It goes without saying that in California, the fascination, the fear, and the horror of seeing the impact of Friday's earthquake in Japan all lie in how closely we can identify with the calamity visited upon the people there. Geologists tell us that a 9.0 earthquake isn't likely on our little section of tectonic crust; earthquakes of that magnitude have happened further north, off the coast of Northern California coast and the Pacific Northwest. That distance is comforting, and so is the distance in time: no quake so powerful has taken place here since Europeans appropriated the territory.
So—a 9.0 could happen, but seemingly only a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Granted that the geologists and seismologists know a lot more about that than the rest of us, let us note that it will not take such an unimaginably powerful shake to bring our world down around us. The 1995 earthquake in Kobe, a big port about 260 miles southwest of Tokyo, killed at least 5,500 people, injured at least 25,000 more, and wrecked much of the city and surrounding region. That quake was a 6.9, well within what we can expect from either of our best-known and most dangerous hometown faults, the San Andreas and the Hayward. So, the lesson in all we're seeing in Japan—the ruined infrastructure, the potential for an unforeseen sequel catastrophe (the failure of the quake region's nuclear power plants), the survivors' long wait for outside help—is that something very, very similar could happen here any time. Do you know where your gas shutoff valve is?
(Tomorrow morning, KQED's Quest will feature a story on the dangers posed by the Hayward Fault. Yesterday, we posted an interview that KQED's Gretchen Weber did with Tom Brocher of the U.S. Geological Survey on the potential of the San Andreas Fault to produce a monster temblor.)