An expatriate returns to find earthquakes and drive-in markets - a letter from Los Angeles

Californians Adjust To Life on the Fault

ANYBODY will tell you that life has changed a lot in southern California in the last 15 years. Traffic has doubled, the population has grown by 2 million or so multihued faces, whole neighborhoods have sprung out of the desert. To a native making her first long visit since 1976, however, people's awareness of earthquakes stood out most. People don't seem to be living in inordinate fear, but many are making small adjustments that show that ``the Big One'' has muscled its way into the collective consciousness and is planning a long stay.

Quakes have long been part of life in southern California. Ask people over 40 how many they've been through, and they've got them all lined up like bowling trophies, by year, personal experience, and Richter-scale rating.

When the Sylmar quake hit in '71, it damaged a hospital, killed people, and cracked a dam. If the dam had burst, water would have swept through many communities below it. That was enough to prompt some newcomers to Los Angeles do a reverse Steinbeck: They packed their belongings and hightailed it back to Oklahoma.

A TV special around that time showed that a substantial number of schools, fire and police stations, and homes, were built smack on the San Andreas fault. But even with that information, many residents still disavowed any overriding feeling that quakes were that earthshaking. Thrilling, maybe, but not serious.

Some people say that public awareness shifted after the fairly damaging '87 Whittier quake, and a geologist's report that southern California could have a major quake in the next 50 years. The dramatic Bay Area quake in October really clinched things.

When a 5.5 temblor hit Upland during this last trip home, it was clear that much had changed. Residents now seem to know the rules for what to do during a quake: stand in an internal doorway or get under a desk or table; don't run outside. City councilors knew that - TV coverage showed them clambering out from under desks. But other footage showed people fleeing a restaurant. The TV anchors expressed mild disapproval of those panicking. Being prepared, they seemed to say, is now cool.

More people are stashing away emergency supplies. After the Whittier quake in 1987, one resident found an ice cream tub and filled it with nuts, crackers, canned goods, raisins, and cat food. The tub is in a hall closet right near the safe spot, next to the bottled water (don't save tap water; it won't keep), and a duffel bag with clothes, radio, toilet articles, flashlight, and batteries. It's part of this woman's life - every few weeks she replaces the crackers with fresh ones. All her friends have similar caches.

People keep backpacks with supplies in their offices, food and cash in the car. They are prepared for three days on their own, as the civil defense people have warned might happen. In emergency preparation meetings the fire department holds periodically, residents are told that ambulances will be instructed not to stop for passersby. You're on your own, folks. Many residents seem to evaluate every locale for its escape factor. During rush hour, people seem to hesitate before stopping under a bridge.

Anyone wanting to stock up on supplies can try the drive-through window at Vons supermarket. Angelenos have always liked doing things from their cars, from depositing checks to watching movies to scarfing down burgers to worshipping. Now it's grocery shopping.

The big supermarket chain just built a 24-hour Drive-Thru Express convenience store in one of its stores. You drive up, holler your order - from a menu of 1,400 brand-name items - into a mike, pull forward, and three minutes later pick up the loot. It's no good for those who want to do a week's worth of shopping without unstrapping the kids from the car seats: They limit you to 10 items. Still, Meiko Becker, the perky ``window coordinator,'' says ``So far, I've gotten a lot of raves from mothers. They say, `I've been waiting for this for a long time.'''

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