Escape from L.A.


Cuervo Jones to Snake Plissken: “You might have survived Cleveland. You might have escaped

from New York. But this is L.A., vato. And you’re about to find out that this

fucking place can kill anybody.”
"Escape from LA," a film (1996)


Academic conferences are notorious for being done on the cheap. Travel budgets for faculty are usually paltry. It’s always been a Catch 22, Jeff Grant thought.  Faculties are supposed to go forth and participate in the intellectual life surrounding their disciplines, but with limited support.

So organizers had booked this conference at the Hilton Long Beach. It hadn’t aged well. The lobby had recently been refurbished; the rooms had not. The carpet in his room had stains. The drapes were partly unhung and dragged on the floor. The “art” bolted on the walls consisted of cheap prints that had faded in sunlight to a pinkish-blue.


According to his conference packet, presenters had been assigned times in the presentation hall to check their visual support and practice if they desired. His slot followed what was billed as an informal reception for presenters and participants in a private room off the hotel’s restaurant. 

He signed in at a table outside the restaurant and clipped on his badge. It was the typical “friendly” name tag—big “Jeffrey,” small “Grant” followed by “PhD.” His title and school followed. The badge sported a red ribbon proclaiming “Presenter.”

Jeff wasn’t much of a mingler, so he headed first for the bar where he had to settle for Johnnie Red. There was no food on the airplane, so next stop was the hors d’oeuvres table. He wasn’t a fussy eater, but he passed on the shrimp—giant tigers.  They looked firm and fresh, but he was almost certain they had been farm raised in China or Indonesia. He knew the chemical soup in which they were grown and wanted no part of it.

Drink in one hand, plastic plate in the other, he walked to an unoccupied round table and scanned the room. Unfortunately, the only person who looked interesting was heading for the door. She had two guys in thrall, happily joining her escape from tedium. A leggy brunette.

He saw a few fellow faculty he knew from previous conferences.  He waved but chose not to join them.  He wasn’t in the mood for academic small talk.  He checked his watch and was happy to see it was almost time for his practice session. HeeHeHe gulped his drink and headed for the conference venue.

The room had seating for about 100. He handed his tablet to the waiting hotel technician and asked him to project the holos he’d had prepared for the talk. Speaker Services at his school, Oklahoma State, had been happy to take what was left of his modest support budget to build the images.

The holos looked good. At least the hotel had a decent projector. Jeff’s field was Earth Science—seismology, in particular. The paper reported his findings clearly linking the practice of hydrologic fracking for oil to serious seismic instability in heavily “fracked” areas.  Fracking was finally banned in the ‘20s, but the damage had been done.


Jeff’s presentation was next to last on the second day of the conference. By the time his turn came, the audience had thinned. He’d seen a number of attendees wheeling suitcases into the lobby after lunch, one of the downsides of presenting the last afternoon of a conference.

But, as he approached the stage, he saw that, potentially, the most important conference attendee was sitting third-row center. He caught the brunette’s eye; she crossed her legs demurely and smiled.



Later that evening, Jeff had just finished some unremarkable bar food and was working on his second drink when, in the mirror, he noticed the brunette walking his way. He looked up again as she stood next to his stool. 

“You looked so lost in thought, I almost didn’t want to intrude.”

“Nope,” he replied. “This is currently a no-thinking zone. I’ll ask you to sit down, but only if you promise there’ll be no thinking.”

“I can handle that. I can be just as thoughtless as the next person. Name’s Alex.” She extended her hand.  In what was a promising role reversal, she held Jeff’s hand longer than necessary.

He looked at her name tag. “Alexis Matthews.” He squinted, “Department of Environmental Policy, UC-Berkeley.” As she sat he asked, “What’s a policy wonk doing at a gathering like this? Ah, before you answer, I’m forgetting my manners. What are you drinking?”

She asked for whatever Jeff was having. He waved two fingers at the bartender.

“We like to keep track of what’s being discussed in the field and look for policy implications.  So, tell me about Jeff.”

For the next few minutes they exchanged abbreviated and carefully censored life stories.

When Jeff was through, she said, “You didn’t mention marital status.” 

“Marriage is an ancient and unpleasant memory.  You.”

“Never.  Never felt like being tied down—at least not in that sense.” Her green eyes twinkled.

“Guess that leaves only one burning question,” Jeff said. “My place or yours?”

“Which is closest?”

