Aftershocks and Aftershocks

The real costs of the Oct. 17 Northern California earthquake may not be known for months or even years. Just as Gov. George Deukmejian was signing a billion-dollar state earthquake relief program into law Monday, San Francisco City Controller Sam Yockey related how one major city building had seemed to survive the Oct. 17 quake quite well, but began cracking just six days ago. By Monday, one such crack was two inches wide and the structure was evacuated. Thus, a building that originally seemed to require only cosmetic repairs now may have to be condemned and replaced at considerable expense. The hidden and surprise costs of the quake are quite likely to drive the need for state aid beyond the $1 billion. So California must take the governor and leaders of the Legislature at their word that more relief will be on the way as soon as this aid package is depleted.

As it was, winning approval of an emergency sales-tax increase of a quarter cent on the dollar was no snap. The bill passed the Assembly by 56-17, just two votes more than the two-thirds margin required. All 17 no votes came from Republicans, including former Assembly GOP Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale who indulged in amazing bad taste by griping that "this is a cynical manipulation to raise taxes." Rather than gently tap the people by a nickel on every $20, Nolan would have taken money from existing state programs. Talk about cynicism. Talk about cheap.

The 13-month mini-tax increase will raise about $800 million and the governor pledges to use another $200 million out of the state reserve fund. Just how far will this money stretch? No one knows. "We'll be digging out of this for the next two or three years," said Yockey. And while Congress has appropriated $3.45 billion, no one can be sure if that will cover all needs either. When Federal Emergency Management Agency officials arrived in San Francisco, one was heard to boast that his office had a record of rejecting 90% of all claims. These people have come to help?

While the focus has been on repair and recovery, the governor's office and the Legislature also must begin to better prepare California for future quakes. The benefits of past efforts were illustrated by the fact that damage to elementary and secondary public school buildings was relatively limited. Over the years, all older school buildings were rebuilt or reinforced under the Field Act. The same must now be done with state-owned structures including those on the University of California and California State University campuses.

In fact, the Northern California earthquake provides an opportunity for the state to explore new ways of doing things that not only can lead to a safer state, but one in which growth and congestion can be more sensibly controlled and channeled. The state should revise land-use planning rules to avoid location of new developments in high-risk areas. California must re-examine new highway and freeway routes to see if they can better be served by mass transit. People no longer scoff at the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which survived the quake with minimal damage and now carries thousands of commuters who cannot drive to work conveniently. And, out of necessity, many businesses and government agencies are testing the productivity of employees working at home with telephone and computer.

There are fears--probably justified--that all this earthquake awareness will fade as memories of the Oct. 17 crisis recede. State officials must constantly remind themselves that the next big quake could occur at any moment virtually anywhere in California. They must behave as if every moment that is lost, and every dollar scrimped, could result in unnecessary death, injury and damage.

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