From the regulars who frequent Paula's palm, Tarot-card and psychic readings shop in Sunset Beach came a single recurring question in the last few days: "When will the Big One come?"
It's a question that even Paula--a woman who does her futuristic gazing from a two-room shop that sits virtually atop one of the area's most potentially destructive fault lines--dares not touch.
"That's God's business. I don't mess around with predictions like that," she says. "There's not much you can do about it."
Such is the attitude--a mixture of resignation and optimism--held by many of the devout and the non-religious alike who live and work along the Newport-Inglewood Fault, a powerful harbinger of destruction that runs through much of the Orange County coastal area.
School playgrounds and retirement communities, century-old Huntington Beach homes and gleaming new, multimillion-dollar condominiums, quaint old fishing piers and intimidating power plants and weapons stations--all lie in the path of the fault, subject to its spasmodic whims.
While relatively small in size, the Newport-Inglewood Fault threatens mayhem of staggering proportions largely because it runs through some of the most densely populated areas in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
A myriad of other variables--among them soil composition, building structure, and the type of quake--can also help determine which areas will be hit hardest by a temblor, regardless of how close they are to the epicenter, seismological experts say.
That is primarily why the massive 6.3 quake of 1933, centered in Huntington Beach, vented its most destructive wrath in Long Beach. And on Tuesday, San Francisco's Marina District suffered the region's worst damage even though it was more than 50 miles from the quake's origin near Santa Cruz.
Nonetheless, proximity to a fault is more than just a psychological fear. "As a general rule," said Christine Boyd, manager of the county's disaster planning unit, "the closer you get to the center, the more at-risk you are."
Lynn Arnold knows that. A science teacher at Huntington Beach's Ethel Dwyer Middle School, he says that his house, directly on the fault line, "is probably the last place you'd want to be in a quake."
'It's All Over'
Besides its location on the fault, he says: "The place is sunk in Jell-O. That point 10,000 years ago was a swamp. In a good-sized quake, it's all over."
Arnold, who talked with some of his students about earthquakes this week after the San Francisco quake, takes unusual precautions at home by bolting down wall pictures and some household items, in addition to keeping on hand more traditional emergency supplies. Such items as a first-aid kit, a flashlight, canned and dried food, and a supply of water are recommended.
Some local residents--about 20% statewide by informal estimates--take out quake insurance on their homes, often requiring large deductibles that can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars even on modest houses.
But more common seems to be the fatalistic attitude of people such as Isadore (Pop) Greenbaum, a longtime fisherman who says he has felt the Newport Beach pier rumble ominously underneath him four times during his four decades in the area, including the 4.5 quake on April 7 that was centered in the city. The fault runs directly through the Newport beachfront area on its way into the Pacific Ocean.
"When it comes, it comes. Not much use worrying about it," the 78-year-old Greenbaum said. "I remember when one hit a ways back, some of the people didn't know what it was, and I told 'em it was just a whale scratching its back."
With few physical remnants in the area from past jolts, the threat of the Big One seems for many along Orange County's major fault to have little connection to daily life. It is an abstract concern that takes on tangible form only during and immediately after minor temblors--or events such as Tuesday's major quake in the Bay Area.
"After (the San Francisco quake), we're all earthquake-minded right now," said Vera Pate of Huntington Beach.
Even in past minor quakes in the local area, the first few instants were terrifying, fisherman Greenbaum says. "The whole place starts to shake, and I'd be thinking, 'Why was I so bad to my wife? I love her. I gotta repent.' . . . But what can you do about it?"
Added Bill Pitts, 35, another fishing regular on the Newport pier: "I always figured that if the Big One came, I'd just jump into the ocean and stick it out there."
Pitts, a defense industry engineer, said that the Newport-Inglewood fault "really scares me. . . . I think it's a much greater danger than most people realize."
Some people living and working on the fault itself are apparently unaware of their precarious position.
Sara Topolewski, 14, a Huntington Beach High School freshman, said she was "really freaked out" when she first learned from a science teacher a few years ago that her school sat near a major quake zone and that an elementary school on the very site had in fact been demolished in the 1933 quake.
"Oh, dear! That is a scary thing," Ginni Ris, who just took over as general manager of the Huntington Landmark Senior Adult Community, said upon learning of the 1,238-unit complex's positioning, which is in the fault zone.
"I'm not sure if people know that, but I'm afraid it would terrify everyone if they did," Ris said. "If something like that were to come out, it could panic the elderly people who live here . . . and it could jeopardize property values."
State law requires realtors to inform potential buyers if they are looking in an area that has a history of seismological problems.
But even some in the realty industry acknowledge that this requirement may be routinely ignored. And some homeowners interviewed along the Newport Inglewood Fault said that they don't recall being told of the fault's location in advance and learned of it only after the purchase. They added, however, that such information probably would not have affected their decisions.
"We get a lot of people just coming into this area who are deathly afraid of the earthquakes and ask a lot about it," said Steve Ward, a Century 21 franchise owner whose region includes the fault zone in Huntington Beach.
"But for anybody who's been here a while, it's not an issue." Ward said his agents are required by company policy to notify potential buyers of fault locations.
Don't Really Care
Added Audra Kunf, a program manager with the county's disaster planning unit, "When people are in the market for a house, they usually don't think to ask about Newport-Inglewood or any other fault, or don't really care."
Back in 1933, Helen Tarbox didn't know either that the Victorian farmhouse in Huntington Beach that she grew up in lay directly on the Newport-Inglewood Fault. But when row upon row of marmalade jars "just began tumbling off the cupboards to the floor" early one evening, she knew it meant only one thing: an earthquake.
By the time it was over, the major quake had carved a trench--now gone--by a hilltop in the back yard. Although only a few feet in diameter, the earthen opening seemed bottomless. "We'd throw rocks down there, and you couldn't even hear them hit bottom," said Tarbox, now 89, of Newport Beach.
The home itself--built in 1898 by Tarbox's father, William Newland, a Huntington Beach businessman who helped shape the city in its early days--was left remarkably unscathed by the jolt and stands today as a nationally registered historic landmark on Beach Boulevard.
GETTING READY: Orange County residents stock up with earthquake supplies. B7