January 20, 2010

How much do we learn from disasters?

When thinking of poor Haiti, it’s pleasant to think that this disaster will lead to political and societal reforms. Yet, how often does that happen? It's nice to recall examples of places that used a disaster to come back better, such as wooden Chicago rebuilding after the wind-driven Great Fire of 1871 in majestic stone and brick.

But, most of the time, we’re just kidding ourselves: disasters typically wind up being disastrous.

Occasionally, we get kicked in the head so often a lesson starts to sink in. For example, federally subsidized flood insurance kept encouraging people to build nice vacation homes right on the beach in the hurricane-infested Southeast because the taxpayer would pay to have the house rebuilt on the same spot -- and get swamped again. It took decades of hurricanes before the law was finally reformed.

Urban earthquakes tend to be rare enough that we forget a lot of what we learn.

In the more than a century after the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake of 1906, America has been lucky in the time and place when its quakes have hit. For example, the most urban of the subsequent earthquakes, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, killed only 72—but not because the San Fernando Valley was all that well prepared despite the nearby 1971 Sylmar earthquake that killed 65. Instead, it happened to strike at 4:31 AM when most residents were tucked safely in bed, so the mall and freeway collapses were remarkably non-fatal.

A massive California earthquake that will kill thousands seems only to be a matter of time.

Several weeks after the 1994 earthquake, my father, who had been through major earthquakes back to the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, took a map in the newspaper of the hundreds of condemned buildings in the San Fernando Valley and showed how they matched up remarkably to an old map he found at the library of the region’s typically dry riverbeds of sand and gravel. A large majority of condemned buildings were were found in the limited amount of development build on old riverbeds. The typical apartment building that fell down was, as the Bible says, “a house built on sand.”

Similarly, the worst damage done by 1989 Lome Prieta earthquake near Santa Cruz happened in the landfill-based Marina neighborhood of distant San Francisco. An earthquake "liquefies" sand and gravel, turning solid ground into an angry sea beneath your feet.

The slump in real estate prices that followed the 1994 earthquake would have been an ideal time for the city to buy up some of the ruined buildings on the most dangerous soil and convert that land into parks, which Los Angeles is notoriously short of. (The San Fernando Valley was intended to be a bucolic, low-density retreat from urban life, so little urban planning was done -- nothing like Daniel Burnham's magnificent outline for Chicago. The population of the SFV, however, is now 1,760,000.)

Of course, buying up shaky ground wasn’t done. It took longer for the authorities to reach my father's conclusions, and how could anyone afford to invest for the future when there was an economic downturn now?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

For those who didn't get a copy of steve's blog backup earlier, there's a torrent on the pirate bay:


David said...

Learning that people build (and rebuild) on sand, in flood plains, on fault lines, below sea level, etc. was an important step in my childhood. It marked real disillusionment with adults, whom children assume are knowledgeable and responsible. Many disillusionments later, this one still has a numb "I-can't-believe-it" quality for me. Probably a point of purchase for the "climate change" baloney is the plausibility that the world economy might very well have been based on poison.

Anonymous said...

Steve, OT, but since you live in the LA metroplex you should consider writing more about local issues with an HBD slant. The advantage of writing about local things is that you can jump in your car, drive over, and look around - you know, observe things yourself. Primary sources and all that.

While you are very insightful, and you can make very effective use of the reporting done by others to reach your own conclusions, all non fiction writers benefit from seeing and experiencing some things for themselves. I see you as a modern Tom Wolfe, and I think you will note that Wolfe never could have had the impact he has had without getting out there.

Spend some time here in Manhattan Beach. There is an interesting HBD story developing. The african american population of MB is very small, but it is an exceptionally wealthy african american group. Local stats indicate that the average african american in MB lives in a house worth, post crash, $2.5 million. That would make the MB african american community one of the wealthiest in the world. Anyway, the MB african american community is conspicuous in its lobbying to have a popular local exercise area (the Sand Dune of Sand Dune Park) down and fenced off by the city since the park has started to bring more middle class african americans from the neighboring communities in for visits to MB. The city will be voting soon on whether to permanently shut down the park, a local favorite, in order to prevent "outsiders" from entering MB.

ricpic said...

Not only do we not learn from disasters; they only concern (in a serious way) those who are geographically vulnerable: witness your Californian brooding on earthquakes. For the rest of the country earthquakes are a big yawn. Same for those who live in flood plains or tornado corridors. It's human nature that if one isn't personally affected by a misery that misery barely exists -- and not a darn thing can be done about human nature.

albertosaurus said...

Actually earthquakes are pretty easy to defang. We can't stop the actual earth movement nor would we wish to, but there doesn't need to be much loss of human life.

The answer is rebar.

