IN the wake of two major earthquakes worldwide - Armenia (1988) and Mexico City (1985) - and two strong temblors here in the past two years, California experts and officials have been asking themselves: ``When will public attention finally shift from prediction gadgetry to preparing for the inevitable?'' ``The most important thing people need to know about earthquakes is the fact they will occur is absolute and indisputable,'' says Allan Lindh, chief scientist of a major earthquake study for the United States Geological Survey. ``That thousands of people will die is not inevitable, and it's in society's realm to do something about it.''
``One of the biggest, serious public misconceptions is that whatever can be done about earthquakes is being done,'' laments Thomas Heaton, a USGS scientist based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. ``There are serious gaps in the amount of understanding we have and the application of that understanding.''
Information from these and other top seismologists paints the picture of a field that has learned much in the past 10 years about instrumentation, data gathering, and interpretation. A vastly broadened study of past millennia has brought a more detailed context from which to make present-day predictions. Fewer, better, movement-monitoring devices are now placed at depths of 500 to 1,000 feet, instead of close to the earth's surface, where industry, traffic, and weather complicate data interpretation.
``We've learned that trying to predict earthquakes from the earth's surface is hopeless,'' says Dr. Lindh.
A major project known as the Parkfield Earthquake Prediction Experiment is poised to measure a magnitude-6 quake in the Parkfield, Calif., area before 1993. Five such quakes with similar features have occurred in this central California fault section since 1857. The idea is to learn the history of a seismic eruption with such precision that similar instrumentation and analysis can precede quakes in other locations.
``This is really the first, officially sanctioned, major attempt in the US to pinpoint a fault shift within hours to days,'' says project director Lindh. ``We think we have an honest shot.''
BUT Lindh, Dr. Heaton, and a host of others say public attention paid to the cutting edge of scientific advances in prediction is a Trojan horse.
``People are more interested in reading about lasers and sensors than taking care of old buildings and seeing that stupid decisions are not made about putting up new ones,'' says Frederick Willsea, chairman of the seismology committee of the Structural Engineers Association of California.
Many similarities were found, for instance, between the soil makeup surrounding Mexico City - that of soft muds that greatly amplify seismic waves - and much of the filled-in bay around San Francisco where housing is built. ``But has that knowledge been translated into either reinforcing the buildings that need it or demolishing them?'' asks Bill Joyner of USGS. ``That's where the attention needs to be.''
To better focus public attention where it is needed, Gov. George Deukmejian has proclaimed April ``California Earthquake Preparedness Month'' as an umbrella for hundreds of symposiums, workshops, contests, expos, meetings, and panels. School and hospital drills and full-scale city and county earthquake response drills are providing both new and refresher training for emergency responders.
``Information from both Mexico City and Armenia has made it possible for a great leap forward in knowing how to both prepare for disaster and provide relief afterward,'' says Ed Hensley of the state Seismic Safety Commission. Destruction of transportation and communication lines can be so total that strategies for recovery must be in place before the event, he says.
Attention that was sparked after the first of these tragedies led in 1987 to a statewide inquiry into the number of buildings built before 1953, when earthquake architectural requirements became mandatory. Fred Turner of the Seismic Commission says two-thirds of the reports are in - due by Jan. 1, 1990 - showing 35,000 buildings, with an occupancy totaling 1.2 million.
But despite the inventory, notices to occupants and owners, and the reporting of findings to the state, no action is yet planned.
That is a travesty, according to Ken Norwood, a Berkeley-area architect and structural engineer. He has been on a personal crusade for years to wake up people to the earthquake threat he says endangers 55 percent of the Bay Area structures. He says more than a once-a-year public relations blitz is necessary to shake a sleeping populace from complacency. Discussion of foundation-disclosure laws, vague earthquake insurance laws, and low-interest loans for upgrading single-family residences are a must. He is trying to organize public panels through the Berkeley Design Advocates, a local group made up of architects, engineers, and urban planners.
``A general lethargy and lack of incentive extend throughout the architecture professions, government agencies, and even officials,'' he says. ``Professional organizations should take a much more active role in alerting the public about what they stand to lose if they don't take action now.'' A large part of the apparent apathy is driven by both lack of money for upgrading or replacing current structures and opposing interests from land development and real estate lobbies.
Mr. Norwood points out a poignant example. Fifteen months ago state Bill 4520 called for the disclosure of earthquake resistance data for both foundations and walls. Despite testimony in favor of such legislation from top seismology groups and structural engineering associations, the bill never made it out of committee. A lobbyist for the California Real Estate Association, Alex Creel, argued there was ``insignificant scientific evidence to justify such a measure.''
``That is one of the worst travesties of misinterpretation of scientific evidence I've ever heard,'' says Norwood. His concerns stretch to many unanswered questions on insurance, such as liability and whether earthquake coverage includes reimbursement for fire. ``People are ignorant as to how many ways they stand to lose their life savings in an earthquake,'' he says.
A NUMBER of experts and analysts also point out that one big reason for collective head-in-the-sand avoidance about earthquakes is a phenomenon known as ``psychic numbing.'' ``There have been a number of studies done of major calamities throughout the world measuring the social, economic, and cultural/emotional impact of large disasters,'' says Tom Mullins of the governor's Office of Emergency Services. ``They show when people are constantly bombarded with evidence of conflagration so acute that they can't deal with it, they turn off.''
To combat this turnoff, California officials have designed a very upbeat campaign. For the April campaign logo, a California-shaped figure in sneakers, wearing sunglasses and portable headphones, dances three steps to ``beat the quake'':
1.Prepare (earthquake plans for home and work); 2.protect (from earthquake hazards); 3.practice (home and workplace earthquake drills).
``It may look a little corny, but we tried to get away from all the gloom-and-doom preachments of the past,'' says Mr. Mullins. He adds that Californians are far more aware of earthquake prevention than people in other states are, and willingness to prepare has increased in the past three years.
``We have a damaging quake in the state every two years,'' says William Medigovich, director of the emergency-services office, which is coordinating the April campaign with regional programs by the Bay Area Regional Earthquake Preparedness Project and the Southern California Earthquake Preparedness Project. ``And there is a 60 percent probability that a large-magnitude quake could happen anytime within the next 30 years. We must be prepared - on the government level, on the community level, and particularly on the individual level.''