Literary Los Angeles: The Big One

Like every hapless child that went to school in Los Angeles in the 1980s, I was terrified of The Big One.   The Big One, the big earthquake, the nine-point-something San Andreas Fault killer that was—that is—quietly sleeping beneath our city, waiting to rise up one fine ordinary day and destroy us all.

Starting in third grade, we were inculcated constantly with lessons about The Big One.   We filled out worksheets about water purification; we watched film visualizations of our city collapsing in flames.   Our teachers begged us to beg our parents to put away adequate provisions of canned food, medicine, water, bandages, radios, and flashlights, and beg I did. But my parents, like most parents, did a pretty half-hearted job of stockpiling—a few cans, two jugs of water.   I was furious at them for not taking this all more seriously, and frustrated with my own childish powerlessness in the face of the coming disaster.

More than anything else, we schoolchildren practiced hiding under our desks, our faces shielded by our arms, our backs to the glass window panes.   Much like the Cold War safety drills my parents experienced in the generation before, the Big One lesson plan said something like, “A horrible, deadly thing will happen more terrible than anything you have ever known, and nothing on earth can save you.   Now, let’s all get under our desks—

And of course, it’s not just the quaking of the earth itself, but of its attendant terrors.   Our teachers were quick to remind us that any of us left alive after the ground had stopped shaking and our school building had fallen down would then be prey to raging fires caused by burst gas mains, to looting and pillage, to dehydration and disease, and to slow starvation once our inadequate provisions of food and water ran out.   All the phone lines would be down; all our pets would run away.   In our teachers’ world the rest of the country would cease to exist, would fall away as surely as if Los Angeles had really split off from the rest of the state and drifted away to sea (a scenario that the more crackpot among them hinted was not an impossibility).   There would be no help coming in from the outside, no trucks of medical supplies and water.   We would have only what we had saved, what we could carry, and once the California Aqueduct burst then all 14 million of us would have only enough water to last for about three days.

In one lesson, the teacher explained the different types of damage that would be visited upon different parts of the city.   Perhaps to assuage our fears, she told us the places worst hit would be along the coast twenty miles west of Hollywood, places like Santa Monica and Malibu.

“But my father works in Santa Monica,” I said.

“Well,” she explained, “you better have an earthquake plan then, because if the Big One comes while he’s at work, you’ll have no way to contact him and he’ll have no way to get back home to you.”

She then added that he and his coastal coworkers would be susceptible to liquefaction, wherein Santa Monica’s sandy, sea-sogged sedimentary foundations would turn into a sort of quicksand and swallow them whole.

I have never experienced a tornado, flood, or hurricane and I am sure they hold their own particular terrors, worse in their way than an earthquake.   But as I understand it, with all of these other disasters there is some warning, at least a little something, even if it may only be a few minutes from the time you get the tornado alert to the time you need to be in the basement.   But earthquakes—and this is it, the thing you know but still can’t believe, the really amazing thing—have no notice at all.   You are simply going about your day—driving, sleeping, showering, shopping—and then suddenly, improbably, amazingly, the entire world starts falling apart.

It was to a fearful and impressionable child the perfect metaphor for any and all terrors, from the pop quiz to the fiery car crash”“ disaster just happens, there is nothing you can do, there is no place you can go, all you can do is watch and wait.   It was also a lesson that public schools in my day took great pains to hammer home.   Drug dealers, AIDS, kidnappers, car jackings, child molesters, school shootings, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy were just some of the many things against which we had to be constantly on guard.

In 1989 we watched on TV as the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco collapsed the Bay Bridge and we thought, “That’ll be us. Only worse.”

And then in 1994 there was the Northridge earthquake.   I have been in many other earthquakes before and since, but at 6.7 Northridge was the biggest.   It struck at 4:31am, literally shaking us from our beds.   My parents, grandparents, sister, and I stood outside in our apartment courtyard with all our neighbors through a series of significant aftershocks waiting for someone to tell us it was safe to go back inside.   “Only” 72 people died but thousands were injured and $20 billion worth of damage done.   It was momentous, awe-inspiring, shocking.   And The Big One would be—will be—about 100 times worse.

I heard some statistic the other day suggesting that there is a 99.7% chance of a major “Big One”-style earthquake in Los Angeles sometime in the next 30 years.   Any time—today, tomorrow.   When I’m driving my daughter to preschool next week or during her high school graduation in 2026.   Assuming any of us even live that long, because the sleeping earthquake is not the only thing waiting out there.   If there’s one thing I learned from public school in the 80s it’s that terror is always ready, always waiting to seize us unawares.   At least I have a flashlight.   Somewhere.