Avoiding Quake Talk in San Francisco Scientists say a great earthquake could hit the San Francisco area in the next 30 years. But many residents prefer to live in denial. Commentator Louise Rafkin talked to her friends and neighbors for an understanding of how people balance everyday danger with everyday life.
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Avoiding Quake Talk in San Francisco

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Avoiding Quake Talk in San Francisco

Avoiding Quake Talk in San Francisco

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Scientists agree that it's very likely another big earthquake will hit the San Francisco Bay area in the next 30 years, but according to commentator Louise Rafkin, many people in the Bay area still live in denial. She counts herself and some of her friends and neighbors among them.

Ms. LOUISE RAFKIN (Commentator): In this place where anything pre-dot-com is ancient history, 100 years ago could just as well be a million. 1906? Hardly anyone is around who can remember it. But we're supposed to be prepared for that magnitude of disaster. To have three days of food and water, plus medical supplies, clothes, a radio, batteries. The list goes on and on. The Red Cross says only one in ten of us are even modestly prepared. I know literally hundreds of people here, but I could only find one family with an earthquake kit.

Ms. SANDRA GROSS(ph):: This is a windup radio. Windup radio. A breathing mask. Gloves. This is the emergency phone numbers.

Ms. RAFKIN: Sandra Gross lives in a sweet, old wood-frame house in an upscale Oakland neighborhood. She's super organized. She manages four kids under ten, all going different directions. Sandra and the kids put together these go-bags, and they stocked their basement. It took them two weeks, and a fair chunk of change.

Ms. GROSS: Whistle. Whistle, for when we're sitting on the roof, you know, flooded here in Oakland.

Ms. RAFKIN: Sandra's prepared, but even with this stuff, she's overwhelmed by the idea of a disaster. She wonders, what if she's away from home when it hits? How will her husband drive the 30 miles from work? How will she gather the kids from their schools? Pick up the go-bags, even?

Ms. GROSS: We don't have a plan for where we'd meet other than back here, which isn't really a plan. And it's all going to be chaos anyway, I guess.

Ms. RAFKIN: More typical than Sandra with her survivor-type supplies are my friends John and Mary Jo Goames(ph), who live nearby. They say they try not to think about earthquakes, even though they've got a baby to worry about.

Ms. MARY JO GOAMES: It's so big and scary, it's easy to be in denial and just hope that things will come together somehow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RAFKIN: This attitude is pretty familiar: denial and fatalism, tinged with humor. Like with so many conversations here about earthquakes, we can't stand talking about it for long. We drift to other topics: the baby needs changing and, have you tried that new sushi restaurant? I'll bet half of the Bay Area has, get earthquake supplies, written somewhere, but the list is too long. None of us wants to picture it, but that's exactly what artist Liz Hickok does. She tries to make it real. In her San Francisco studio, she shows me a model of our city sculpted entirely from Jell-O. Rows of tiny, colored houses, downtown skyscrapers in blue and yellow and red, green parks. It's fabulous. Cute, even. But then she shakes the table to show what happens in a quake.

Ms. LIZ HICKOK (Artist, "San Francisco in Jell-O"): The top part of Twin Peaks really, it just jiggles really well. It's like a liquidy, wobbly, mass of trees and earth and they don't fall over, which is kind of fun.

Ms. RAFKIN: Fun? The houses start buckling, cracks appear in the streets, green Jell-O trees fall over in a messy heap? We're both smiling, but then we're not.

Ms. HICKOK: It's almost too big to really think about in such a real way, such a physical way. I mean, you can see it shaking but it is kind of overwhelming. You know, the idea of the whole ground beneath us, shaking and possibly causing a lot of damage. It's scary. It's big. I mean, it could happen tomorrow. My artwork will survive, but I don't know what else will.

Ms. RAFKIN: She's already working on her next sculpture, which is going to have fires burning in her Jell-O streets, just like in 1906. But the 1906 quake seems as unreal as this Jell-O model. We've all seen the pictures. Victorian houses toppled from their foundations, smoke hovering over the downtown, ladies in large hats and men in bowlers, all looking grim. Photos of the destruction seem quaint, like dioramas in a museum. Interesting, but there's no emotional punch. The truth is, if we really pictured the destruction of everything we know, we would be overwhelmed. What would happen if, without warning, my house caved in? If everything I owned was ruined, or burned? If my pets were buried under rubble? This kind of disaster is too much to imagine, so few of us bother to put together an emergency kit at all. The only way to live on this shaky ground is to pretend it's not. Call it denial, call it ignorance, or call it faith. For 100 years, it hasn't happened and I choose to take that as a sign that it's probably not going to.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Louise Rafkin lives in Emeryville, California.

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