Thursday, September 08, 2005

Los Angeles Times Editorial On Earthquakes - Gets All Its Facts Wrong!

UPDATE! - See addendum at end on how even the LA Times disagrees with the LA Times Editorial page!,1,6127330.story?coll=la-news-comment

My, God!

Does anyone at the LA Times read the editorials before they publish then?

More importantly - does anyone even read at the LA Times?

I ask this because word for word - the most factually challenged part of the Times - despite serious competition from every other LAT section - is the Editorial Page! It still remains the most unreliable section of the LA Times!!

And it's never even close!

It's always a clean - albeit fully self-inflicted- knock-out!

But I do have a solution for all the, um, black eyes the LA Times Editorial Section has been receiving, even though it is a somewhat... ahem.... self-serving one.

To begin with, to put it bluntly, I work cheap.

I mean... really... really... cheap.

I'm talking... Jack Benny would hire me in a second... cheap.

So how about hiring me to read what you publish before you publish it? I mean, why not? I've got a strong stomach! Abs of Steel! I can handle it!

In fact - I'll even tackle the ... whole paper!

Bring it on! All of it! (of course... in some seriously fine print... I'd have to insert the mandatory... Joel Stein... exclusion. But that's cool! No one reads him anyway, so who the hell cares what he writes?)

But seriously, guys, just how bad could I be?

I mean, it's not like I could be any worse than what you've got.

Though, to be honest (and, shucks, us cowboys always have to be honest), I've gotta admit that even most twelve-year olds would be better fact checkers than whoever edits, much less writes your editorials now. But, of course, actually hiring a twelve-year old, brings up certain, shall we say, pesky... legal issues.

Paying twelve-years-olds to read the LA Times would be... child abuse.

Look it up! It's in the LA Municipal Code! Right between mullets on five-year-olds and allowing minors within 500 yards of anything written by Steve Lopez or Joel Stein. Thirty days in jail and a five hundred dollar fine.

Ok, now that we've settled that (and my number, as always, if case you have lost it... again... is, 213-555-1212), let's get to the LAT's latest editorial debacle:

The basic concept of last Saturday's editorial - what happens if LA gets hit by a quake say... in the... 9.0 range:

But what if a monster quake - something in the magnitude 9.0 range - hits greater Los Angeles?

Hey, as long as we're all living in fantasy land - why not make it an earthquake in 90.0 range? Or an earthquake in 900.0 range? Or George Bush caught en flagrante delicto with Michael Moore?

I mean, all three are about as likely as a 9.0 in LA.

I say this because in historic times, the LA Basin has never been hit by an earthquake over, say, 6.9. Not once! Never! Zero times in over 200 years! And the last time even a 7.5 range earthquake hit the LA basin (as opposed to the entire southern half of the state) was roughly... say... 7,000 - 8,000 - years ago, give or take the odd thousand years.

And there is not even a single geologic record - ever - at any time - ever (and, did I yet mention... ever?) showing that the LA basin has ever (I repeat, ever) been hit by an 8.0 quake - much less by the far, far larger 9.0 quake the Times incredibly proposes.

So, of course, when discussing how to prepare for the future, a 9.0 earthquake is the base-line the LA Times Editorial Page uses in its discussion.

OK - so much for the idea that anyone who wrote, edited or even read this editorial at the LA Times has even the remotest clue about real world seismology. Or any belief that anyone at the LA Times has any concern for the truth.

So now let's look at their knowledge of... California (you know... California?... that funny looking state two states below... Washington?) history:

Before this week's catastrophe in New Orleans, San Francisco in 1906 was the last major American city to take a near-fatal blow.

Near fatal blow?


San Francisco actually came close to... dying... back in 1906?

Well, for all you students in remedial (i.e., bonehead) American History 101, American cities sorta burned to the ground with quite regular regularity right up until the WW I era - each one of them (New York, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, etc.) quickly came back bigger and stronger than before.

