Sara Robinson, one of my favorite bloggers, had a really fantastic post at the CAF blog about why we have responsible government to thank for the relative lack of damage to the 5.4 earthquake that hit Southern California yesterday.
The fact that Los Angeles returned to normal (as if anything in Los Angeles can ever be considered normal) within just a few hours is one of those invisible but important lessons in the collective power of a functioning government -- the kind of non-controvertible, essential fact that conservatives tend to gloss right over when they talk about shrinking government until they can drown it in a bathtub.
California's seismic codes are serious, strict, and effective. The state has been working on them for 80 years now, refining them through the years after every major quake to incorporate new knowledge and engineering practices. (A major revision this year has recently sent all the state's architects, engineers, and contractors back to school yet again.) To see the results of this ongoing effort, consider the 1931 Long Beach quake, a 6.4 shaker that damn near flattened Long Beach, killed 120 people, and caused over $40 million (in 1931 dollars) in property damage. And then reflect on the fact that in 1989, it took a quake eleven times bigger -- the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake -- to create a comparable amount of damage.
That's how effective the improvements have been. These days, most new structures are hardened to the point that you'd need at least a 7.0 (well over 10 times the size of today's quake) before things seriously started shaking apart. In many parts of the planet, a 5.8 quake would be enough to level towns, collapse bridges, and take out decades' worth of infrastructure. In LA and SF, all that happens is a few people lose their phones and power for a few hours.
It really is remarkable what serious attention to building codes has done. Not too long ago yesterday's earthquake would have been a disaster - today it's a blip. California has recognized the problem, taken steps to constantly improve and innovate, and made sure that the regulations stayed stringent, so that developers would just have to find other means to reduce costs. The fact that the epicenter was around Chino Hills and Diamond Bar, relatively new areas with new buildings that were constructed according to the strictest building codes, was only a further testament to that. The after-action reports from the 1989 San Francisco quake and the 1994 Northridge quake were taken seriously and applied in this case.
Now, when the "big one" hits Southern California (the prediction is one with a magnitude 7.8 occurring along the San Andreas fault), we won't be so lucky, especially with respect to damage. Knowing that, local authorities hold regular emergency drills so that the human devastation can be minimized. One such drill is scheduled for this November and involves a consortium of cities and services.
All of this shows why Grover Norquist was wrong, deadly wrong, with his ideal of shrinking government until it fits in a bathtub and then drowning it. When government does what it is supposed to do, real security for citizens is enhanced.
We have a group of Norquist followers here in this state called the California Republican Party. And we have to be vigilant that they don't roll back government in response to budget shortfalls in ways that make the state far less safe. For instance, in Dan Weintraub's think piece today trying to envision what he considers an imminent budget, this part is worrying:
• It is going to include some borrowing. That's not exactly going out on a limb, given the recent history of this governor and these legislators [...]
Lawmakers, for instance, might find a way to tap into local government funds, despite a voter-approved initiative that makes that option more difficult than before. Also, the governor's proposal to borrow against future state lottery earnings, an idea he calls "a gift from the future," is still very much alive. I would not be surprised if a scaled-down version of the governor's plan emerged as part of this package.
Local governments are already cash-strapped and have no margin for error if their funding is raided. And some of that money goes to infrastructure improvements. Just yesterday, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell claimed that 150,000 bridges nationwide are in need of repair or replacement. You can add municipal buildings, roads, and a host of other issues. If California doesn't address this structural revenue deficit, despite the strict building codes there will arise a time when the earth moves on top of buildings that should have been replaced, or creaking infrastructure that should have been repaired. Yesterday was a triumph - but that could be reversed.