Richard Reeves

California vs. Nature

COACHELLA VALLEY, Calif. -- "Earthquake!" said my wife at 12:10 a.m. last Tuesday morning. "How do we get out of here?"

"Go back to sleep," said her know-it-all husband, the columnist.

By dawn's early light, computer, radio and the local paper, The Desert Sun, reported that a magnitude 4.3 earthquake had gently rocked the Valley just past midnight. It was the 475th magnitude 4 or higher temblor within 100 miles since 1973.

"I told you," said the wife. "I've lived in California more years than you have."

True. But my reaction was the more common California response: Forget about it. Nice day.

The next day, Wednesday, the star governor of the Golden State, Arnold Schwarzenegger, visited La Conchita, a little "New Age" seaside village -- if you are old enough to remember the new age of the early 1970s -- in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. Ten people died there on Monday in a mudslide, meaning that a small mountain, weakened by two weeks of rain, had slid down onto 15 houses. The last mudslide there was just 10 years ago.

The governor, with more charm than sense, gave the official version of the California response: "The people who live here in this community are very strong. ... One of the first things they said is, you know, 'We'll be back.' I would say I'm going to help them so they can come back here."

When the sun comes out tomorrow, they will forget about it -- and ask the state to protect them from nature. Taxpayers will foot the bill, as they did last time. Until next time. When I lived in California in the late 1970s, I wrote the "Letter From California" for The New Yorker. The magazine, or at least the editor then, William Shawn, considered me a foreign correspondent. My first letter back was about fire and flood, earthquake and slides. The magazine titled it: "Vulnerable."

"My first earthquake was on New Year's Day of 1979," I wrote. "There was a heavy jolt, and the floor vibrated. I thought a truck had hit the building. But the floor did not stop vibrating. ... People pushed chairs and tables aside, stood up and began running toward the door. I realized that there was a sound -- a steady roaring as if a freight train were coming into the room. The next day's Los Angeles Times reported that the quake was 'small' -- 4.6 magnitude on the Richter scale. It had lasted less than 10 seconds. ... While it was happening, there was no way of knowing that the thing would be judged small by instruments at California Institute of Technology.

"I had already begun to wonder whether God meant for people to live in Los Angeles. Certainly He never meant for millions to live there," I continued.

I ended the piece in conversation with a lady whose house above Malibu had been destroyed a month before by a brushfire that swept through one fine October day. "We came back," she said. "We all came back. We're damn fools, but the trees come back, and so do we. It's a constant battle. Nature keeps trying to take over here. But it's beautiful, and it's where we want to be."

"In the last few days we have seen the power of nature to cause damage and despair," said Schwarzenegger, bringing on images of the greater damage in South Asia. "But we will match that power with our resolve."

Perhaps he is the right governor for this place, as Ronald Reagan once was. Not only is California about optimism above all, it is simply too big; there are simply too many people to be governed by the 19th-century conventions of face-to-face town hall democracy.

It is ironic that this governor had, last Monday, proposed a $111.7 billion budget. It purports to be a budget that keeps the governor's promise to raise no taxes -- there are just a lot of fee increases and co-payment escalations. It also took money approved by voters for highway maintenance and other transportation projects and put it in the general fund to bring the paper numbers closer to balance.

It is a fiction, of course. But that was Schwarzenegger's former business. Now, legislators and lobbyists will fight over budget line items for months. Only one thing is certain: La Conchita, in the wrong place for all time, will be rebuilt. That is the sunny California way.

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