A perfect record. And all of them were stronger after the fire than before the fire. So the idea that the 1906 San Francisco fire was a near fatal event - i.e., that the city almost ceased to exist - is... clearly.... untrue.

It is also a complete and total lie, of course, like many of the 'facts' in the editorial, but... the more subtle way of just saying 'untrue' just reads... funnier.

Next we come to the alleged difference between San Francisco and New Orleans:

One major difference from the New Orleans situation was that many San Franciscans were able to get to the waterfront and take ferries to Oakland and other nearby cities that did not suffer such severe damage.

Uh, wrong. While the fire did most of the damage and burned alive people trapped in the ruins - it was a relatively slow moving fire that most people could outwalk, much less outrun. It was not a storm surge - or a rapidly filling coffin of water after the levees breached. The ferries did not save anyone's lives. Just standing on the beach would have done that.

Now people did take ferry boats to get to areas that could provide food and shelter, but they also could walk to the many other parts of the city that were not burned or go down the Peninsula. The ferry was convenient, but immaterial. And the East Bay areas were also hit hard by the earthquake, with considerable damage - though no big fire. Much like adjoining areas in Louisiana which had hurricane damage and no utilities for days if not weeks, but no major flooding.

The difference between the two situations in having safe zones to escape too is... negligible. What made New Orleans unique was the residents inability to escape the rapidly rising water. Even if they had been ferries to take them to the mostly unflooded West Bank of the city, they would have been of limited use once people were trapped in their homes.

The only real difference between this disaster and any other disaster is that the land under much of the city - as of right now - simply does not exist. It's just not there. And it won't be there for a very long time. And the cost - and the risks of reclaiming that land will be beyond any disaster this country has ever faced. Likely, if it was not a city as special as New Orleans - it simply would not be worth the risk - or the cost - compared to rehousing some of the people in a safer area.

Lastly, there is the single most preposterous statement in the whole editorial:

Like the people of New Orleans, Californians clustered around L.A. and San Francisco tempt fate on a daily basis, having decided to live in a vulnerable place that Mother Nature could instantly extinguish.

Instantly extinguish? An entire... city? Can someone please buy the LAT's editors a... dictionary? It means to wipe out.. completely.

Well, to begin with, unlike New Orleans - no matter how hard a quake is - the ground here is still left to rebuild. Just like after a fire. Unlike New Orleans - we are not below sea level and capable of being totally 100% destroyed by a direct hit of a Category 5 hurricane. Unlike New Orleans, two hurricanes in two years can not literally wipe out all the protective land between the city and the ocean, making the city actually part of the ocean. It is physically possible to... extinguish... New Orleans. There is zero comparison between the situations.

But let's talk about the real possible damage to the city by using San Francisco as an example. In 1906 San Francisco was hit by an earthquake far stronger than any quake the LA area has been hit with in the past 15,000 years, if not longer. And still, if it had not been for the fire, the city would have been fully up and running within a year. In fact, even after the fire, within a year many of the people and the businesses were already back in the city.

Furthermore, most of the newer office buildings and hotels built in the fire area survived both the quake - and the fire (though their interiors had to be rebuilt, of course) and many of them are still stand on Market Street. Additionally, huge sections of Victorian houses - all of which pre-date the fire - still line the streets of San Francisco; miles and miles of them.

And all this was with - pre-1906 building codes!

Hardly sounds like a city that was... extinguished - even after an earthquake far larger than any ever recorded in 15,000 years in Los Angeles - and after a fire started by wood burning stoves in an almost all wood frame city, built wall to wall. And pre-1906 building codes.

So the facts of the most devastating earthquake in this country's history - totally refute the LA Times' fully bogus claim.

But - just to fully play this out - what if this mythical 9.0 earthquake did hit the LA area? Would LA be... extinguished?

Well... no!