At just about the same time as the Loma Prieta quake in Northern California there were two similar sized quakes in the Caucuses. There were 25,000 killed in Armenia and 50,000 in Iran.
Yet the California earthquake of 1989 killed only sixty people. Big difference, huh?

It's all in construction standards. Rousseau noted that the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 caused not much harm to the shepherds in the fields but killed at least 50,000 city dwellers. He was wrong however about the lesson to be learned. Indeed if you are standing in an open field you will not be hurt by an earthquake. Maybe you will fall down. But the earth will not open up and swallow you. Unlike hurricanes, volcanoes, fires and floods earthquakes are less deadly to the unsheltered. Most earthquake casualties are caused by a building falling down on your head.

Northern California homes tend to be wooden frame structures. Wood is a material that is strong in tension. That means it takes shear forces and shaking well. Most earthquake fatalities come from structures built with materials of compressive strength - brick work or unreinforced concrete.

If my wooden frame house were to fall on my head, unless I was unlucky enough that a beam hit my head, I would not be hurt much. That's why I don't worry much about living only a few hundred yards from the Hayward fault.

Look at the photos from Haiti. You don't see a lot of rebar in all that masonry rubble.

There is a growing recognition that clean water should be a priority for every village. We need a similar consciousness about eliminating all unreinforced masonry.

Anonymous said...

A little O/T, but The Derb and Lucianne's Boy [and others] are looking to bump heads over the Haiti fiasco.

Hopefully, The Derb will take the bait - and, if he does, then put some popcorn in the microwave...

PS: And boy oh boy, do I wish that NRO had the functionality to attach reader comments to the professional posts.

John Seiler said...

Still, let's say a California earthquake strikes and kills 4,000 people. Terrible. But that's about number of yearly fatalities on California roads in recent years. Buildings, like cars, can be made safer. But at a certain point you just forget about it.

airtommy said...

Via Anon's NRO links, a good line by Mark Steyn:

"Even by the standards of Third World dysfunction, what country is such a basket case that it needs outside help to set up a goat farm?"

Sgt. Joe Friday said...

It all comes down to money, and a weighing of the cost-to-benefit ratio. I am sure the technology exists to build "earthquake proof" buildings, but they would be horribly expensive. Just as airplanes and our air traffic control system are designed to reduce fatal airline accidents to a minimum, squeezing that last little bit of chance out of the system just isn't worth the extra money that would have to be spent.

That said, I live here in southern California, just a couple of miles from the Newport-Inglewood fault. And my neighborhood is in a liquefaction zone to boot. A lot of people I know back east and in the midwest don't understand why anyone would live in an active fault zone, but in reality, southern California gets a good, strong shake only about once every 20 years or so (Long Beach 1933, Tehachapi 1952, Sylmar 1971, Northridge 1994). In "Tornado Alley" or in the southeast the threat of violent weather is a yearly occurence, although to be fair you usually have some warning of an approaching storm.

If you live in southern California, your chances of dying in an earthquake are pretty small. You're probably more likely to die from being the victim of an illegal alien hit-and-run.

Anonymous said...


Traditional Armenian and Iranian masonry has some earthquake resistance. Not as much as modern rebarred concrete, but more than cheap unreinforced concrete.

In both Northern Middle East earthquakes, the cheap mass produced western-style death trap buildings crumbled like houses of cards. The old government houses, museums, churches and mosques survived. After the Armenian quake, the government said no to concrete and yes to traditional construction techniques with large-block masonry. It is not possible to skimp much with the old ways.

Anonymous said...

"A massive California earthquake that will kill thousands seems only to be a matter of time."

Too bad there's no fault-line dividing California from Mexico.

Ronduck said...

A massive California earthquake that will kill thousands seems only to be a matter of time.

Considering the demographic changes that Cali has undergone, will there be rioting and looting after the next big killer quake?

Anonymous said...

You should address that question to The One.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that too. I didn't see any rebar in the rubble.

Anonymous said...

How much we learn from disasters depends upon the people affected and their culture/civilization.

The people have to have the ability to acquire the resources and the design/implement better solutions. In addition, they need to have built a society that provides the incentives for improving.

A necessary evil, the threat of lawyers is one factor that helps neighbors obey codes to reduce damanges from mudslides and wildfires in places like CA.

Anonymous said...

One thing for sure, the West learned not to fight one another after WWII, so I suppose there is some hope. Between 1914 to 1947, perhaps 65 million Europeans killed by wars. From 1950 til present, perhaps only 500,000--mostly in Yugoslavia.

Anonymous said...

We learn from extracting the DETAILS of how those who did at all cope managed to do so. Likely there would be some surprises--not all of it being ancitipated. But anything that can be done of any enduring significance is likely to be on the order of "helping them to help themselves". Understanding from "learning what they learned"--those that did learn anything. What we learn would be like a "shopping list" of small measures that added together are of great practical significance.