Waiting for the Big One 

Should we be quaking in fear of catastrophic disaster? Nah.

One of the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina was that journalists and politicians predictably raised the specter of "Earthquake Memphis" in the same breath.

Last week, The Commercial Appeal ran a couple of front-page stories on "the greatest natural-disaster threat to the Mid-South," beginning one of them with the ominous thought that "When a catastrophic earthquake rumbles out of the New Madrid fault, it won't just be Memphis' problem."

U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr. wrote a column for the newspaper stating that "the urgent question is, how can we organize ourselves to prepare for and respond to a devastating earthquake that could eclipse the catastrophe in New Orleans?"

And last Friday night, if you passed on the free music on Beale Street and high school football, you could have attended a public forum on earthquake preparedness at the University of Memphis.

These urgent warnings left me unmoved.

I fear falling trees, which crush a few houses on my Midtown street every year or so. I spend a few hundred dollars to trim mine every year and wish that my power lines were buried underground like they are in the suburbs.

I fear hurricanes, which tear up the Gulf Coast I love every year. I try to avoid visiting the coast when there is a storm warning.

I fear ice storms and windstorms, like the ones that hit Memphis in 1993 and 2003. I'm grateful for the linemen who work for MLGW.

I fear drunk drivers, terrorists, criminals with guns, and contagious diseases. I try to avoid them, and I support the DUI and gun laws and the efforts of the police, FBI, federal prosecutors, and research doctors -- even if I don't get an annual flu shot.

I fear fires, and I pay $1,122 a year for homeowners insurance.

But I don't feel the same way about earthquakes. That's a risk I can live with. I won't even spring for the extra $255 a year it would cost for an earthquake policy on my home. For one thing, the 10 percent deductible would leave me liable for the first $18,000 in repairs. The deductible on my standard policy is $500, which tells you something about how the insurance industry views risk.

But the real reason is it just doesn't seem worth it. The famous New Madrid earthquakes were back in 1811 and 1812. No building or home in Memphis that I know of has been knocked down by an earthquake. If I lived in California, where nine of the 10 most devastating earthquakes in the history of the United States have occurred (the other one was in Alaska), then I would probably feel differently.

Most of the preventive measures recommended by federal agencies and preparedness organizations strike me as silly. It's common sense to keep a stock of food, water, and batteries, but does anyone seriously practice "Drop, Cover, and Hold On" at least twice a year? Or replace windows with tempered glass? Or secure china cabinets and book cases to wall studs? Or use double-sided Velcro, bee's wax, fishing line, or bungee cords to hold down trophies, potted plants, computers, and televisions?

If I'm killed by a falling bowling trophy, I figure my number was up.

The U.S. experiences 2 percent of the world's earthquakes. Some 3,300 Americans have died in earthquakes in the last century. More than 1,000 died in Katrina in one week. FEMA has estimated that over time earthquakes could cause annualized losses of $4.4 billion nationwide and $17 million in Memphis. The Katrina cleanup could cost $250 billion.

The first impulse of journalists and politicians after a natural disaster is to visit the scene and tell the story. The second impulse is to find someone to blame. And the third impulse is to propose a "solution" which involves shifting millions or billions of tax dollars around.

As individuals and as communities, we make decisions about risks and rewards. Equating earthquake risk in Memphis with earthquake risk in California or hurricane risk on the Gulf Coast is illogical, irresponsible, and will lead to bad public policy.

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