The second strongest earthquake in modern history - one of only TWO over 9.0 quakes (by present recording standards) in modern times hit near Anchorage in 1964. And there was massive damage on the unstable bluffs overlooking the harbor and in the parts of town that were built over layers of highly unstable clay. But despite internet myths - the majority of all structures in Anchorage, survived. Many of the wood frame homes, in fact, had little damage and the new steel framed buildings did very well. In fact, little more than a dozen people died from the actual quake in the 'extinguished' city.

So even after a city with some of the most unstable ground in the country was hit by a 9.2 quake - that city still largely stood and it was in far better shape than New Orleans is. And it certainly was nothing even remotely close to being extinguished... unlike New Orleans could be with a direct Category 5 hit.

So why does the LA Times lie to us? Why can we not expect even the simplest fact in their editorials to be... actual facts? I mean, even the death toll they gave for the San Francisco quake was in the long, long discredited 700 range , even though the more known more accurate figure of over 3,000 was (finally) officially endorsed earlier this year.

Lastly - even the figure given for the distance between LA (actually, Santa Monica) and New Orleans was technically wrong. When distances are given between two places, it is 'as the crow flies' unless it is quantified as the driving distance or any other type of distance. But the LAT only gave the driving distance (or at least that was the figure closest to the figure they gave), without saying it was driving distance and not the 'true' distance between the two cities. A very, very minor point, but still, it shows a pattern of disregard for accuracy or clarity.

So will the LA Times correct these errors? Will they apologize to us for these errors? Of course not! They still refuse to correct a statement that housing prices have collapsed in San Francisco!

LA needs to prepare for our eventual 'the big one' earthquake. But we are stuck with a dying newspaper with a Editorial Page that - for obvious reasons - no longer has any street cred with even the few who read it. And with so many LA Times editorials getting their facts so dead wrong that they are essentially... worthless... I do know one thing. The LA Times is our Civic Disgrace. It is our Superdome. The only difference is that, in our case, the people inside it are not the innocent victims; they are the perpetrator of the outrage.

And our only solution to get every one of editors and publishers who are at the top of the food chain at the LAT into a one-way bus... and get them the hell out of Los Angeles. So, to accomplish this patriotic act, if any of you still subscribe or advertise in the LA Times - why not take that money - and donate it to hurricane relief?

This way you can help both the Gulf Coast - and your own city at the same time. So give - and keep giving until it hurts - the LA Times - and show that you, too, care about our city.


This post was put up long after I wrote it as my physical condition has made it hard to me to physically edit or write. In the meantime, another LAT news article has given the correct Frisco quake death numbers and on Thursday a realistic look at what would happen was written - in the news and not the Editorial Page, of course - by Jia-Rui Chong and Hector Becerra:,0,7813962.story?page=2&track=hpmostemailedlink

The article - correctly - lays out a scenario that totally contradicts everything the Editorial staff of the Times said last Saturday. The only very, very minor quibble I have is the following statement:

A catastrophic temblor at the right spot along the San Andreas could significantly reduce energy and water supplies — at least temporarily, she and others said. Researchers at the Southern California Earthquake Center said there is an 80% to 90% chance that a temblor of 7.0 or greater magnitude will strike Southern California before 2024.

Now everything said there is correct. Totally correct. The one minor omission, though, is not telling us that the San Andreas Fault does not cross the LA Basin, and that the vast majority of it is not in LA County as the fault runs from Kern County to Imperial County. But the potential for temporary disruption to our energy and water infrastructure is fully correct no matter where the quake hits on the fault in Southern California.


Ralph said...

My favorite part of the editorial is when they warned us of the value of being prepared. Wonderful advice. Too bad that they did not take it themselves by learning something about earthquakes or Los Angeles or New Orleans before they wrote that editorial.

Anonymous said...

You can not blame this one on the soon to be gone man from Seattle. There are other problems in that department.

I would love to sign my name but I have kids to feed.