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Courting Disaster

In an event organized by graduate students, three USC College professors discuss what happens when acts of God and man collide.

Courting Disaster

From mudslides to fires to earthquakes, Los Angeles has long cornered the market on disasters.

“You shove nature around enough and nature will slap back, ever diligently and fiercely,” said William Deverell, professor of history in USC College and a leading authority on California, present and past.

Deverell spoke during an Inside the Academics Studio event sponsored by the College’s office of graduate programs. Run by students, the speakers’ series draws faculty from across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

Called “L.A. on the Edge: Potential Disasters of a Sprawling Metropolis,” the Feb. 6 panel discussion also included James Dolan, professor of earth sciences, and author Marianne Wiggins, professor of English.

Moderators were Ph.D. candidates Sarah Keyes of history and Samuel Solomon of comparative literature.

During the discussion, Deverell warned against the building of dense suburbs in fire-, flood- and slide-prone areas. The decades-long trend in Southern California routinely results in loss of life and property during fires and heavy rains. Yet suburbanization of foothills and mountain hinterlands continue.

“They are absolutely building these homes where they shouldn’t be built,” said Deverell, who also serves as director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

“You can clear all the brush you want, but that’s not going to solve the problem when the big fires come,” he said. “And they will come. Floods are the same way.”

Urbanization and suburbanization will also result in more fatalities during earthquakes, Dolan said.

“Earthquakes are not going to change,” he warned. “Yet if we have 20 times more people living on top of that fault, the number of casualties will change.”

Dolan told the audience of about 60 that the nearest fault line was directly beneath them. The Puente Hills blind thrust fault dips to the north two miles beneath metropolitan Los Angeles, he said.

“Earthquakes are a threat,” Dolan continued. “We obviously live in earthquake country here. But — far be it from me to paraphrase the NRA, it’s not my favorite organization — earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people.”

But Dolan also noted that the fear of earthquakes is greatly disproportionate to the actual threat. Citing a study in National Geographic, Dolan said that a person is more likely to die from a bicycle accident, bee sting or lightning strike than from an earthquake.

In fact, he said, the odds of being killed in a car accident are 1,500 times greater than the chances of dying in an earthquake.

That fact was no comfort to Wiggins, who already had grave concerns about Los Angeles freeways — but for different reasons.

“I spend an inordinate amount of time on the 101,” Wiggins began. “You can’t drive there without starting to think about escape routes. But there aren’t a lot of escape routes because of the geology of this bowl. We have a disaster because of the way that our highway system was developed.”

Lacking major public transportation, Angelenos would essentially be trapped should disaster strike, Wiggins said.

“If there were a disaster, how the hell are we going to get out any faster than I move at 6:30 every evening?” she asked. “I don’t get out of second gear for 15 miles. It’s not the disaster itself that scares me, it’s the human fingerprints all over this that scare me enormously.”

All three panelists counted the threat of a drought as another major potential disaster. The consequences of a megadrought are etched in history.

Deverell noted a 15-year-old study by physical and cultural geographers who dove to the bottom of Mono Lake, near Yosemite National Park. The researchers discovered many large tree stumps, some rooted, on the bottom of the lake.

Core samples of the stumps revealed that around the 1300s and 1400s, the lake dried up. Trees had grown there in good soil for 80 years, but when the 80-year drought ended, the water rose, killing the trees.

Archaeologists took that data and compared it to data regarding nearby Chumash burial sites. Studies showed that until the 1300s and 1400s, the Chumash generally died in old age of natural causes.

During the period of the megadrought, the most common causes of death changed radically. When water was scarce, people began dying from bashed-in skulls, large bone structure wounds, compound fractures and even infanticide — possible evidence that natural disaster fomented social disorder and widespread violence.

“There is a very interesting set of data that’s now being drawn up into our appreciation for the social ramifications of natural disaster and these megadroughts,” Deverell said.

“We want to be really careful about drawing too dark a line between natural disaster and social disaster.”

Megadroughts may be a climatological pattern, and Los Angeles, suffering through some of its driest years ever, is particularly prone to the possibility, Deverell said.

“Water is a real issue,” Deverell said. “If we had a megadrought, we wouldn’t run out of water right away. Water is just going to get much, much more expensive. And the southwest will start distributing water very, very, very differently.”

Some claim that at the end of such a drought-cycle there would not be enough water to go around, Deverell said.

“Then when you think about those Chumash burial sites,” he said, “that’s pretty interesting.”