A turquoise and white helicopter judders noisily above an earthen dam that restrains the blue waters of nearby Silver Lake reservoir.
Back and forth the chopper hovers, and then, with a deafening racket, it roars away over the rooftops. Since dawn on Jan. 17, the peaceful view of lake and mountains visible from my backyard deck has taken on a frightening aura of risk and death. Authorities are checking for leaks: earthquakes shake dams as well as houses, and the reservoir, nestled in a bowl near downtown Los Angeles, holds millions of gallons of water in its concrete shell.
Charting disasters from the yard has become an essential part of life in L.A., like brushing your teeth in the morning.
In October, my family watched flames march across the 6,000foot-high San Gabriel mountain range while white ash fluttered from the sky. Less than two years ago, columns of smoke rose from buildings that were looted and burned in the riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King case. We’ve measured water consumption to meet restrictions imposed by drought, rushed into doorways as earth tremors rattled the ground and ducked inside as airplanes dropped chemicals to combat infestations of the Medfly, an insect that threatens California’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry.
Nine years ago, my husband and I packed our little yellow Honda and moved from Ottawa to California. Many a friend and acquaintance envied the decision. Hollywood. La-La-Land. The beach houses and surf of Malibu. Rubbing shoulders with movie stars in local restaurants. No more Canadian winters! Paradise.
But somewhere along the way, southern California’s image has changed. Smog, drought, fires, floods, mud slides, riots, gang warfare. Catastrophes pile up faster than the mind can absorb. As last fall’s fires raged, my daughter, then 8, wanted to know what kind of disasters afflicted Toronto, my home town, when I was growing up. Resisting the flippant riposte that Toronto itself is a disaster, the only calamity that came to mind was Hurricane Hazel—and that storm
blew through town 40 years ago. She promptly replied that she wanted to move north. I pondered her decision as ashes from Malibu settled on the lunch table the next day.
We live in a state of constant readiness for disaster. Outside the door sit huge black boxes packed with emergency earthquake supplies—including a camping stove we used to cook meals last week during an 18-hour power blackout. Flashlights and comfortable shoes are also close at hand—near the bed, in handbags, briefcases and cars. Over the years, the thought of parking underground or in the massive concrete structures abutting shopping centres has become less and less attractive. It is better to back up traffic than to sit in gridlock under a freeway overpass—which just might collapse the next time a quake strikes.
Life in this comer of the United States did not always seem so complicated. Back before California became the Golden State, Mexican
settlers, exploiting the local Indian tribes, came to the semi-arid region and divided the land into huge ranches. Little changed until the Gold Rush of 1849 brought hordes of newcomers—and Yankee influence—into the northern part of the state. The dream of sudden riches has never died.
Canadians are no strangers to these dreams. The city of Ontario, Calif., was proudly designed and named in 1882 by two northerners, brothers George and William Chaffey of Kingston, Ont. Hollywood blossomed with the help of Canadians Louis B. Mayer and Mary Pickford. Through the movies, the L.A. myth spread around the world.
But the dream fizzled for the 15,000 homeless camped in city parks and high schools. It has also died for the hundreds of thousands of formerly well-paid workers who, since the recession hit in 1991, have stopped drawing paycheques—and for the millions of residents, fearful of crime, who have made barred windows and entryways a common architectural motif. Experts warn locals to keep their car windows rolled up at all times. Banks have begun to install automatic teller ma| chines outside police stations to imI prove customer safety, g Still, for some, the old myths die I hard. On the day of the quake, as most I Angelenos stayed home to assess the damage and await the next aftershock, a group of tourists stopped in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard to admire the cement imprints left by Marilyn Monroe. Their Los Angeles still existed—at least on the surface.
As the week wore on, tremors continued to sway the house, some barely detectable, others strong enough to draw me out of my chair towards a safe spot in a nearby corridor. Hours after the initial shock tossed everyone out of bed, Canadian guitarist and composer liona Boyd asked me if I was disappointed by the size of the quake. The question was puzzling at first. But upon reflection, the answer is yes. Yes, many Anglenos had hoped that this horrible earthquake—which felt so awful that it is hard to imagine anything worse—was indeed the massive shock, 8.0 on the Richter scale, that seismologists have long warned us to expect. Now, we must live with the dread that an even greater catastrophe—The Big One—is yet to come.
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