They adjourned to his room, shedding clothes before the door was closed. She had a body the sight of which might make some men shrivel in shock and awe. And she was uninhibited, innovative and very enthusiastic. Jeff tried to give as good as he got. He couldn’t remember having a better time.

Much later, as they spooned on the bed they had destroyed, she murmured something about an early flight as he started to doze.

“Me, too. Need a ride?”

“I think I just had one!  But, yes, thanks.”


Jon awoke in the dark. The bed was empty.  He made his way to the bathroom. The door was ajar and the light was on. Once his eyes adjusted to the glare, he saw a message scrawled in lipstick on the mirror: “Jeff—Fun!  Lobby at 7?  Alex.”

All that, he thought, and a flair for the dramatic!


Alex was waiting in the lobby looking fresh and little worse for wear.  She handed him a cup of coffee.

“Hope black’s okay.”

Jeff checked out and requested his car.

He wasn’t that familiar with the L.A. area so asked the GPS to get them to LAX.  In a Latin-tinged voice, the GPS chica directed him to the 710 north.  But, before nearing the 105, she warned of bumper-to-bumper and rerouted them on Alondra west through Compton to pick up the 110.

Compton was unlovely.  Barred windows. Graffiti encrusted. Idly, Jon watched a light plane making an approach to a local airport.

He was about to ask Alex if he could see her again when there was a bone-jarring jolt. It was as if the car had fallen into a hole and then bounced up again.

“What the hell? Have I hit something?”

Then it happened again. This time the car was thrown violently to the right. The tires bounced against the curb.

Alex screamed, “Earthquake!”

Jeff saw utility poles toppling with live wires whiplashing everywhere. In all his years of studying earthquakes, this was his first actual experience with one.

“Stay in the car. The tires will insulate us.”

Another tremendous jolt. The car rocked to-and-fro on its suspension.

They heard an explosion. In his rear-view mirror, he could see fire and a plume of smoke a block behind them. Probably a gas main.

Another jolt. Some of the pavement was starting to crack and buckle.

“Why doesn’t it stop?” She gripped Jeff’s arm as the car continued to rock as if it were a boat.

Another explosion, this one to their right.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said, calmly as he could. “We can’t drive or walk very far. We’re going to have to try to fly.”

“Fly! Are you kidding?”

“I saw an airport nearby. I’m a pilot,” he said. What he didn’t tell her was that he’d let his license lapse about 10 years earlier and hadn’t flown since. “We’ve got to make a run on foot for the airport and get ourselves off the ground.”

And they did—down the street to the airport's nearest entrance.  The ground continued to shake, twice so violently they were thrown to their knees. As they neared the gate, a car shot out at high speed, barely dodged a downed utility pole, and continued erratically down the street. Two young men were in the car. He hoped they were who he thought they were.

They ran across the parking lot, power lines no longer a danger. In the distance they heard more explosions. And sirens. Hard to believe, Jeff thought, but the city’s finest are already starting to respond.

On the other side of the flight business office, he saw what he’d hoped to see. There were about a dozen aircraft neatly parked on the flight line. But there was one pulled right up to the office, both its doors ajar. It was the plane he saw landing. The two in the car were probably teacher and student. They’d landed in an earthquake.

The plane was an old Archer 180, very similar to the Warrior he’d trained in and rented periodically while still current.

“That, I hope, is our ticket out of here,” Jeff shouted, pulling her toward the plane. He took her behind the right wing. “Climb up and get in.”

He scrambled around the Piper, ducked his head, contorting to enter the cockpit door.

Yes,” he exulted. The key was still in the ignition. The condition of the cockpit spoke of a hasty retreat, maps and paperwork in disarray. Two headsets, one on the floor, the other between the seats, were still plugged in.

From the condition of both interior and exterior, it was obviously a trainer. The vinyl dash was cracked, the carpet frayed. He wasn’t concerned. The FAA requires 100-hour inspections for rentals, so the plane was probably okay mechanically.

No time for preflight. He flipped on the master and fuel pump, pushed the mixture to rich, cracked open the throttle, ignored the primer, checked to ensure the carb heat was off and turned the key. The hot engine sprang instantly to life. He put his feet on the brakes, revved the engine to 2,000 rpm. It sounded good. 

He checked the fuel gauges—right full, left half. The two hadn’t been up very long.

He began to taxi while handing Alex her headsets. The avionics, navigation lights and strobe had been left on. He told her through the intercom to flip the lever on her door to lock it and to buckle up.

