Thanks To California’s “Earthquake Drought,” The Next Governor Will Be On Shaky Ground

Thursday, October 4, 2018
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To appreciate what awaits the man who’ll replace Jerry Brown, take a time-out from politics and watch the movie Match Point.

Not the entire film, mind you, just the opening lines: “The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck.”

Granted, the film has nothing to do with California politics and policy. It’s a Woody Allen drama set in London, chronicling the lives and dubious life choices of the British upper crust.

But it does get to an uneasy question that will greet California’s fortieth governor come January: Will good fortune smile upon Gavin Newsom or John Cox during their reign in Sacramento?

How to define gubernatorial luck? Two ways.

First, there’s California’s economic health.

Here, Jerry Brown has led a charmed life. Brown’s three immediate successors—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis, and Pete Wilson—all faced recessions during their respective tenures. Brown hasn’t in this, his second turn as governor (he also ran the state from 1975–83). California’s accounted for about one-fifth of America’s economic growth since Brown took office in 2011.

However, California’s economic outlook isn’t promising.

Last week’s UCLA Anderson Forecast sees a cooling-off period ahead. California’s payrolls are expected to fall from 1.7 percent at present to 0.8 percent in 2020; real personal income personal growth will grow to 3.6 percent in 2019, the recede to 2.9 percent in 2020.

The bottom line: a slower economy translates to less revenue coming Sacramento’s way, which means a California governor goes from a being a big-spending Santa Claus to a budget-cutting Scrooge.

The other “luck” variable: natural disasters.

Here, Jerry Brown hasn’t been so fortunate. His second two-term stint as governor has coincided with some of the most destructive wildfires in the history of the Golden State (specifically five of California’s ten worst blazes taking into account structural losses).

But Brown has been lucky in this regard: with roughly thirteen weeks left in his final term, he’s yet to have experienced a seismic event that struck a major California city—a rupture in both commerce and everyday life that puts a dent in California’s economy.

As it’s October and baseball’s playoffs are underway, long-residing Californians will recall the events in 1989 and the earthquake that brought that year’s all-California World Series to a temporary halt.

On Oct. 17, 1989, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck the San Francisco and Monterey Bay regions. The so-called “Loma Prieta” quake—named after its epicenter, the Loma Prieta peak in the Santa Cruz mountains, about sixty miles south-southeast of San Francisco—killed sixty-three people and injured another 3,000. It also caused an estimated $7.4 billion in direct damage and an additional $2.6 billion in uninsured property damage and secondary economic impacts.

The next great California disturbance came four years and three months later: the Northridge earthquake. It struck early in the morning on Jan. 17, 1994 (the epicenter was in Reseda, north of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley). Though it lasted twenty seconds at most, it claimed 57 lives, injured another 9,000 residents, and caused approximately $20–25 billion in damages (82,000 residential and commercial buildings were damaged or destroyed; seven freeway bridges collapsed and 212 others were damaged or destroyed).

Next January marks the 25th anniversary of that terrible event. It will also be the second week that the new governor’s tenure.

Two words no California official will dare utter that day: “earthquake drought.”

Here’s a list of “major” earthquakes in California history. You’ll notice little activity in recent years. But talk to scientists and they’ll tell you the clock is ticking.

Take the San Andreas fault system, the title of an over-the-top movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a helicopter pilot who rescues his daughter from disaster-struck San Francisco (last week, the Fox television series 9-1-1 chronicled the aftermath of a major earthquake in Los Angeles).

The 1906 San Francisco event was the last earthquake greater than magnitude 7 to occur along the San Andreas system. With each passing year, pressure builds. The Uniform California Earthquake Forecast gives a 93 percent chance of a 7.0 earthquake by 2045.

And what will California resemble another quarter of a century from now? Some estimates have the state’s population growing another 50 percent, to 60 million residents. That means more residents living in two large strike areas (the Bay Area and greater Los Angeles). It also portends an experience deficit: by the year 2045, the eighteen-year-old Californian who survived the Northridge earthquake will be closing in on his or her seventieth birthday. Younger Californians trying to struggle with how to react in the middle of a crisis (California earthquakes are both random an inconvenient—the Northridge quake occurred at 4:30 a.m. local time) literally will be groping in the dark.

For a newly elected governor, this raises questions. For openers, is the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on top of its game? Second, how does the governor react to a crisis? A governor’s role is more than appearing on scene, showing concern, and huddling with local officials. It also entails working with local government and keeping an open line to Washington.

And that takes us to California’s relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For all the rancor between the governments in Sacramento and Washington, the Trump Administration has been cooperative in helping California deal with its spate of wildfires (the Clinton and Bush 41 White Houses likewise came quickly to California’s aid after the Northridge and Loma Prieta quakes).

Not that I stay up late at night envisioning such scenarios, but a large earthquake in San Francisco or Los Angeles might trigger the same outcome as occurred in 1994—an election year in California.

Here’s how the events of that year went down. After the Northridge quake, then-governor Pete Wilson stayed in Los Angeles to oversee the rescue and recovery efforts. Within days, president Clinton, vice president Gore, and several cabinet officials flew to LA for a conversation with relief officials.

By April, the Santa Monica Freeway had reopened seventy-four days ahead of schedule, thanks to contract incentives (a big talking point for Wilson, who was seeking reelection that year). But the event wasn’t without a political consideration—Wilson actually opened the freeway the night before, to steal the Clinton Administration’s thunder. To the extent the Republican governor gave credit to anyone named Clinton, it was Clinton C. Myers, the contractor whose 400 workers worked round the clock to reach the early deadline.

Heaven help us if a great earthquake strikes California anytime soon, much less an election year.

Though The Rock won’t be riding to the rescue, the spectacle of a major city brought to a halt will be cinematic.

And the rebuild? Decidedly political.