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San Francisco centennial

"San Francisco centennial" Continued...

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

Although northern California receives most of the earthquake attention, researchers at the Southern California Earthquake Center speak of an 80 percent to 90 percent chance that a temblor of 7.0 or greater magnitude will strike Southern California before 2024. Some preparations have happened: Almost all of 2,100 freeway overpasses that need reinforcement have it. Most at risk throughout California are school buildings: A report in 2001 found that of nearly 20,000 brick and concrete school buildings constructed before a 1978 state building code upgrade, 7,500 (78 percent) were "not expected to perform well in future earthquakes," and 1,200 of those buildings were within about a mile of an active fault.

State officials did not divulge names of the specific schools at risk, although school districts were allowed to request that information. Most have not, perhaps in the belief that districts are not legally liable if a disaster occurs and officials are ignorant. Or perhaps politicians are once again playing the percentages: If children are in school seven hours per day over 180 days of the year, if a huge earthquake does occur and buildings collapse, there's only a 1-in-7 chance that children will be buried in the rubble. Gambling with lives in that way seems foolhardy, but many people have short memories and even shorter perspectives on events yet unseen.

Except that we have seen the results of earthquakes on a small scale in southern California-the Northridge quake 12 years ago-and on a gargantuan scale in San Francisco 100 years ago. Novelist Jack London was on the scene, reporting for Collier's magazine: "All the cunning adjustments of a 20th century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls. The steel rails were twisted into perpendicular and horizontal angles. The telephone and telegraph systems were disrupted. And the great water-mains had burst. All the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds' twitching of the earth-crust."

London, who knew how to tell a city's story in microcosm, quoted one elderly man: "Today is my birthday. Last night I was worth thirty-thousand dollars. I bought five bottles of wine, some delicate fish and other things for my birthday dinner. I have had no dinner, and all I own are these crutches."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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