She complied, her face drained of color. The ground continued to dance. A couple of jolts were severe enough to cause the wings to flap like a bird’s.

Jeff checked the wind sock. Unfortunately he was going to have to take off with a tailwind. The field had side-by-side runways—07-25 right and left. The wind, though variable, was primarily out of the west. He taxied to the nearest of the parallel runways. There wasn’t time to taxi all the way to the east end to take off into the wind. 

Christ, I hope this is like riding a bicycle. 

He put in 20-degrees of flap to provide additional lift to keep the roll as short as possible. He didn’t remember if flaps were a good idea in a tailwind takeoff. He made a fast turn onto the runway, almost on two of the three wheels of the tricycle gear. He lined up on the run and pushed the throttle forward. The plane accelerated smoothly, but the ride was bumpy. The runway was cracking and buckling. That, plus the lack of lift with the tailwind, would make for a long take-off roll. 

The plane slewed from side to side on the damaged runway. Jeff had difficulty keeping it centered. He’d used up two-thirds of the relatively short strip, but was barely at rotate speed. He slowly pulled back on the yoke and raised the nose. The stall horn blared immediately. He lowered the nose to increase speed and tried again. This time he was able to kiss the tortured Earth goodbye. 

He gained altitude slowly, allowing the plane to increase speed. The air was turbulent. He hoped Alex wasn’t prone to air sickness. The plane was rocked by updrafts.

“Okay,” Jeff said, almost to himself, “where the hell are we going?” He looked at Alex. “How ‘bout Vegas? We need to get ourselves to a major airport.”

She was too shell-shocked to respond.

“I think that’s our best bet. I don’t know how extensive the quake is, but I doubt it’s affected Vegas on the other side of the San Gabriels. The San Andreas Fault runs along the west side of the mountains.”

He had banked north and they flew over downtown L.A. near the junctions of the 10 and 110. He didn’t know the skyline well, but it looked as if a couple of skyscrapers had collapsed—based on the fires, smoke and debris he could see. There was also a strange white cloud floating above downtown. It looked like a blizzard. In fact, it was. A blizzard of office paper blown skyward from the wreckage by fierce heat-driven updrafts.

The intersection of the two major thoroughfares was a jumble of twisted concrete and rebar. Toy cars littered the ground. A few sections of roadway were still standing on their concrete pillars. Stranded motorists were probably praying the next tremor wouldn’t also hurl them into the void.

To the north Jeff saw a strange sight. It looked like two huge cartoon eyes on a hillside gazing southwest at the destruction of downtown. It took him a moment to realize he was looking at what was left standing of the famed “Hollywood” sign in the Hollywood Hills.

The air was very rough and choppy until he hit about 5,000 feet. Then it began to smooth out a little. He looked over at Alex. She seemed transfixed by the disfigured landscape below.

Jeff scanned the cockpit. In his door’s side pocket was an L.A. sectional aeronautical chart, well creased with use. He unfolded the large, highly detailed and cumbersome map. He could see it overlapped to include Las Vegas near the California-Nevada border. It took him a few seconds to get the map oriented and remember enough to decipher the dense, cryptic to the untrained eye, information it contained.

“Alex,” he said. “I need your help. I have to work with this map for a while. Would you watch for other aircraft? After all this, we don’t need a mid-air collision.”

There was little likelihood of traffic. The commercials all would have been diverted. Privates were probably down by now or out of the area. It was mainly to give her something to do.

It appeared they’d need to exit the L.A. basin through El Cajon Pass and then on to Vegas. He knew he didn’t want to land at McCarran International. It would be extremely busy handling traffic diverted from major L.A. area airports. And, although he doubted it would matter at this stage in the game, he was flying a stolen plane without a license and without a flight plan on file.

He noticed somebody had drawn a red circle on the map around the pass and scrawled:  “h. winds and turb.” He’d done some mountain flying and knew that passes could be dangerous. They tended to funnel winds, speeding them up like a venturi tube. With following winds out of the west, the pass could pose a real problem.

He looked for small, suitable uncontrolled fields in the Vegas area at which to land, and, just across the border, found the whimsically named Sky Ranch—32L—near Sandy Valley. It was right on the flight path, just southwest of Vegas.  

