Dark Cloud logo

 

Home

Columns

Commentary

Dark Endeavors

How about that? Tide went out in minutes and exposed about a mile of beach. Huh.

Freshen this for me, would you?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 12, 2005.

Watching NBC News last night, I was rather appalled they felt the need to assure the nation and world that there was little if any connection between a Sumatran earthquake and resultant tidal wave with rain in Ohio and a bad storm in California. First, that people are so tender they need to be consoled on such things, second that their scientific knowledge was so low they made a connection needing consolation and, third, that the form the consolation took – several experts saying “no connection” – would be sufficient to console someone dumb enough to be upset in the first place. In short, a perfect encapsulation of network news.

Not that the news wasn’t grim enough. As the march towards accuracy elevates the tsunami dead up towards what I am sure has been a quarter million lost the first day, in California a far smaller but no less grim horror: a collapse of a cliff into a mudslide buried a section of a housing development and killed, well, we don’t know, at least five, maybe ten people or more. Children, of course.

It’s the worst week for rain in southern California in decades, and the earth is moving with the rivers. The ground must be incredibly soaked, and heavy, and seeking new angles of repose. If you’ve ever been in the suburbs of Los Angeles where addresses have the word “Canyon” following the street name, you know how potentially dangerous this all is.

In reading about World War One, with the static trench warfare, the one image I’ve never been able to shake concerns the huge artillery barrages that vibrated the ground so much that during the rainy season, with the ground already loose and granular from years of shelling, this artificial quick sand absorbed unknown hundreds, maybe thousands of soldiers where they stood. They just sank into the mud, helpless, and suffocated. On top of everything else, that had to have been the worst.

And all I could think of, knowing all the rain and recalling those steep earthen canyons around LA was this: what would happen if they had an earthquake, and not even a very big one, with the earth so sodden? I expect entire sections of the land would level out and cover thousands of people in their homes, crushing and suffocating them as surely as those in Pompeii. Exotic canyons would become slight depressions. And there could be no rescue.

This isn’t a baseless or new fear or one unique to me. People have known this about California and building in the narrow confines of canyons or on precipices themselves not attached to anything like bedrock. It’s a gravel pile out there, not like the Rockies. Or much like the Rockies.

Far worse, not only have people bought the offerings of sadistic California developers appealing to their snobbery, developers who plunge foundations insufficiently deep on unstable ground beneath lovely cliffs of even more unstable ground, but they build and live in houses alongside the San Andreas Fault - the most famous of the geologic insecurities – and knowingly atop it. When the next big quake comes, of the sort not seen since 1906 when the Fault moved six feet in seconds, entire houses with all their contents will vanish into the crevasses, which may remain open in sections to afford rescue.

One of the first things people who have the Discovery Channel and PBS remarked upon when the first videos appeared from the tsunami tragedy was that nobody on those beautiful beaches seemed informed by the ocean suddenly withdrawing far beyond low tide range. I’ve known that’s a signal for a tidal wave from decades of television, and cannot believe significant numbers of Westerners in those hotels did not know as much. There are no videos of anyone rounding up the children and heading for high ground till the huge whitecaps of the successive waves appeared on the horizon, and then rather slowly.

Was the bar open so early on Boxing Day that nobody put the very large 2 plus 2 together? Nobody? Nobody.

Given the evidence before us in California, of generations of unsafe and well, monumentally stupid or - kindly - ignorant building practices that just bore fruit, maybe we’re too harsh on Sumatrans and too kind to those in grief in Pretentious Heights Canyon, beneath the mansion of the movie star and above the vacation home of the heiress. We’ve been given every warning under the sun short of Mother Nature buying radio time and doing public service announcements and cash giveaways. It’s as obvious as the mountain homes in Colorado inaccessible to fire truck, with dry shingles and flush alongside Douglas Fir, built on the sides of canyons clearly ripped by rapid run off.

I can write the copy for NBC News’ coverage of these coming tragedies now. So could you.