Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Mudslides, earthquakes, hazard and risk

My friend and colleague Amy Walters - an NPR producer - is coming home from Haiti now; another friend and colleague, Tamara Keith, is on her way. Fellow Angeleno Carrie Kahn has been in Port-au-Prince too, sleeping on lawns and the like.

This week I've had plenty of occasion to think about environmental hazards, and peoples' sense of risk. I grew up in a land of earthquakes - they call it Menlo Park. Our understanding of seismology and predicting earthquakes is, uh, evolving. New Orleans, of course: I lived there. We know what that's about, or we think we do. Hurricane prediction is a local specialty there. Los Angeles has something in common with the Crescent City, in that way. We've got our local environmental hazards; some of them are reasonably predictable; and local news, myself included, covers the bejezus out of them.

(Aside: I wish there was a word for being a wuss about a region's weather. German might have one, or Japanese. It would describe Washington DC, about snowstorms, among other things. Its antonym would signify being falsely aggressive about your ability to handle weather of all kinds. The users of that word would live in Maine.)

Back on topic, I really wish I knew better how people perceive their risk from mudslides, from fire, from earthquakes, from tsunamis, from floods, from hurricanes. I wonder - I wonder hard - whether it's different from place to place. This week, my colleagues Shirley Jahad, Frank Stoltze, Brian Watt, and I, along with many others, talked to people about evacuating from mudslides. We learned that few people evacuated during the last orders, last year; more people did leave this year, and seem so far to have escaped the worst risk. Now, after these storms, I really hope I get to talk to a lot of Southern Californians this year who have thought about these environmental hazards.

Please tell me, if you read this, if you worry about disasters like the ones we talk about. Or think about them, even. I'm desperately curious.