Californias joke about quakes, but take precautions, too

Down at the Dublin Bowl, some giant clumsy kegler seems to have dropped his ball. Four hundred pins clatter in unison, 40 perfect strikes that'll never make the Guinness Book of Records.

Over in Pleasant Hill, a mother herds her four little charges under the dining room table, the house having had a sudden attack of "happy feet." Three-year-old Gabe McVey offerss a theological observation: "Hey, you didn't build your house on the rock."

Living in earthquake country, it helps to have a sense of perspective if not humor -- something to balance the continual reminders that life on this portion of Earth's crust can be -- not to put too fine a point on it -- shaky.

Seismologists tell us that there are some 500 earthquakes in California each year. Most are minor tremblers perceptible only to US Geological Survey and university detection devices.

One hears most often of the San Andreas and Calavaras Faults, but a fault map of the state looks like a spider web. There are 50 faults near Los Angeles alone. The Cucamonga, the Elsinore, the Cabrillo and Tujunga and Charnock. Up north, it's the same picture. The Mount Diablo and Greenville Faults, which rumbled last week. The Corral Hollow Fault running right under the Lawrence Livermore lab, where plutonium is stored and nuclear weapons are developed.

Earthquakes also tend to come in "swarms" or series lasting days or even weeks, Californias are frequently reminded. Since the "moderate" jolt here (5.5 on the Richter scale) last Thursday, there have been at least nine of 4.0 or more and scores more between 1.7 and 3.0 -- more than 100 tremors in total.

he good news about such relative minor quakes is that they prod officialdom and individual Californians to better prepare for the "big one" of which experts increasingly warn.

"It is good that we get an earthquake like this to make people nervous so they will get things fixed," says civil engineer Peter Yanev, author of "Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country," a practical guide to understanding quakes and mininimizing damage.

Two strong aftershocks rattle his suburban San Francisco home as he tells a reporter, "Most of the damage is preventable if we would take the time and expense to upgrade the buildings." The reporter checks out Mr. Yanev's book from the library the next day.

"Some have done a good job, but others are just beginning to wrestle with it, " says Jeanne Perkins, a regional planner working on earthquake preparedness with the Assocition of Bay Area Governments.

"The San Francisco Emergency Services Department is minuscule compared with the size and complexity of the city," said another expert just after the last set of quakes here. Meanwhile, Californias continue to take their jittery environment in stride. They build stronger buildings and pay closer attention to seismologists and other experts even while joking about the quakes.

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