francisco Chronicle . On April 18, the twenty-seventh anniversary of the San Francisco Earthquake, a vindicated Bailey Willis was among those advocating higher standards in building construction. Earthquake-resistant building codes were adopted by Los Angeles County and the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena.     In Sacramento, Assemblyman C. Don Field, responding to parents' anger over the schools damaged by the earthquake and guided by structural engineers, introduced a bill to make schools safer from earthquakes. The bill gave the State Division of Architecture the power to inspect school construction plans and actual construction to be sure that earthquake-resistant construction was used. The Division of Architecture was also authorized to hire structural engineers to inspect existing school buildings and make sure they met safety standards. This bill was signed into law on April 10, 1933. Enforcement was in the hands of a structural engineer, Clarence H. Kromer, who adopted the earthquake provisions of the State Chamber of Commerce Building Code, which he had helped create.     What about other buildings? Another bill was introduced by the state assemblyman from Long Beach to require that earthquake precautions be taken for all buildings in the state. With strong public support, the Riley Act became law on May 27, 1933. This law was criticized because its enforcement was left in the hands of local building inspectors, many of whom were not trained in earthquake-resistant construction. Many communities, perceiving themselves outside any earthquake danger zone, did not enforce the law.     The Field Act, with enforcement at the state level, became the more valuable of the two laws. Los Angeles cities moved to upgrade existing school buildings, raising money through bond issues with help from the federal government. School officials were prodded into action by a ruling of the Attorney General in November 1933 that school board members could be held personally liable for school injuries or deaths as a result of earthquake damage to school buildings.     The Long Beach Earthquake accomplished what the San Francisco Earthquake had not: it gained the support of major civic groups and newspapers for legislation at the local and state levels. The boosters and developers who had previously managed to deflect any serious discussion about earthquake reinforcement were weakened by the Depression. The earthquake community--including structural engineers, seismologists, geologists, and architects--was better organized and, in contrast to the situation in 1906, they used the earthquake as their "teachable moment" to upgrade building standards in California. (Continues...) Copyright © 2001 Robert S. Yeats. All rights reserved.

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