The Unseen Scars of Earthquakes

Suddenly faced with mortality, many victims find emptiness in their lives.

Jan. 20, 2010 — -- The horrific earthquake in Haiti will claim lives long after the dust has settled and the last of the nameless victims are tossed into the mass graves on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

An earthquake does much more than destroy buildings and snuff out human lives. It carves memories in the brain that cannot be erased. Without warning, Earth itself has become the enemy of life.

I have covered earthquakes for decades, and scenes from years ago are as fresh now as they were when the earth was still trembling.

"A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet; like a thin crust over a fluid. One second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced."

Charles Darwin penned those lines during the voyage of the HMS Beagle, a five-year sojourn through the history of Earth, from the formation of continents to the evolution of humankind.

The great observer saw something that would not become common knowledge for more than a century -- Earth is alive, with giant masses of land drifting over a molten core, building mountains and destroying lives in a relentless reformation of the surface.

Earthquakes Reshape Earth's Surface, People's Lives

But that process also reshapes lives, some for the better, most for the worse. For longer than I care to admit, I covered earthquakes for the Los Angeles Times, forced to witness the upheaval caused by falling buildings and overturned lives.

Earthquakes are terrifying partly because they strike without warning, unlike most natural disasters, and that forces people to take stock of their lives. Mortality has suddenly loomed large.

Following the 1971 San Fernando Valley earthquake, which hit that Los Angeles suburb just as I was beginning my journalistic career, psychologists studying the emotional impact of the quake were surprised to find that it probably destroyed more marriages than houses.

When the shaking finally subsided and the world began to return to normal, hundreds of people who had felt the earth move in a way they had never felt before looked inward and were not pleased with what they saw. Many found that while they may have convinced themselves they were happy, they had discovered their lives were profoundly empty.

Statistics Don't Reveal Full Scope of Earthquakes' Destruction

Brought face to face with mortality, many walked away from marriages and homes and jobs, the quiet victims of an earthquake.

In 1983, a 6.7 temblor ripped through the small farming community of Coalinga in central California, and residents rejoiced in the fact that no one died, at least not immediately.

A year later, Don Dapelo, new on the job as mayor, reflected on the misleading statistics.

"All the official figures say that even though the town was nearly destroyed by the quake, no one was killed," he told a colleague of mine. "But we know the quake was a killer.

Quakes Have No Social Conscience

"What the figures don't show is the deaths of some of the older people in the weeks and months afterward." He said he and his wife believe his mother-in-law and elder uncle both "simply gave up."

"They both lost everything they had in the quake and never recovered. In the case of my mother-in-law, she just flat went in, laid down and died several weeks after the earthquake."

An earthquake has no social conscience. It demands the greatest price from those who can least afford it. The mansions of the rich usually survive. The hovels of the poor collapse. The old can no longer adjust.

Within an hour after the 1971 quake in Los Angeles, a Times photographer and I were driving into the foothills of the San Fernando Valley, following a trail of increasing destruction.

We arrived at what remained of a veteran's hospital and were surprised to learn that no one had been alerted to its almost total destruction. We used the car's two-way radio to call for help, since it was the only form of communication that was still working.

The hospital had been laid out like a college campus with a dozen old Spanish-style buildings scattered across the hillside. Tall palm trees towered over green lawns in what had been a peaceful setting.

As fate would have it, the worst damages occurred in the building that housed the cardiac care unit. People who were in the hospital because they already had a heart condition were trapped inside a three-story building that had collapsed.

Earthquakes' Unpredictability Makes Them Especially Damaging

One by one, the elderly patients were dug out of the rubble, and some had miraculously lived through it all. They were carried out to the lawn and covered with white sheets, creating a surreal scene with medical teams setting up emergency equipment in a park-like setting.

Never will I forget the look of horror on the faces of those tragic victims, lying on the grass, beneath swaying palms, on a cold February morning. Many were in shock, and their bodies shook uncontrollably. Their eyes stared out in disbelief.

And there, unable to cope with this final insult, many of them died.

Over the years I've witnessed many tragedies like that as I accompanied experts trying to understand how, and why, and when Earth is likely to crush lives and buildings.

Quakes Humble Scientists

There was hope that some way could be found to predict earthquakes. But the effort has humbled some very bright scientists, because earthquakes are random events, all different to some degree, and will likely strike without warning for the rest of human history.

It's that unpredictability that is so damaging. The first warning is usually the hardest shock, and the earth beneath our feet begins to move, tossing aside the "labored works of man," as Darwin put it, in an instant.

As terrifying as it may be, however, those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a modern setting will likely never see anything to match the horror of Haiti. Engineers have figured out how to build structures that can withstand even a major quake, so it's considerably less likely that we will ever see hundreds of thousands die in an earthquake in North America.

Buildings will fail, some people will die, but buildings can be replaced.

What price will the people of Haiti pay after seeing children dying in the streets, unidentified bodies tossed into the back of a dump truck, injured adults slipping away because drugs and medical help arrived too late?

It will be a long time before we know. The impact of a catastrophic earthquake doesn't just last for years, or even decades. It lasts for generations.