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L.A. STORIES : Floods, Fires, Quakes . . . It’s One Thrill Ride After Another

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Looking back, I now see that growing up during the salad days of the Cold War was great training for life today in Los Angeles, a.k.a. Disaster City, U.S.A., area code 911.

Since much of the population is too young to fully appreciate what I mean, let me explain. Don’t be surprised if a lot of this sounds eerily familiar.

In the Jurassic era of the 1950s, I spent a fair amount of time crouched under my school desk, eyes squeezed shut, hands clasped protectively behind my neck. Many fellow baby boomers will remember this exercise as a civil defense drill for--no, not an earthquake--the onset of nuclear war.

Doom, we were told, could fall from the sky at any minute. If we survived the initial onslaught, our elders counseled that we should flee to one of the safe, sturdy public buildings that had been designated fallout shelters. As I recall, these refuges had been marked with yellow-and-black signs and stocked with refreshing canned water and tasty, nutritious survival crackers.

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Mom, Dad and the two children of the typical nuclear family also were encouraged to build and furnish their very own shelter in the basement or back yard. To avoid endless games of charades and ward off mild familial discord brought on by close living, we were advised to grab a pre-Nintendo board game or two as we dashed for the bunker. (In those innocent times apparently little thought was given to Menendez-type family tensions.)

Not content to brood over the rigors of living like moles, perhaps forever, adults debated shelter etiquette: After the nuking began, would it be more proper to welcome--or to shoot--the repentant former optimists and low-work-ethic scum who would come begging for admittance on shelter doors? For those who had made up their minds on this question, there were finer points of social disintegration to argue: Should interlopers first be given the courtesy of a warning shot?

Many years passed like clicks on a Geiger counter, history lurched on and I seldom thought about those apocalyptic days. Then I moved to Southern California, where the end of the world is not only promised but regularly delivered.

Somewhere around the third firestorm, or the fourth earthquake, or the fifth flood, or the 1992 riots, I began to realize that those long ago days of peak atomic anxiety had not been endured in vain. The recent rains of terror are just the latest reminders that I was a hardened veteran of childhood disaster training.

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As in previous episodes, I felt once more a boyhood sensation, an eager anticipation spiced with a dash of dread at the prospect of an absolute, irreversible free fall into chaos.

Forty years ago, I sometimes wished the Soviets would go ahead and drop a few megatons close, but not too close, to home. In my naivete, I figured the end of Western Civilization almost certainly would force school to be canceled. It would be fun, I thought, to camp out for a while, have adventures like Davy Crockett. True, I had a few faint doubts about whether I could wrestle a bear like Davy. But hand-to-hand combat with mutant, ravenous, radioactive omnivores seemed a small risk, considering the rewards.

On the other hand, my youthful pioneering joy was tempered by the harrowing suspicion that the Dairy Queen probably would shut down too, along with the town drug store, chief source of such essentials as comic books and baseball cards. I reluctantly concluded that, even without school, life still would be almost as hard as long division.

Fast forward to 1995: The rains are coming down in biblical bucketfuls. Weathermen chant mantras over satellite images of green storm globs barreling inland for a meteorological mugging. I feel the familiar yin and yang of excitement and concern over imminent catastrophe.

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On the upside, my family is safe, my home and office are warm and dry. I don’t have to endure a nightmarish commute to get to either. The pantry is well-stocked. The power is still on, so there’s no need to delve into emergency stockpiles of batteries and candles. Best of all, I don’t live anywhere near Malibu, which is vomiting great chunks of itself into the Pacific Ocean.

In short, I am prepared to experience this disaster in comfort, just the way the rest of the country does when California tap dances on the brink.

Yet, while I watch TV reporters dressed in fashionable rain gear chronicle the deluge, I can’t help thinking about the downside of calamity. Have I done enough to prepare my family if we too fall victims to flooding? Should I keep an inflatable boat handy on the patio, in the event it rains another 30 or 40 inches and Los Angeles becomes an urban lagoon? The idea seems absurd, until I remember this city’s improbable string of recent misfortunes.

Pondering those episodes of natural and man-made violence, I begin to think in general about survival in Los Angeles. So far, most of us have been relatively lucky. We have not been beaten to death in a riot, or crushed by a falling building while we slept, or incinerated by a wild fire moving faster than a cheetah, or swept away by anomalous 500-year floods.

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But how long can luck hold out? What can be done to prepare for all possibilities? Has a supernatural power nailed this city to the bull’s-eye of a cosmic dartboard?

These questions have been tickling my brain since before last year’s earthquake. Obviously, if I had the answers, I could quit buying lottery tickets. Short of that, thinking about L.A. and the ineffable has prompted me to acquire a ridiculous number of flashlights. I keep flashlights in every room, in the car, in my briefcase--and spares tucked away in a closet. If this city descends into literal and metaphorical darkness, I like to think I am ready.

Unfortunately, no talisman can ward off all the risks of living here. And it seems to me that Los Angeles has more of those than most cities, even when the mega-catastrophes are subtracted.

Since I came here in 1977, the city has been swept with fear and pity over serial killers, freeway shootings, and airplanes colliding and falling out of the sky, to mention a few. Then there are the well-publicized day-to-day risks--carjackings, home invasions, muggings, freeway fender-benders that end in gunfire, drug wars, gang shootings, etc.

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Throw all this stuff together and L.A. becomes a vast, sinister theme park where no one is told when the next ride will begin.

Which leads me to my final question: Why are any of us still here?


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