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How Much Do We Learn From Disasters?
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January 20, 2010, 04:48 PM
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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?