U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Jones turns in a glancing tour of natural calamities through time.
The “big one” of the title” is the earthquake that will someday level Southern California, one that will rattle seven times or more as long as the Northridge quake of 1994 and cause significant damage. In the ShakeOut exercise that the author led in 2007-2008, the model she employed presumed the destruction of 1,500 buildings and the loss of 1,800 lives, with another 53,000 or so injured. “Life will not return to any semblance of normality for quite some time for the residents of Southern California,” she writes. There’s a good book waiting to be written entirely on such a scenario, something along the lines of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), but Jones moves on to less fruitful ground in examining the effects of other “big ones” on human civilization. Her take on Pompeii, for instance, is a little thin, and her speculation that natural disaster divides the blame-the-gods attitude of the Romans from the blame-the-humans attitude of the Jews again needs a book all its own. Much better is the author’s account of the catastrophic effect of the devastating Tangshan earthquake of 1976. According to the author, that quake played a major role in the deflation of the image of Mao Zedong as infallible and brought about the defeat of the leftists at the close of the Cultural Revolution. Inarguably, big disasters produce big political consequences, as witness another of Jones’ cases in point, Hurricane Katrina. The author gets points for her projection of how we will respond when the big one finally hits, with a mixture of conspiracy theory (the scientists knew but didn’t say) and blame, whether of FEMA or the government or “the sinners of the hedonistic La-La Land” for living there in the first place.
Uneven, but of interest to readers with a bent for natural disaster—and to those keen on surviving it.