The Broader Picture: Shattering the City of Angels

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The Independent Culture
NOT LONG after the worst earthquake in its history swept through Los Angeles, a hand-scrawled notice appeared on the front of a wrecked building, not far from the epicentre: 'The Fat Lady Has Sung,' it said.

And for the first few nervous days after the quake, it did seem as if all was over for the City of Angels. Some 20,000 people had fled their homes to camp in cars and tents in the city's parks, many because the thought of living between four walls was simply too terrifying to contemplate. As aftershock after aftershock (several more than 5.0 in magnitude) rippled across the Los Angeles basin, from the San Bernardino mountains to the Pacific's edge, a sense of deep insecurity spread across the city. Every other person seemed to complain of 'post- traumatic stress syndrome' - the symptoms of which included gross over-eating, loss of appetite, irritability, permanent fatigue and/or restless activity, depending on the person to whom you spoke.

Even the most level-headed Angelenos complained that they could no longer sleep because of the thought of more seismic stirrings beneath the bedroom floor. The city's Anglo-Americans sat in wine bars and manicure salons and fantasised about leaving town; the Hispanic population kept quiet, knowing they had to stay: no amount of subterranean mischief removes the magnetic field of the US dollar. But everyone felt churned up, and very frightened.

They had plenty of time to think about it. The quake closed down the all-embracing freeway system in four places, producing three-hour traffic jams and boosting ridership on the limited commuter Metrolink trains from a measly 1,000 to 25,000 overnight. Some of those cars that did venture into the mayhem sported stickers: 'Welcome to Los Angeles. Some assembly required.'

The assembly in question included more than 1,600 buildings which bore an inspector's red sticker declaring that they were unsafe, and many thousands more which were 'yellow-tagged', meaning that a person enters at their own risk. Scores of schools were closed by damage. But with billions of dollars in federal disaster relief funds pouring into the area, rebuilding soon began.

So did the questions. Why, for instance, did 12 of the city's hospitals have to close or severely curtail their operations because of quake damage? Why was neither the Santa Monica freeway, the world's busiest motorway, nor the giant Golden State freeway, strong enough to withstand an 6.6 earthquake? Why was a major plan to modify the freeways to help them withstand quakes incomplete? Californians know that they need answers soon - before the 'Big One' comes along. -

(Photographs omitted)