Who lives and dies.


During Hurricane Katrina, I often found myself thinking that at least after an earthquake’s over, you’re dry. But that may be just another example of the reflexively wishful thinking we fall into when forced to consider various frightening events: Well, that won’t happen to me because… I’m not poor, or old, or disabled; I don’t live in hurricane country; I can run faster than other people; I don’t drink and drive; I always wear my seatbelt; I don’t smoke; I exercise regularly; my local government is not as corrupt as Louisiana’s; earthquakes so far haven’t been that bad, all things considered. And so on.

Because I grew up in southern California and have been here for every major earthquake since the 6.6 Sylmar temblor of 1971, I’ve become a bit blasé about earthquakes–even as I’ve also always taken proper precautions, like bolting heavy furniture to the wall and never hanging picture frames above beds. Still, in my experience, earthquakes are things you live through with no serious damage. But then, none of the quakes here in recent memory have really been Big Ones.

This year is the 100th anniversary of one that was: The 7.9 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which killed thousands and destroyed half the city. If you’re wondering what it must have been like to live through that disaster, the National Geographic Channel’s The Great Quake premieres Sunday and is a grim and thoughtfully produced recreation of the event. Be warned, though: This is not a show for those who enjoy living with their heads in the sand. “Terrorism is an if,” one of the talking head experts reminds us. “Earthquakes are a when.”

I’ve found moderately big earthquakes to be oddly reassuring. For a short while after what I’ve come to think of as the Biggish One–the 6.7 Northridge temblor, which killed just a few dozen people in 1994 but was the costliest quake in U.S. history–that sense of dread about what might happen was pushed aside by what actually did happen. Car alarms, pepper spray, bodyguards, gated estates… none of these was worth much when batteries and bottled water suddenly became more important than security systems. Handwringing liberal claims that nothing, really, can be done about crime were belied by the cold fact that a huge, post-quake police presence coincided with a huge drop in criminal behavior.

The mundane reality of living in an earthquake zone provoked a sort of seismic shift, shoving, for once, unlikelier risks to the side. Suddenly, prosaic precautions seemed more important than lurid possibilities. Before, insisting that bookcases and such be bolted to the wall got you (or, at least, me) called a paranoid eccentric. But we paranoid eccentrics had the satisfaction of muttering smugly to ourselves upon hearing what happened to then-police chief Willie Williams. The chief was delayed that morning getting to earthquake headquarters not because of crazed looters or exploding gas lines, but because an armoire had fallen down and pinned him to his bed.

One disturbing thing I remember from the 1994 quake is the arrival of a swarm of dog puppets, introduced by wandering psychotherapists who invaded Red Cross shelters to counsel children about how scary the earthquake was, in case they hadn’t quite realized. If eventually they–or you–tired of talking about how scary it was, well then, you were in earthquake denial, and everyone and his dog puppet would know it.

Unlike the 1906 San Francisco quake, in which the poor areas of the city suffered the most damage, the 1994 Northridge quake most affected those who lived near the sands of affluent Santa Monica or the suburban San Fernando Valley epicenter. I lived at the time in Echo Park, a Hispanic barrio near downtown, and because it’s a very old neighborhood built on bedrock we didn’t suffer much damage. The worst that happened to my house was a bottle of nail polish fell out of the medicine cabinet and broke one of the ceramic sink faucets. Still, there was quite a lot of shaking–I literally woke up as I was running to grab my daughter, then four, from her bed–and we had no power for two days.

So we went to the park. Why not? The weather was warm and beautiful, and I’d planned to do that anyway since it was a holiday. But the reaction of most people who heard about this at the time was a horrified, “You did?!?” As if it would have been far more sensible to have stayed, stricken with anxiety, in the electricity-free house all day, popping tranquillizers and listening to the contents of the refrigerator melt.

I have a different philosophy about disasters than some people. I’m a big believer in sensible living–paying your bills on time, keeping your car in good repair and credit cards under the limit, staying in shape, eating fruits and vegetables, keeping flashlights and gallons of extra water on hand–because of course all this increases your odds of avoiding unfortunate events.

But maybe now and then we might remember that none of us gets out of here alive, and sometimes, despite everything, your luck runs out, even though it seems that it really shouldn’t have. To deny that, it seems to me, displays a foolish lack of humility. And if you’ve been lucky enough to avoid disaster, at least temporarily, why not go to the park?

A few months ago, shortly after Katrina, I went to a press conference for the new Discovery Channel series I Shouldn’t Be Alive. On hand were two disaster survivors featured in the show–Deborah Scaling Kiley, who survived a shipwreck, and Yossi Ghinsberg, who survived an Amazon adventure gone wrong. Their experiences were equally harrowing but their attitudes were quite different.

Here’s Deborah Kiley: “I do think it boils down to one thing: The choices that we made,” she said. “There were five of us. I made choices that I feel kept me alive. The two young men that died chose to drink salt water. The young girl was not an experienced sailor. She was the skipper’s girlfriend, and I think that not understanding the environment of the ocean was probably her death call…she chose to venture into an environment she really knew nothing about, and the other two men chose to drink salt water, and I chose not to make those decisions.”

I looked up a book Kiley wrote about her experience, and was not surprised to see that one review said that although her account of the ordeal was gripping, as a writer Kiley was not very perceptive.

Yossi Ghinsberg, who has a philosophy degree and is a veteran of the Israeli military, struck me as far more intelligent than Kiley (who I think works as a yoga teacher these days) in the first place. So I suppose it’s natural his attitude seemed wiser.

“My notions are completely different and nothing to do with choices,” he said. “The way I see it, there’s a mystery to life, and there’s a mystery to death. The strongest in our group never came back. They chose the safest way out of the jungle. Me and my friend, we took a raft onto whitewater that we didn’t know. We did something so crazy, so irresponsible by choosing the river, though both of us are alive. So I don’t think anybody can really explain why one lives and one dies.” Amen to that.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.