Soon after the destruction caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma settled in, Mexico was hit by two powerful earthquakes and several aftershocks. The first earthquake, a magnitude 8.1, struck on Thursday, Sept. 7, and was followed just 12 days later by a 7.1 earthquake on Tuesday, Sept. 19. Over 300 have died so far, and the architectural impact has been massive, with around 3,500 buildings in Mexico City now requiring inspections for damage.
In the wake of these disasters, those who look on at the destruction from afar will often wonder what the odds are of something like that happening to their city, their home, their family. Too often, because the damage is far removed and we can only see it through a monitor or television, it can feel intangible, and thus may not drive us to imagine ourselves in a disaster like that. However, a major earthquake, meaning one with a magnitude of 7 or higher, is going to throttle California sooner or later, and it’ll be us who will need to be rescued if we are not prepared. As a state, we need to confront the images and stories of destruction and survival in Mexico and take lessons from this disaster to make the impact of earthquakes more real for Californians while we still can.
Conducted in 2008, the California Earthquake Preparedness Survey revealed that preparedness in various aspects of earthquake safety was inconsistent out of a representative sample of 2,081 households across California. According to the survey, over 60 percent of households knew how to stay safe during an earthquake, but only 40 percent had the recommended minimum amount of water for surviving after a substantial earthquake (three gallons per person) and a mere 30 percent had a family disaster plan. For a state that is so prone to earthquakes, we should be far more prepared.
But, even now in 2017, many people commonly lack the supplies they’ll need to survive a major earthquake, even if they acknowledge the danger. Not only are many of us not ready for the quake itself and the aftermath, we also neglect the potential financial consequences. In 2015, only about 10 percent of Californians had earthquake insurance. There have been some recent improvements in readiness, such as legislation passed in Los Angeles in 2015 that requires approximately 15,000 buildings to be retrofitted to better withstand earthquakes. But, if a major earthquake struck today, the human and financial costs could still be enormous.
As Californians, it’s easy to be dismissive about earthquakes. Small ones that are too weak for us to feel happen all the time, and on the rare occasion that they’re strong enough to be noticeable, they generally have little physical impact. On top of that, we’ve been hearing about the “Big One” for so long that it’s easy to disregard its discussion by seismologists as merely crying wolf. This is made worse by the fact that research cannot predict exactly when an earthquake will occur, as Abhijit Ghosh, assistant professor of UCR’s Department of Earth Sciences, noted in an interview with the Highlander last year. Generally, seismologists can only estimate the likelihood of one in any given area at a given time.
All of these factors downplay the danger of major earthquakes, and can make people think that it’s not worth the cost of insurance or other preparations. The thing is, both earthquake research and common sense tell us that a major earthquake is bound to happen in California.
To mitigate the impact of a major earthquake in California, whether it happens tomorrow or 100 years from now, we need to prepare ourselves even more today. It is easy to forget tragedies that do not happen to us, or to move on very quickly once they have left the news cycle, but we cannot afford to forget Mexico’s recent earthquakes. Although we have improved our earthquake readiness in recent years, there is still much to be done to get our cities and citizens ready for when disasters befall us. The testimonies of survivors and images of wreckage in Mexico need to be used to inspire better preparedness in California, at all levels of our society, culture and institutions.