California Can’t Avoid The Next “Big One” Can It Weather The Political Aftershock?

Thursday, July 11, 2019
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That California would find itself dealing with two large earthquakes over the Fourth of July weekend shouldn’t come as a surprise, as temblors have no consideration for human needs. The last giant quake to disrupt Los Angeles? It happened twenty-five years ago, at 4:31 a.m. on a Monday morning in January, leaving millions of sleep-deprived Angelenos to stumble around in the predawn dark.[1]The last tumultuous quake to strike San Francisco? That happened five years earlier, at 5:04 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in October, making a mess not only of the rush-hour commute but also game 3 of 1989’s World Series.

In at least one regard, California got lucky with this latest round of seismic activity. The two quakes were centered about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles and 230 miles west of Las Vegas near a small town called Ridgecrest (with a population of less than thirty thousand residents).[3]It’s not a trivial part of California—nearby is Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, a venue for the testing of airborne weapons (the nineteen thousand square miles of controlled airspace represents about one-eighth of California’s total airspace). Nor is it a densely packed metropolis—and thus California got lucky in terms of lives lost, property damaged, and commerce interrupted.

But the next time?

There are two questions moving forward regarding California and earthquakes, the first being whether the state and its citizenry are ready in the event that a large-scale quake strikes one of the state’s major cities.

The average Californian: probably not.

There is an orderly way to gird for an earthquake—do an inventory of your house, identify safe places indoors and outdoors, develop an emergency communications plan.[4]Odds are most Californians aren’t so organized.

Sensible earthquake preparation also includes having an emergency kit at the ready (one gallon of water per person for at least three days, three days’ worth of nonperishable food, plus medication, a battery-powered radio, and so forth).

Odds are a lot of Californians will go hungry and thirsty in the aftermath of a disruptive earthquake.

To its credit, California’s largest city has developed a ShakeAlertLA app to notify residents that trouble’s afoot. But the designers of that app figured most Angelenos would only care about quakes that actually moved the local earth. The Fourth of July quake (the second came a day later) didn’t meet the necessary intensity to trigger a local alert—and that only added to the nervousness in the southland.

San Francisco has a different concern: building integrity. A report by the US Geological Survey has found that thirty-nine of the city’s steel-frame high-rises built between 1960 and 1994 are in danger should a large quake strike downtown San Francisco. It’s what comes from structures built to a lower standard, atop a base of soft soil and sand.[7]And there’s one other consideration: earthquake insurance.

It’s a near certainty (99 percent actually) that an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 or greater will strike the Golden State in the next thirty years (last week’s quakes weighed in at 6.4 and 7.1). And a majority of the nation-state’s population lives within thirty miles of an active fault.

However, barely one in seven Californians (13 percent) purchased earthquake coverage in 2017, according to a July 2018 study by California’s Department of Insurance. Moreover, barely one of ten commercial buildings in California carry such coverage.

What will earthquake-struck Californians do in the aftermath of a natural disaster? Why, turn to the government, of course.

The question is, when it’s time for California’s elected leaders to deal with earthquake aftermaths, what kind of political aftershock can we expect?

To his credit, California governor Gavin Newsom wasted little time getting to the Ridgecrest area to assess the damage. And he resisted the urge to say anything critical of President Trump (not long before the quakes, the two sparred over Medicaid for the undocumented).[9]Newsom said of Trump, “There’s no question that we don’t agree on everything, but one area where there’s no politics, where we work extremely well together, is our responses to emergencies”. Newsom added that the president is “committed in the long haul, the long run, to help support the rebuilding effort.

What Trump may not realize: his predecessors—both Democratic and Republican—have set a high bar for helping Californians recover from a major quake.

Back in 1994, for example, Bill Clinton arrived in California only two days after the Northridge quake. Wearing an open-necked blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Clinton checked out a collapsed overpass on the Simi Valley Freeway in the San Fernando Valley.

And he came prepared to help.

Clinton announced the Small Business Administration would release $240 billion in low-interest loans and the Department of Transportation would make $45 million available for cleanup and debris removal.

For Clinton, the moment was more than a matter of acting presidential—it also fit into his long-term strategy for keeping California blue. The visit to the earthquake site marked Clinton’s ninth visit to California since taking office. Why the urgency? Before Clinton was elected president, the last time California went Democratic in consecutive elections was the stretch from 1932 to 1948.

The last Republican presidential candidate to carry California: George H. W. Bush, in 1988. The following year, after the October Loma Prieta quake, he was on California soil only two days after the seismic event.

Bush toured the devastation, including a collapsed section of the damaged 880 freeway (his one-word observation of the disaster scene: “Jesus”). The president also helicoptered across the San Francisco Bay to meet with rescue workers and thank them for their efforts.

One other political entity factored into the federal response to Loma Prieta: Congress.[12]Soon after the quake, then Speaker of the House Thomas Foley said he’d seek a $2.5 billion relief package. Representative Norman Mineta, at the time the chair of the House Surface Transportation Subcommittee (San Jose’s airport was renamed in his honor), soon upped the ante to the neighborhood of $8 billion. Even Representative Leon Panetta, the House Budget Committee chair whose Santa Cruz district suffered quake damage, set aside his criticism of Bush fiscal policy in favor of a California money pipeline.

Imagine how these dynamics would play out if the same tragedy struck present-day California (keep in mind that the Northridge quake, which caused an estimated $20 billion in damages and nearly $50 billion in economic loss, is only fifteenth on the list of the most powerful recorded earthquakes in California history).[13]Should it be a San Francisco event, Trump would be looking at a photo op with Newsom and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—in a city that the elder Bush visited in 1989 but his son bypassed during his eight years in the White House (the largest city in America that Bush 43 didn’t visit during his eight-year presidency).

Should it be a Los Angeles event, what does Trump do if the worst devastation occurs on the stretch between West Hollywood and Pasadena? That would be California’s 28th congressional district, the province of the impeachment-intent Representative Adam Schiff. A tour of Inglewood or Torrance would put Trump in California’s 43rd congressional district and the backyard of Representative Maxine Waters, who earlier this year told the president to “take his ridiculous self home” and “resign”.[15]No love there.

Now imagine the fiscal dynamics back in Washington should California experience an earthquake whose damages run to ten or eleven figures. Pelosi and the California delegation will push a generous aid package through the House. What happens when it arrives in the Republican-controlled Senate?

The holiday weekend’s earthquakes didn’t occur on Democratic turf. The epicenters were in House minority leader Kevin McCarthy’s district. In Kern County, which took the brunt of the impact, only 41 percent voted for Newsom last November and nearly 55 percent voted for Trump back in 2016. Perhaps that explains the governor’s optimism when it comes to disaster aid this time around. The damage occurred in a conservative pocket of America’s biggest and arguably bluest state, far from the progressive coast and its legion of Trump-loathing elected officials.

Ordinarily, this president looks at blue California and sees red.

But on this occasion, green (as in dollars) would seem to be the dominant color.