The panel-mounted GPS was on. It was one with which he wasn’t familiar. But, essentially, they all work about the same. He hit “reset” then “go to” and typed in “32L.”  The field had a paved 3,200-foot strip and was about 200 air miles from their location. He made note of the Unicom and Automated Weather Observing Station frequencies. He selected the field, called up the moving map on the GPS and turned northeast to pick up the course.

Next worry, fuel.   He remembered the Archer had 48 gallons in two tanks. A full and half-full tank were more than enough for the 200-mile run to the Nevada field.

He checked his watch and couldn’t believe it was only 9 a.m. The hour or so since the first jolt seemed like a day. The sun, still low over the mountains to the east, was having difficulty penetrating the yellow, smoky pall that hung over the area.

He checked his engine gauges and everything was in the green. He leveled out at 5,000 feet and reduced power to about 75 percent to hit the recommended cruising speed. Jeff calculated their ETA at about 11 a.m.

Now he needed to check the route on the moving map. It confirmed they’d be flying through El Cajon between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. The top of the pass was about 4,200 feet. A major landmark to the left was the 10,000-foot Mt. San Antonio, more commonly known as Mt. Baldy.

He remembered the Archer had a ceiling of about 13,000 feet. To try to avoid trouble he decided to fly over the pass at 8,000 feet and not through it.

Jeff took time to view the devastation below. The low-wing configuration made sight-seeing a little difficult, but the destruction was evident looking ahead or behind. They were flying over a wind farm, the towers and their wind turbines toppled randomly like pick-up sticks. A few leaned at crazy angles, held up by turbine blades embedded in the ground.

Jeff saw Alex looking at the huge field of fallen wind generators. “Those towers probably stood over 200 feet,” he said.

He increased power and began to climb slowly as the mountains loomed in the windshield. The GPS had him jog east; then northeast again to line up with the pass. He could see Mt. Baldy to his left through the haze.

Always the scientist, Jeff observed the folds of the San Andreas Fault running as far as he could see left and right along the base of the mountains. The severity of the quake led him to wonder if this were the “Big One” anticipated for over 100 years. 

He flashed back to an article he’d read a year or two earlier authored by a team from Stanford.  It proposed the bizarre hypothesis that the weight of the nearly four feet of additional water resulting from the melt down of ice sheets and glaciers was deforming the Pacific tectonic plate, building pressure along the San Andreas.  The authors proposed that this pressure could hasten the likelihood of a severe quake.

He had reviewed the paper in his capacity as a member of the editorial committee of the Geologic Journal. The Journal rejected the paper as too speculative.  One reviewer even called it bad science fiction.

As far as he knew, the hypothesis had never been made public.

As he climbed toward the pass, there was increasing turbulence. Even at this altitude, the plane bounced like a yo-yo in the unstable air. At one point they dropped like a stone about 300 feet before recovering. Though belted in, Jeff’s head hit the ceiling. 

“You okay?” he asked. “I think my stomach’s in my throat.”

She nodded, tight lipped. They tightened their harnesses.

Once beyond the mountains, Jon descended to 5,000 feet. The air was relatively stable with good visibility. They passed Barstow on the left and, before crossing the Nevada border, clipped the northern edge of the huge Mojave National Preserve on the right.

As they approached the field, he began to get nervous. What was that line from the old Tom Petty tune?  “Coming down is the hardest thing.” 

About 10 miles out, he dialed up the field’s AWOS. The computer-generated voice told him the wind was 290° at eight, gusting to 17.  He recalibrated the altimeter with the local barometric pressure, and made a mental map of the field and his point of entry to figure out what traffic pattern was appropriate. The runway was 03-21. That meant an 80° cross-wind landing on 21. Great. First landing in 10 years and it has to be cross wind. 

He checked the placard on the panel for the plane’s registration—N244DL.

“Sky Ranch area traffic. This is Archer 2-4-4-Delta-Lima. Eight-miles out, approaching from the southwest for full stop. Will pick up the downwind for 2-1. 4-Delta-Lima.” 

 “Alex, you ready to put her down? Remember, any landing you walk away from is a good one.” She wasn’t amused.

The landing went better than expected. He flipped on the fuel pump, descended to the pattern altitude and, on entry, reduced power, added flaps and pulled up the nose to hit the appropriate speed on each leg of the pattern—downwind, base and final. 

He remembered to crab into the cross wind as he approached. He over corrected, but got it back on the center line for touch down. After a couple of small bounces, they were on terra firma.

Alex looked at him with an expression somewhat akin to admiration.

