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Spectator at the Disaster

Nature in violent action can be spectacle, tragedy and object of scientific wonder all at once

John Dvorak

Hazard as an Occupation

Recently, I asked someone who was retiring after 30 years of studying earthquakes, which included a substantial tenure as head of the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program, whether he was disappointed that a major earthquake—on par with the 1906 event—had not happened on his watch. He answered no.

There was too much suffering after such events, he said. He had dealt with the aftermath of several significant quakes, including the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that, among other things, caused a span of the Bay Bridge that links San Francisco and Oakland to collapse. The official death toll from the earthquake was 57. Property loss was valued at $6 billion. As a result of the disaster, a new Bay Bridge is under construction. Planners hope it will be completed before the next big earthquake shakes the Bay area.

Understand that I am not wishing for destruction by natural forces, but I know that such events are inevitable. Also, I am no stranger to such catastrophes. I studied erupting volcanoes for 16 years. I have seen bodies cremated by passage of the hot hurricane-force wind known as nuée ardente. And I have stood on the hard surface of a recently congealed mudflow, knowing that thousands of people were entombed beneath my feet.

In January 2010, I watched, as millions of others did, with near disbelief as television cameras showed the destruction wrought in Haiti after an earthquake killed nearly a quarter million people and left the capital city, Port-au-Prince, in ruins. A month later, the earthquake in Chile, which was a thousand times stronger than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, collapsed multistoried buildings in Concepión, the second largest city in the country. And during the spring months, I followed, as many did, the progress of repeated ash clouds erupted from an Icelandic volcano, the clouds wreaking havoc on international air travel and crippling world commerce.

And so I share the humanist view and feeling of my seismological friend. But, like Grove Karl Gilbert, I am drawn to experiencing great geologic forces, wanting to be present when they are unleashed. It should come as no surprise that, like Gilbert, I hope to experience the shaking of a major earthquake. I am quite sure others harbor a similar, secret wish.

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