How disaster connects California

Banner image: Edward Vielmetti
Banner image: Edward Vielmetti

When I was a graduate student at Caltech in the 1960s, my boyfriend and I loved to take a spin up the cliff-hanging California Highway 39 that ascends in a 30-mile stretch from Azusa to the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains. Smog was a serious problem back then, but we’d go up on those wonderful days when the air was clear, the sky a deep blue, and the vistas spectacular.

Nowadays, nearly 3 million motorists cruise up Highway 39 every year. In addition to providing a thrill, the highway gives 500 people a way to get to their homes. It provides firefighters access to the Angeles National Forest, and it’s the entrance point for three flood control dams.

In 1978, a major landslide destroyed part of the highway’s upper section, isolating the lower 27 miles from the Angeles Crest Highway. The road still hasn’t been completely repaired—and the job is estimated to cost $50 million. In 2011, Caltrans, which owns this stretch of road, asked both the U.S. Forest Service and Los Angeles County to take over the highway’s $1.5 million annual maintenance costs. (By comparison, the median cost of maintaining a 30-mile long, two-lane highway in the U.S. is $180,000.) Both have “gracefully declined to take on this responsibility,” a Caltrans manager told the L.A. Times in 2012.

Highway 39 is just one example of the financial and social costs of natural disasters in California. The Rim Fire in Yosemite in August 2013 covered 400 square miles, but two others were even bigger: San Diego County’s Cedar fire in 2003, and the 2012 Rush fire in Lassen County. California budgets roughly $170 million for firefighting alone. There are also major floods and even the occasional hurricane (known in the West as a cyclone) or volcanic eruption.

And, of course, there are the earthquakes. Experts say there is a 94 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in the next 30 years, with Southern California the likely center. There is only about a 4 percent probability of a magnitude 8.0 or greater earthquake in Northern California, but the toll in lives would be in the thousands and in money, hundreds of billions of dollars.

When viewed globally, California is something of a disaster microcosm. New Orleans and the East Coast are still rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The Colorado floods in September were the largest in centuries—recovery is expected to take years and cost more than $2 billion. Japan and parts of Asia are still recovering from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and dealing with costs exceeding $122 billion.

Even very small natural events can wreak havoc. The puny eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010 disrupted global air traffic to the tune of about $5 billion. Increased population density makes people especially vulnerable in a natural disaster, and globalization spreads and multiplies the effects of a disaster.

Disasters connect California’s agencies, governing bodies, and citizens with one another. They also connect the state—scientifically, economically, and strategically—with the rest of the world. California scientists have worked with their colleagues around the globe to increase our understanding of the geologic processes that cause disasters. But protecting ourselves requires that we have a broad and communal, even an international, response.

To rebuild devastated communities, we also need engineers to propose and implement technical solutions, financiers to manage costs, and negotiators to balance the realities of political, economic, religious, and cultural values. We need people to collect and respond to input from diverse stakeholders and ensure that recommendations are agreed upon, communicated, and implemented. California has done this with its earthquake preparedness programs and the U.S. Geological Survey’s California Volcano Observatory.

But all too often, the links among scientists, engineers, community leaders, public health officials, and others are not as strong as they should be. This was tragically revealed by the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, when 309 people died and six scientists and a government official ended up convicted of manslaughter for downplaying the threat of tremors days before the disaster. We need to forge better connections among experts and every citizen who lies in harm’s way.

It starts with more international collaboration. Japan, Italy, New Zealand, Chile, the Philippines, and Iceland have extensive experience in volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Australia, China, and Africa have experienced many floods and droughts. Their experiences can inform California disaster workers. And the many players in disaster prevention, mitigation and recovery in California are also needed on the global stage.

Susan Kieffer is Professor Emerita of Geology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a MacArthur Fellow and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She hosts the blog Geology In Motion. These ideas in this essay are elaborated in her book The Dynamics of Disaster (W.W. Norton) now available. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.