“Great job,” she said, relief apparent. “How long have you been flying?”

Jeff burst out laughing, a release from the stress of the last three hours.

Once recovered: “I let my license lapse 10 years ago. This is the first time I’ve flown since ’37. I didn’t want to worry you.”

“No shit?”



They ordered a taxi for the half hour ride to Vegas.  First stop was a mall to pick up a carry-on each, a change of clothing and toiletries.  They also replaced their tablets, abandoned with the rest of their stuff on that quaking street in Compton.

Flights to their destinations weren’t available until the next day, so they checked into a small hotel off the Strip for the night.  They were famished and ordered from room service.

During dinner, Jeff turned on CNN. After watching for a few minutes, it became obvious the net knew very little about what had happened and what was going on. Viewers were assured efforts were being made to put reportorial “feet on the street,” but that continued aftershocks, collapsing buildings, explosions and widespread fires made it too dangerous.

At one point, the continuous loop of early aerial footage and repetitious commentary was interrupted by a live report from an L.A. TV station that had been able to get back-up power working. A frazzled and obviously frightened young woman faced the camera. At the right edge of the screen, a dangling fluorescent fixture cast a hot-white glare on the jumbled set.

“Hello,” she quavered. “If you’re receiving this feed, I’m Paula Wyman, a reporter with KABC news. The station is pretty much of a wreck, but some of us were able to get the back-up generator started and one studio more or less operational. We’re using a satcam for the feed. We are not able to transmit locally and our website is down.

“The quake hit around 8 a.m. and it just wouldn’t stop. After the main quakes, big aftershocks continue to rock the area. No one at the station has been able to go out to look at the damage. None of us knows what’s happened to family and friends. All communication is out.”

As if to verify her story, the image shook and the light fixture oscillated. The reporter covered her head as some plaster and debris rained on the set. The tremor passed in a few seconds. She was shaking visibly.

“I don’t know how much longer we can maintain the feed. I can’t believe this is really happening. Some staff members have been killed or hurt. All we could do was drag the bodies to the cafeteria and use what limited medical supplies and knowledge we have to help the injured.  I hope….”

The picture went black.

The anchor, who had been transfixed watching the feed on her monitor, looked up and struggled to gather her wits.

“This is probably the first live account to come out of Los Angeles to this point.” She paused, trying to get her emotions in check. “Our hopes and prayers are with the survivors at KABC and the many thousands of injured throughout the area.”

She stopped, obviously listening to instructions from the control room coming in her head set.

“In case you missed it, we’re going to repeat the feed from KABC. Then I understand we will go live to Stanford University to interview a seismologist who may have some insights into what has happened in L.A.”

After the KABC feed, the anchor returned and read from the teleprompter: “Dr. Thad Nichols, a seismologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, now joins us live.”

Jeff remembered the name.  Nichols was primary author of the paper describing the water-weight hypothesis.

 “Good evening, Dr. Nichols. Thanks for joining us on such short notice. I’m sure this earthquake has rocked the scientific world, too.”

She was getting her form back. “What can you tell us about the severity of the quake?”

“We don’t really know. The measurement scales available to us weren’t able to read its magnitude. The best known, of course, is the Richter Scale, topping out at 10. It came into use in 1935 and, to date, the nearest an earthquake has come to the top of the Richter was the devastating 9.5 event in Chile in 1960. There have been a couple of 9.0s. But quakes of this magnitude, fortunately, are rare.”

“Do you have any idea how far beyond the top of Richter Scale this quake might have been?”

“I’d hate to speculate. But let me give you an example of how powerful the 9.5 quake in Chile was. The Richter provides energy equivalents in TNT all along the scale. A 9.5 event creates energy equivalent to 2.7 gigatons of TNT. By comparison, the Hiroshima nuclear bomb produced an estimated 18 kilotons of energy. Simply put, that’s 2.7 billion tons of TNT verses 18,000 tons of TNT. So the 9.5 was the equivalent of 150 million Hiroshima-sized bombs.”

The anchor looked astonished. “Did you really say that the L.A. quake was stronger than—what was that—150 million Hiroshima bombs?”

“Yes, by and large. But you must remember that earthquake energy is not concentrated in one limited area as is that of a nuclear explosion. This quake’s energy was distributed up and down the 800-mile San Andreas Fault and its subsidiaries. But the L.A. area seems to have gotten the brunt of it.”

