Why LA Rocks Steady

Sara Robinson

Los Angeles rocked and rolled its way through a 5.8 earthquake shortly before noon today. In California, that’s considered a good middling-size shake — enough to throw stuff off bookshelves, pop tile off the walls, instigate minor power and phone interruptions, and crack patios.

It’s also enough to put a much bigger crack in the conservative myth that government can’t do anything worthwhile, or contribute anything positive, or get anything right.

The fact that Los Angeles returned to normal (as if anything in Los Angeles can ever be considered normal) within just a few hours is one of those invisible but important lessons in the collective power of a functioning government — the kind of non-controvertible, essential fact that conservatives tend to gloss right over when they talk about shrinking government until they can drown it in a bathtub.

California’s seismic codes are serious, strict, and effective. The state has been working on them for 80 years now, refining them through the years after every major quake to incorporate new knowledge and engineering practices. (A major revision this year has recently sent all the state’s architects, engineers, and contractors back to school yet again.) To see the results of this ongoing effort, consider the 1931 Long Beach quake, a 6.4 shaker that damn near flattened Long Beach, killed 120 people, and caused over $40 million (in 1931 dollars) in property damage. And then reflect on the fact that in 1989, it took a quake eleven times bigger — the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake — to create a comparable amount of damage.

That’s how effective the improvements have been. These days, most new structures are hardened to the point that you’d need at least a 7.0 (well over 10 times the size of today’s quake) before things seriously started shaking apart. In many parts of the planet, a 5.8 quake would be enough to level towns, collapse bridges, and take out decades’ worth of infrastructure. In LA and SF, all that happens is a few people lose their phones and power for a few hours.

Generous state support is one reason CalTech was able to build the world’s first and foremost seismology department, where the Richter scale and the seismograph were developed. Decades of government competence has also ensured that California’s county building inspectors are widely considered the toughest, smartest, least corruptible pros in the country. More so than in most places, failure is not an option — and when that sucker comes down, the insurance company is going to be looking for someone to blame. You can bet that the guy who signed off that it was up to code is the first one they’re coming after — and none of them, nor the county building departments they work for, want to be that guy.

The upshot is that two of the country’s four largest cities become more resistant to earthquake damage with every passing decade; and that California’s building codes are the global gold standard for seismic safety. That’s good government in action, y’all.

And the conservatives have declared war on this miracle, because any kind of “collectivism” is, in theory, evil — even though, in practice, it’s also why their mansions in Malibu and Newport Beach are still standing and intact this afternoon.

Comments