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Earthquake! California Fears Fear itself!

Inside the golden state’s earthquake hysteria

Earthquake (seisomograph)

Seismograph instrument recording ground motion during earthquake

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Atlantis will rise,
Sunset Boulevard will fall.
Where the beach used to be
Won’t be nothin’ at all.
—Cass Elliot,
“California Earthquake”

Los Angeles—

It’s time for the world to end—again. Or at least a hefty chunk of it: All California west of the San Andreas fault, which includes just about everything from San Francisco south to the Mexican border. Gonna go slidin’ right into the sea. In April.

Outrageous? Not only that—according to earthquake scientists—it’s also quite impossible.

Nonetheless, it is “the California earthquake,” the title of Cass Eliott’s first single record, released some months ago, that is occupying the conversation and thought of much of California these days. Also, quite a lot of the activity.

Item: Last fall Mrs. Elizabeth Steen and her family left San Francisco for Spokane, Washington, after Mrs. Steen said she had had visions of massive earthquake destruction. Because she was a “mystic” with a following, at least 35 other families followed her.

Item: A number of Pentecostal preachers in southern California said they had been visited by God, who warned them California was to be punished for its sinful ways. So on God’s advice, they packed up their congregations and headed inland—to Missouri and Tennessee.

Item: A spokesman for Los Angeles city schools says some children are so disturbed by the earthquake stories, teachers have felt compelled to include survival procedures along with New Math (while the local Civil Defense office is swamped by requests for a series of free disaster-and-survival pamphlets).

Item: In mid-March about a dozen members of a “telepathic society” that claims to be 6,000 years old—the Fellowship of the Ancient Mind—visited city hall to apply for a salvage permit to “restore the city” after the earthquake hits. (Sadly, they hadn’t the required $66 fee.)

There’s been so much talk, so much activity, in fact, the university that is home base to the world’s leading authority on earthquakes, Dr. Charles Richter, has issued a three-page statement. Caltech’s basic message: “Wild predictions of disastrous earthquakes are not supported by scientific evidence and are frightening many Californians needlessly.”

The statement says the San Andreas fault, responsible for most quakes in the past, has been in existence (running from Mendocino County to the Imperial Valley) for five-million years … and movements probably will continue for millions more.

But, Caltech’s scientists say, “an earthquake is no more predictable now than in the past, nor is one day more probable for an earthquake than any other. There is no such thing as earthquake weather.” Richter termed the predictions that part of the state would fall into the Pacific “clearly ridiculous.”

The statement added that it is not the earth movement people have to fear, for this generally amounts to no more than 10 to 20 feet at the quake’s center. “Very few people are ever injured or killed by earthquakes as such,” Richter said. “They lose their lives or are injured in the collapse of old and unsafe buildings which should be reinforced or replaced, or in fires which get out of control.”

Richter also denied the story he was leaving the state. He said he would leave his home in Pasadena for a period of three days for a speaking engagement in Washington, but then would be returning immediately thereafter.

Sources of the earthquake stories range from the psychics and ministers who’ve already left the state to the late mystic from Virginia Beach, Edgar Cayce, who once said the monstrous quake would occur “sometime between 1958 and 1998.” (His followers have narrowed it down to April, 1969.)

The source blamed most often, though, is Curt Gentry, a San Francisco writer who authored The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California for G.P. Putnam’s. In this book, Gentry devoted three chapters to an earthquake that served but to complete the devastation Man already has started in the state. He says the quake was “merely a literary device,” yet Caltech scientists claim the start of the worst rumors coincided with the book’s publication last November.

(Strangely, no one has yet mentioned a similar book, The Second Atlantis, an Ace paperback by science fiction writer Robert Moore Williams, another California resident. This book even more vividly than Gentry’s chronicles the minute-by-minute earthquake destruction of the state.)

There is something positive coming out of all this, of course. Many are hoping this interest in earthquakes, however ill-founded, will cause steps to be taken leading to a national program to reduce effects of quakes and other natural disasters. It may be as Gentry himself hopes — that earthquake research centers will now find it simpler to acquire funds, that the public will push for more rigid building codes.

Day after day
More people come to L.A.
Shh … don’t you tell anybody
The whole place shakin’ away.
Where can we go
When there’s no San Francisco?
Better get ready
To tie up the boat in Idaho.
—Shango
“Day After Day”

In This Article: Coverwall, Earthquakes

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