“Is there any way to estimate the death toll?”

“Not really. There are too many variables. Obviously, a major quake in an area of low population density will result in fewer deaths and injuries than in a densely populated megaplex like L.A. But early reports indicate the toll will be horrific, not only because of the severity of the quake and continued aftershocks, but because of the total destruction of infrastructure and basic services. Search and rescue operations will be difficult and certainly take more time than many trapped survivors have. Frankly, getting a metropolitan area with a population of 15 million operating at some basic subsistence level will take years.

“Since I haven’t committed it to memory, I brought an abbreviated general description of damage and loss of life associated with a 9.0-plus quake.”

He looked down and began to read: “Near or total destruction. Severe damage or collapse of all buildings. Heavy damage extending to distant locations. In heavily populated areas, tremendous loss of life. Permanent damage to the area’s topography.”

He looked up.

“Dr. Nichols, along those lines, our satellite imagery seems to indicate that several skyscrapers in downtown L.A. have collapsed. Do you have anything on that?”

“Yes, I’m sorry to report that the second tallest structure downtown has fallen. The 1,000-foot HSBC building, recently acquired in its merger with U.S. Bank, has been reduced to rubble.  Another casualty is the third tallest building, the 850-foot Aon Center. It also appears many of the city’s 30 or so other buildings above 500 feet have toppled, as have numerous smaller structures. But the city’s tallest building, the Wilshire Grand Tower at 1,100 feet, is still standing.

“There may be a lesson in this,” Nichols continued. “The former U.S. Bank Tower was built in 1989 to withstand a quake of 8.3 on the Richter. That was thought to be a safe margin. It survived the Northridge 6.4 quake in 1994 as did most other buildings in the area. Their steel-frame construction was thought to be the reason. Steel has good ductile strength and plasticity, allowing buildings to bend and sway, not break, in a severe quake.

“But a study of 100 buildings of various sizes following Northridge indicated that 75 percent had severe cracks and fissures in welded seams and joints. The report concluded that these and other buildings were in jeopardy when the next big quake hits.

“The Wilshire Tower, completed in 2017, on the other hand, beefed up welds and added another quake-fighting technique—base isolation for structural vibration control. That’s probably what saved it. But, though standing, there’s no telling at this point if the building is still structurally viable.”

“Do you have any idea why this quake was so severe? I know everyone’s been talking for decades about ‘The Big One.’ But this has got to be beyond anyone’s worst nightmare.”

Jeff could see the first break in Nichol’s confident demeanor. I know what you’re thinking. Do I tell them or don’t I?

“I don’t know how much detail or scientific gibberish your viewers want, so I’ll keep it relatively simple.  Earthquakes of this magnitude are caused by plate tectonic activity. The San Andreas Fault is the boundary of the Pacific Plate, very slowly moving essentially north, and the North American Plate, moving essentially south, grinding against each other. The quake resulted from of the two plates getting stuck, causing pressure to build along the fault. The quake was the release of that pressure.”

The anchor looked thoughtful. “Then I assume this has been the cause of previous serious quakes along the fault, including the disastrous San Francisco quake early last century. When was it?”

“The date was 1906,” he responded.

“So, if this has been going on all this time, why this monstrous quake now?”

She’s gotcha, Jeff smiled.  Nichols hesitated. Then took the plunge.

“Of course no one is certain. There are several hypotheses including one developed by a team of which I’m a member. Our data seems to indicate that the weight of the additional water contributing to rising ocean levels has deformed the Pacific Plate very slightly, causing it to butt more strongly against the North American Plate. Laypersons view tectonic plates as huge monolithic structures. But often they’re more like broken dinner plates. Various sections can be independent of each other.

“I know this sounds outrageous—until you do the math. The San Andreas System is about 800 miles long, most of it along the California coast. If you go west about 100 miles to include much of the continental shelf, that’s 80,000 square miles. The ocean water level is now at about four feet above the historic benchmark. That means the eastern edge of the Pacific Plate is being weighed down by about 336 billion tons of additional water. And each additional foot will add another 67 billion tons. Is that weight sufficient to cause the plate deformation I just described? We believe it is. Can we prove it? At this point, no.”

The anchor shook her head in apparent disbelief. “You mean to say that the warming is the cause of this earthquake?”

No,” Nichols shot back. “I said it’s one of a number of possibilities. It will take a lot more research before anyone would presume to make a definitive statement. Actually, we may never know for sure.”

