Saturday, May 30, 2015

"San Andreas": The worst possible case for the Big One in California

As for the megadisaster theory in the 3-D summer popcorn flick “San Andreas” (directed by Brad Peyton), it’s pretty grim. As the film opens, a girl is rescued from a new canyon as it opens up beneath her when she is driving a desert mountain road. At Cal Tech, Dr.  Lawrence  (Paul Giamatti) lectures about the overdue aspect of the San Andreas fault.  He then is visiting Hoover Dam (which I visited in December 1997) when it crumbles underneath him with a 7.1 quake.  Barely having escaped, he learns that this was a pre-quake for the Really Big One, not just one quake in LA, but a “swarm” of 9.5 quakes that will run from Los Angeles to San Francisco and destroy both cities. 
Twice the film shows wave-like motion in the ground, and then downtown buildings not just pancake, they topple.  In San Francisco, the same will happen (the hero pilot Ray, Dwayne Johnson, is trying to rescue his daughter, Carla Gugino, and traverses the distance, stealing a truck in the process).  At one point, the story lands literally at second base in ATT Park – and it’s a good thing the Giants are on the road, because it will be leveled soon. In San Francisco, there will also occur an 80-foot tsunami, which will tear apart the Gold Gate Bridge.  All is lost.

In an early lecture, Giamatti explains the 9.2 Alaska quake in 1964, as well as the earlier 9.5 in Chile, which created an 85-foot tsunami which destroyed Hilo, Hawaii (which I actually visited in 1980). It is possible for a landslide associated with the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary Islands to create a tsunami which could hit the US East Coast with a 100+ tsunami.

The movie occasionally shows extensive media coverage, which probably could not continue from the downtown areas if this really happened.  The film trivializes the effect such an event would have on the economy of the whole country.  Many people would have to start over with nothing, whatever their station in life before. It sounds horrific, but in a sense this natural disaster is an “equalizer”, unlike Hurricane Katrina.  One of the characters says he hasn’t “bothered” to have children because he is too “busy” building the tallest residence in San Francisco.

Expert geologists say that there really is no possibility of a San Andreas earthquake in the 9.0+ range, and that kind of tsunami for San Francisco wouldn't happen.  But they warn that this is possible further north, from Seattle up to Alaska, and that the supervolcano caldera under Yellowstone can create substantial risk of catastrophe.  Furthermore, of the the San Andreas created a canyon of is own, there would no longer be friction to sustain an earthquake. The Hoover Dam is not as vulnerable as the movie makes it look (an irony in drought).

The official site is here  (New Line and Village Roadshow).

I saw the film in large auditorium at the Regal Ballston Commons before a small audience Saturday afternoon.  A good comparison would be NBC's TV miniseries "10.5", where the continent splits in half. 
Wikipedia attribution link for iKluft photo of fault under Creative Commons 4.0 Share-Alike license. 

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