Saturday, December 01, 2007

California disasters--earthquakes, fires, and technology

Why would any sane person want to live in as unstable a place where the ground shakes and fires rage?

In California our natural disasters are of mammoth proportions and part of the flow of life. Everyone knows about 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. It was the largest natural disaster in US history in terms of material loss and the destruction of what we humans construct, only recently surpassed by hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans.

When my friends Jean and Marie-Christine Garapon flew into the firestorms that began burning across Southern California at the end of October 2007, more than a half a million people were evacuated, the largest forced evacuation in California history. I know several people who were living out of their cars in parking lots of relatively safe areas while the fire crews fought blazes that had been deliberately set. Another friend, a professional mental health worker, helped take care of a man in a locked facility who set blazes in the southern California hills, and got off on watching his fires rage while he masturbated. The human species includes aberrant behavior, and that is not going to change any time soon.


San Francisco Bay, originally uploaded by arawak812.

Here is the San Francisco Bay as seen from the top of Mt. Tamalpais. You can see the city at the end of the peninsula center right. The reason that people want to live here--and pay an enormous amount of money to do it--is the absolutely astonishing beauty of the place. The San Andres fault lies a few miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, usually in the fog. What lies hidden is the most dangerous.


Jean, Marie-Christine and I rolled across the Golden Gate Bridge to the northern vista point, but we were tourists, and the fog rolled in. Grâce à Google, here is the north tower of the Bridge that we almost saw.




We saw the top of the tower from time to time. Maire-Christine kept trying to time a shot to get as much as she could on her camera. Put together, they might form a somewhat complete view.



QM2 @ GGB, originally uploaded by Sutanto


This picture of the underside of the Bridge was taken from Ft. Point on the San Francisco side, without fog and with the QE 2. When finished in 1937, our bridge was a marvel, by far the longest suspension span in the United States. In the opinion of most San Franciscans, it is still the most beautiful suspension bridge in the world.

Just after Jean and Marie-Christine left, there was another man-made disaster, an oil spill that polluted the bay from one of the hundreds on cargo ships that sail under the bay each year. It is a far less pretty sight than the QE 2.


Cosco Busan (detail), originally uploaded by lens flare.


This is the gash in the Cosco Busan from which 58,000 gallons (almost 220,000 litres) of oil spilled into the San Francisco Bay.

San Franciscans know Greek tragedy, and public outcry. The senior senator from California, our former mayor Diane Feinstein, came roaring into town demanding explanations, brandishing the firebrand of blame. People were fired, the current mayor was criticized for taking a three day Hawaiian girl friend holiday while the slick spread unchecked, the press couldn’t understand why the Coast Guard couldn’t gauge the size of the disaster for 12 hours, the public asked why their offer to help wash the oil from dying birds was rebuffed. All good questions that we’ll ask over and over since human error is not going to disappear and we will continue to insist on living here.

But it was an accident. There are, I suppose, philosophical questions about whether we have stretched our capacity for oversight and control beyond our abilities to live in an ethical and sustainable way. But for the moment, we’ll just clean the shores as best we can, wash as many birds as we can, and nail the persons responsible for the cost of clean up. Then can get back to our lives of enjoying the wonders of California.

Marie-Christine emailed me after our visit: “Was there an oil spill on the bay after we left?” I too can hardly believe how recklessly we treat the earth.

Next I will answer the burning question: what makes San Francisco a place that the French would love!

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