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Quake Lesson: Past Is No Safe Haven

PERSPECTIVES

By Rushworth M. Kidder / October 30, 1989



WITH great panache, San Francisco has picked itself up from its earthquake. Looking back, it's clear that lots of things got jolted - buildings, bridges, lives, habits, and much more. In some cases, the results were tragic: But such losses aren't trivialized by calling attention to all the damage that didn't happen. Why didn't it? What kept San Francisco from going the way of Armenia, where a slightly weaker quake - 6.9 on the Richter scale, compared to California's 7.1 - laid waste to vast areas and killed 100 times as many people last December?

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Climate, for one thing. Soviet winters are bitter cold. Bay Area Octobers are mild. Exposure killed some Armenian victims before rescue workers got to them. In California, some people from damaged houses simply slept outdoors for a couple of nights.

Then there's construction. Maybe it was the poor quality of Soviet concrete, or low-budget designs, or the build-it-quick mentality. Whatever the reason, Soviet structures collapsed by the score, while skyscrapers in San Francisco only swayed.

Communications also played a part. The Bay Area essentially retained telephone service, and radio, television, and newspapers kept going. Though there were lots of unanswered questions in the moments following the tremor, confusion about whether anything serious had happened was not among them. It had, and the world knew it instantly.

And then there's the question of readiness. San Francisco had well-trained platoons of rescue workers in place. Armenia had to fight not only climate and rubble, but also red tape.

All of which suggests several conclusions. Most obviously, these twin experiences point up significantly different traditions of design, craftsmanship, and financing in the two countries - differences that fairly scream out to Americans visiting Soviet buildings for the first time.

But there's a larger lesson here. It's become fashionable, in some circles, to bad-mouth the idea of progress and call for a return to earlier times and simpler lifestyles.

Such a view, well-anchored in literature and art, has been part of humanity's sense of itself at least since the court poets of the Renaissance. Nor is it a dying view. ``Progress,'' as E.E. Cummings wrote with high irony not so long ago, ``is a comfortable disease.''

In part, the flight from progress is a natural human response to the dehumanizing features of a high-tech world.

Carried to its not-uncommon extreme, however, it becomes a rejection of modernity and a conscious embrace of the anachronistic. It pops up in the back-to-the-land magazines people read and the country fairs they attend.

How healthy and pleasant, it seems, to spin your own wool and read by lantern-light. Most people don't actually do so, of course. But quite a few find themselves looking longingly at that kind of life and sighing, ``If only ...!''

And then along comes an earthquake. What collapsed, both here and in the Soviet Union, were older structures. What survived were structures into which a considerable amount of progress - in the form of architecture, engineering, code enforcement, and the development of new materials - had been invested.

The bottom line? There are people now alive because of the very progress we sometimes delight in scorning.

As the future comes barreling scarily into the present, it's worth remembering that the past, by itself, offers no safe haven.