Local News in Earthquake Country


Ask any reporter – earthquakes are great for the news business. Gut-wrenching visuals accompany heroic and tragic tales about survivors and victims alike, and the aftermath stories can go on for months. Earthquakes are inherently dramatic, demonstrating as they do the pent up power of a planet we ceaselessly exploit, but fail to predict or properly understand. No matter how much money or smarts we may have, in a minute or two, an earthquake could shatter anyone’s life.

Last week, when an LA Times reporter (and the next day, a KABC reporter) called to interview me about a report we’d written last year about earthquake preparedness, I knew why: people get interested in how they can survive an earthquake when they catch a glimpse of the devastation one can cause. Give them a little taste of what has happened to people in Haiti, Chile and Taiwan, and they want to know what could happen to me and my family.

I told the KABC reporter that I thought it was great that she was doing a piece on earthquake preparedness – it’s a public service to do so, as long as there’s helpful information in the story – and it’s actually good for the news business because earthquakes are (whether we like to admit it or not) entertaining. She quickly agreed, saying an earthquake story is “teasable” – the network can tease the hell out of any quake-related story in California, playing on people’s latent fears about when the next one’s a comin’.

So if it’s an easy sell – the reporter actually rolled her eyes and said, “I’ve done this story sooooo many times before” – why is it Californians remain unprepared? Our 2008 survey found that about a third of the Southern Californians we surveyed who signed up for the Great ShakeOut, the biggest earthquake drill in U.S. history, said they were still unprepared for an earthquake a month after the drill. And a 2004 survey of people in Los Angeles County found that 52% admitted that they were unprepared.

I suspect many Californians have deeply ambivalent feelings about earthquakes: the ones that happen to us every now and then don’t seem to amount to much, and if the really big one should hit, would a hand-crank radio and a first aid kit really help? (Actually, yes they would.) Our far-flung friends in supposedly safer states mock us for our willingness to build a house within spitting distance of an infamous fault, which is well overdue for a major rumbler. But the fault is invisible to the untrained eye and it’s easy enough to forget that the threat lies so near. But when we see the devastation in Haiti or Chile or Taiwan we think twice about that aging earthquake kit in the garage, the one with the old flashlight, whose batteries have surely faded, and the food rations that are a couple years past their due date.

When Art Center College of Design approached us at the Lear Center a few years ago and asked us if we’d like to get involved in an innovative public communication campaign that would use mass media, multimedia and public spectacle to teach Southern Californians about how to prepare for earthquakes, we jumped at the chance. We attended charettes with scientists, designers, communication professionals and public health officials, all of whom felt that if they pooled their talents sufficiently they might be able to convince our recalcitrant California audience that they really can prepare for an earthquake.

The “Get Ready” campaign, as it was called, was intended to piggy-back on the Great ShakeOut Drill, which ultimately sent almost 5.5 million people under their desks and tables to imagine an earthquake 5,000 times more powerful than the 1994 Northridge quake. But one really coolbook, one great video, a comic book, a public event at LA Live, and the mother of all earthquake drills is not enough to change our devil-may-care ways. Thankfully, the California State Senate has mandated an annual, statewide drill, but it takes a lot of money to get the word out, and without a generous budget to support outreach to all the radically diverse communities of California, the message will not necessarily be heard. In this state’s fiscal crisis, I’m afraid that money won’t be found. So if the 7.8 quake from the ShakeOut scenario does happen, I told the KABC reporter that she’d get to cover the story of her life. Too bad the electricity will be down . . . . indefinitely.


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