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Analysis

Sadly, 'San Andreas' is unlikely to spur quake preparedness

USGS predicts 1,800 deaths, $213 billion in damage from a 7.8 quake on the San Andreas fault's south end

It would be nice if the publicity surrounding the new blockbuster "San Andreas," with its science-bending pyrotechnics about the cinematic Big One, encouraged Californians to get ready for the real Big One.

That would be as likely as being plucked from the roof of a disintegrating skyscraper by your dashing ex-husband in his emergency helicopter, which he safely maneuvers as all of downtown Los Angeles crashes to the ground. (No spoilers here: That much was in the movie trailer.)

In other words, not likely at all.

True, seismic and emergency officials have had some fun with "San Andreas" the movie. Lucy Jones, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist, attended the premiere, took a red carpet picture with star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and live-tweeted corrections to its grander exaggerations.

"Great emotional message — not knowing if your family is ok is hard. Do you have a family communication plan?" she tweeted.

Rick Wilson, the California Geological Survey's senior engineering geologist, issued a droll movie review noting that the more dramatic depictions — a giant chasm, those cratering skyscrapers, a breathtakingly large tsunami aiming at the state's most famous bridge — were not exactly realistic.

"Unless a huge asteroid hits off the coast, there is no chance of a tsunami higher than the Golden Gate Bridge," Wilson said.

They were hoping that the movie might inspire some real-life preparation. And they knew it wouldn't happen.

For California, there is much at stake. A USGS report issued in 2008 predicted 1,800 deaths and $213 billion in damage would result from a 7.8 quake on the south end of the San Andreas fault — numbers that could be reduced by preparation.

Millions have been spent by governments and others to persuade Californians to put aside enough water and food for several days, to bolt down homes and strap in water heaters, to purchase earthquake insurance. And relatively few have gotten the message.

Politicians, too, put preparations on the back burner. Gov. Jerry Brown occasionally has used the specter of earthquakes to tout his water plan, but other than that has focused on fiscal troubles and the drought.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has forwarded an ambitious program to retrofit buildings and upgrade the city's water system pre-Big One, efforts that would cost billions. He has floated the possibility of a state bond to pay for it. That is a reach, however, because of the same delaying instincts that have thwarted Californians' efforts to get ready.

A state study released in 2010 found that only 10% of Californians knew people who had done a full range of preparations. Only 40% had set aside the recommended 3 gallons of water per person. Scientists say the "normalcy bias" — in this case, the two decades since the last big quake in Northridge — has lulled Californians into thinking that the absence of quakes is the norm.

"People who live in flood areas where they're flooded every three, four years tend to be prepared for a flood. Damaging earthquakes occur once every 40 years or so, so people forget," state geologist John Parrish said.

Without any jolting reminders, only about 10% of Californians who have a home insurance policy also have earthquake insurance, according to Chris Nance of the California Earthquake Authority, the insurance clearinghouse.

"We hope people are thinking through the puzzle pieces, but we are worried that not enough are," Nance said.

State studies have shown that the same proportion of people prepare for quakes in high-risk and low-risk areas, meaning that the preparation is driven by human behavior more than anything. The experts' conclusion: People know there will be a devastating quake. They just don't think it will hit them.

"That's who the human animal is," said Dennis Mileti, the former director of the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Center and a former member of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

Mileti said studies show people need to be told in simple terms what to do; they need to be encouraged by people they know — the "monkey see, monkey do" rule — and they need to be nagged over and over.

"You can't just say it once a year; you can't even say it once a month," he said. "You have to sell it the way Coca-Cola sells Coca-Cola."

Unfortunately, the best persuasion occurs when the earth moves underfoot. But even the uptick in preparation after a quake fades after two years, he said. And government loses interest even faster. In 2006, the seismic commission studied quake legislation passed in California in the century since the great San Francisco quake. Nearly every single measure had been pushed through within a year of a major quake, Mileti said.

Oddly, perhaps, quakes elsewhere don't spur preparations here — in part because the images, like those recently from Nepal, are so horrific that they immobilize.

Movies don't help either; seismic officials last week were hoping that "San Andreas" wouldn't harm their drive for preparation.

"You look at this movie and think, 'So I have extra water — now that's going to make a difference? You need The Rock!' " Jones said. "That's a problem, if people watch and despair."

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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