Killer Quake reviews


Earthquakes as Just a Fact of Life

November 15, 1994 | Walter Goodman

Looking for another reason not to live in Los Angeles? It’s available tonight on “Nova.” The horror-movie title, “Killer Quake!,” tells the story.

Beginning with the Jan. 17 earthquake in the San Fernando Valley that demolished much of the city’s Northridge neighborhood, the program finds more, and worse, to come. “We don’t know when it’s going to happen,” says one of tonight’s geologists. “We don’t know where it’s going to happen. We do know it will happen.”

The main problem of Los Angeles, earthquake investigators explain with the help of graphs and graphics, is that the city is not in a placid place like Manhattan Island. Under those freeways and swimming pools lurks a geological monster known as a blind thrust fault, that is, a crack that cannot be seen on the surface. Every now and then, just as in a disaster movie, the creature is roused to a release of energy that sends buildings and bridges toppling.

In particular, we learn, Los Angeles sits on a huge and constantly moving chunk of the earth’s crust known as the Pacific Ocean Plate, which is heading steadily to the northwest, so that in 5 million years or so, the city will be a suburb of San Francisco, or vice versa. Well, as it moves, the Pacific Ocean Plate grinds against the North American plate, on the other side of the famous San Andreas fault. Sometimes the two plates stick and when they snap loose, there’s your earthquake.

All this is coolly, clearly and colorfully laid out with drawings and diagrams that illustrate how earthquake predicters go about their job. The blasts even have their admirers, one of whom points out that earthquakes created California’s mountains and valleys. Without them, she says, “we’d look like Kansas.”

To cut to the chase, as many as 100 active earthquake faults are doing their stuff under Los Angeles right now, beneath such attractions as Grumann’s Chinese Theater, Dodger Stadium and Beverly Hills. The city, one expert says, has been averaging one damaging earthquake a year for the last six years, and the chances are others are on the way.

But they don’t call Southern California lotus land for nothing. A state planner says that even if 5,000 people are killed in a superquake and 750,000 are left homeless, “you’re talking about a very small percentage of the overall population.” Tell it to the Kansans. NOVA Killer Quake! PBS, Tuesday night at 8 (Channel 13 in New York). A presentation of the WGBH Science Unit; produced for Nova by KCET in Los Angeles and Robert Dean.

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Killer Quake! Focuses on Threat Beneath

November 15, 1994 | Robert Koehler

One of the metaphors used by seismologists interviewed in tonight’s Nova report, “Killer Quake!,” is the “shattered glass” pattern of recently discovered blind-thrust faults lacing the Los Angeles Basin. The shattering of scientific illusions is what “Killer Quake!” is really all about.

What seismologists know is bound to change, because Southern Californians are living through a time of historic geologic significance–from few earthquakes during most of the century to clusters of them as we reach the millennium. But what scientists are sure of is that the Big One has been something of a distraction, that attention must shift from the San Andreas Fault to those lurking miles directly below our feet.

For those who have been keeping up, “Killer Quake!” doesn’t update the post-Northridge quake news very much. What is revelatory here, though, is the threat posed by the Elysian Fault, a blind-thrust fault coursing straight through Downtown L.A. That it was discovered by oil geologists mapping the area for hidden oil pockets is indicative of the hit-and-miss, unpredictable game of quake sleuthing.

Now that they know of Elysian, seismologists such as James Dolan and Ross Stein (who theorizes on the way stress released by one fault shifts over to another) are trying to find a historic pattern for quakes in the area. What they foresee isn’t good news: A 7-plus-magnitude quake could happen at any time, and Downtown’s steel-reinforced buildings are probably not ready for the shake.

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PBS’ Nova series still has the power to set nerves on edge. 

November 14, 1994 | Tony Scott

Too late for Halloween, KCET’s contribution (about California earthquakes) to PBS’ “Nova” series still has the power to set nerves on edge. Glimpses of former quakes around the state remind Californians they’re on very shaky ground.

Familiar scenes of collapsed buildings and stricken freeways are mementos — if they’re needed — of the helplessness Angelenos endured during the Northridge shakeup.

Geologists, seismologists and earthquake “experts” furnish figures and show areas where quakes have struck — and talk about thrust faults, which are to the quake scene what Frankenstein’s monster is to the horror flick. Thrusts, it seems, lie far below ground surface, patiently waiting to move earth; like cracks in panes of glass, they stretch out from major faults and lie in wait.

A map shows the outline of the two huge plates that lie beneath California’s surface. They cause quakes when they grind against each other, and it’s pointed out by a Caltech scientist that L.A. is on its way north — slowly, but certainly, as its home plate lumbers on.

A scientist reminds us that smaller quakes have built up the topography of Southern California, and that “we’d look like Kansas if we didn’t have faults and earthquakes.”

No hope is offered for predicting or preventing quakes, and the program won’t be of much use to the L.A. Tourist Bureau. There’s a well-known film clip in which W.C. Fields was caught on a movie set during the 1933 Long Beach quake and remained suitably calm; those with temblor tremors might consider that as savoir-faire — or as sheer folly.

Robin Dean, who’s written as well as produced this “Nova” chapter, promises nothing. And narrator Stacy Keach doesn’t help nerves by noting, “Many of the faults under Los Angeles haven’t snapped in several thousand years and appear overdue for an earthquake. High levels of stress may be building under the city. Eventually this pressure has to be released.”

Worthy program offers little hope if the viewer lives in L.A. or Frisco — or anywhere else in California. People easily frightened by the thought of the Big One hitting soon better not watch it; nor should their cats.

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