Half of the total financial losses in our model were from lost business. A beauty salon cannot reopen without water. Offices cannot function without electricity. Tech workers cannot telecommute without Internet capabilities. Retail stores struggle if their clerks and customers don't have the means of transportation to get there. Gas stations cannot pump gas without electricity and cannot take your credit card if they're not online. And how many of us will want to stay in Los Angeles, much less go to work, when none of us have had a shower in a month?
Here we reach the limit of our technical analysis. Our scientists and engineers and public health experts can estimate buildings down, pipes damaged, legs broken, transportation disrupted. But the future of Southern California is the future of communities. We know what will happen to its physical structure, but what will happen to its spirit?
Natural disasters have plagued humanity throughout our existence. We plant farms near rivers and near the springs that form along faults, for their access to water; on the slopes created by volcanoes, for their fertile soil; on the coast, for fishing and trade. These locations put us at risk of disruptive natural forces. And indeed we are familiar with the occasional flood, tropical storm, passing tremor. We learn how to construct levees, perhaps a seawall. We add some bracing to our buildings. We are not quite so scared after the tenth minor quake. We begin to feel confident that we can control our natural world.
Natural hazards are an inevitable result of the earth's physical processes. They become natural disasters only when they occur within or near human construction that fails to withstand the sudden change they wreak. In 2011, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 185 and causing roughly $20 billion in losses. Yet an earthquake of that size happens every couple of days somewhere in the world. This relatively minor earthquake became a disaster because it occurred right under the city, and the buildings and infrastructure were not built strong enough to withstand it. Natural hazards are inevitable; the disaster is not.
I have spent my professional life studying disasters. For much of my career, I was a researcher in statistical seismology, trying to find patterns and make sense of when and how earthquakes occur. Scientifically, my colleagues and I could prove that compared to human timescales, earthquakes occurred randomly. But we found that "random" was an idea we could not convince the public to accept. So, recognizing that the desire for prediction was really a desire for control, I shifted my science toward predicting the impact of natural disasters. My goal was to empower people to make better choices—to prevent the damage from happening in the first place.
The U.S. Geological Survey, the government agency charged with providing the science about geological hazards, was my lifelong professional home. In a pilot project in Southern California, and later for the nation, we studied floods, landslides, coastal erosion, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, and volcanoes, with the objective of connecting communities to the scientific information that could make them safer, whether it was predicting landslides during rainstorms, recommending wildfire control in ecosystem management, or better judging our priorities when it comes to
mitigating the risk of a big earthquake.
I was also one of the scientists who provided information to the public after earthquakes. I found people were desperate for science, but often not for the reason I expected. I saw the ways it could be used to halt the damage. But in times of natural disaster, the public turns to scientists to minimize not just destruction but also fear. When I gave the earthquake a name and a fault and a magnitude, I inadvertently found myself serving the same psychological function as priests and shamans have done for millennia. I was taking the random, awesome power of Mother Earth and making it look as though it could be controlled.