She looked at Nichols for an instant, obviously uncertain where she could go from there. “Thanks, Dr. Nichols, for your insights. I hope you will be available to help us understand the scientific aspects of this unbelievable tragedy as our coverage continues.”




There was no repeat of the previous evening.  They showered and fell onto the California king too physically and emotionally exhausted to do more than cuddle.  In the morning, after escorting Alex to her gate, Jeff asked if he could see her again. 

Alex looked a little surprised.

“Are you sure?  I’m afraid I really came on like a slut.  Whatever can you think of me?  She batted her eyelashes and looked down, demurely.

Jeff laughed.  He knew no response was required.




Jeff followed the news after his return to Stillwater with morbid, albeit scientific, fascination and a “there but for the grace of an old Archer go I.”

It was a week before the aftershocks diminished appreciably. The destruction in L.A., Orange and Ventura Counties verged on total. It tapered off slowly south toward San Diego and north to Santa Barbara. 

California and the Federal government worked to coordinate rescue efforts, deploying the National Guard, regular Army troops, the Navy and Coast Guard. There was no plan. How could there be? No one could ever have conceived of a calamity of these proportions. The military and the bureaucrats stepped on each other’s toes, making contradictory statements and going off in different directions.

Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of survivors who could walked until they found rescuers with water, food and medical help. ‘Copters with speakers overflew the carnage, directing people to aid centers and temporary camps hastily being set up on the beaches because it was easier to supply them from water than over land. Those needing immediate evacuation were taken out by boat. Transport ships from the San Diego Naval base, the largest naval facility on the West Coast and home port of the Pacific Fleet, were dispatched as quickly as possible north to the devastated area. Surviving Coast Guard vessels from bases in L.A., Long Beach and San Diego were also pressed into service.  

The focus initially was on saving survivors. The daunting task of digging through millions of tons of rubble would have to wait until heavy equipment could get in, even though everyone knew time for those buried alive was running out.

Looting began well before the aftershocks subsided, but consisted primarily of people looking for water, food, clothing and medical supplies. Not much was left of big ticket consumer items, the usual target of looters in less catastrophic disasters. In any case, few survivors had homes left to outfit with new TVs or refrigerators.

The news media, of course, pulled out all the stops, trying to outdo one another with lurid and sensational coverage. After the second day, with help of the Feds, California pretty effectively shut them down.  Fox News and National Guard choppers had collided over Central L.A., killing all on board. At that point news ‘copters actually dominated the skies in the area. The FAA slapped a no-fly zone over the three counties.

The media screamed “First Amendment” and threatened to sue, knowing full well that the process would take too long to get them back in the game. So the major nets reluctantly agreed to pool coverage, both air and ground.

Of the many unforeseen consequences of the quake was its impact on insurance companies. Only about 15 percent of homes in California carried earthquake insurance, reflecting, Jeff thought, people’s incredible ability to hide from scary realities. But most commercial buildings were covered. According to news reports, several insurance companies with very heavy exposure were already hinting at bankruptcy.

No one wanted to say it, but there were questions as to whether the area should ever be rebuilt. In an interview two weeks after the initial quake, Anita Fernandez, California’s lieutenant governor, came close when she said: “The long-term viability of the area can only be determined after extensive seismic and geologic study. Until such studies are completed and evaluated, permits for reconstruction of infrastructure, commercial and residential buildings will not be granted.”

Later, in class discussions about the quake, Jeff pulled out one of his favorite quotes—from paleontologist Derek Ager:

“Though the theories of plate tectonics now provide us with a modus operandi, they still seem to me to be a periodic phenomenon.  Nothing is world-wide, but everything is episodic. In other words, the history of any one part of the earth, like the life of soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror.”

About the Author

Lorin Robinson’s career has been split primarily between university teaching/administration and business.

He chaired the Journalism Department at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls for 10 years after founding and managing the school’s public radio station. He then joined 3M Company as a marketing communications manager. After 24 years at 3M, he returned to teaching—in the Graduate College of Business, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis.

Robinson has BS and MS Degrees in Journalism from Northwestern University and a PhD in Communication from the University of Minnesota. Over the years he has also worked as a journalist, photojournalist, magazine writer and radio announcer. He and his wife, Linda, split their time between Lake Elmo, MN; Taos, NM and Baja California Sur, Mexico.

His current book - "Tales from The Warming" - is published by Open Books.