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close this bookCrucibles of Hazard: Mega-Cities and Disasters in Transition (United Nations University, 1999, 544 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the document1. Introduction - James K. Mitchell
View the document2. Natural disasters in the context of mega-cities - James K. Mitchell
View the document3. Urbanization and disaster mitigation in Tokyo - Yoshio Kumagai and Yoshiteru Nojima
View the document4. Flood hazard in Seoul: A preliminary assessment - Kwi-Gon Kim
View the document5. Environmental hazards in Dhaka - Saleemul Huq
View the document6. Natural and anthropogenic hazards in the Sydney sprawl: Is the city sustainable? - John Handmer
View the document7. Disaster response in London: A case of learning constrained by history and experience - Dennis J. Parker
View the document8. Lima, Peru: Underdevelopment and vulnerability to hazards in the city of the kings - Anthony Oliver-Smith
View the document9. Social vulnerability to disasters in Mexico City: An assessment method - Sergio Puente
View the document10. Natural hazards of the San Francisco Bay mega-city: Trial by earthquake, wind, and fire - Rutherford H. Platt
View the document11. There are worse things than earthquakes: Hazard vulnerability and mitigation capacity in Greater Los Angeles - Ben Wisner
View the document12. Environmental hazards and interest group coalitions: Metropolitan Miami after hurricane Andrew - William D. Solecki
View the document13. Findings and conclusions - James K. Mitchell
View the documentPostscript: The role of hazards in urban policy at the millennium - James K. Mitchell
View the documentAppendices
View the documentContributors
View the documentOther titles of interest

11. There are worse things than earthquakes: Hazard vulnerability and mitigation capacity in Greater Los Angeles - Ben Wisner

Editor's introduction

A former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, once claimed that, wherever American cities were going, his was going to get there before the rest. In the annals of urban hazard he might well have been speaking of Los Angeles. For here one can observe the interplay of many hazard variables that exist separately in cities elsewhere. Greater Los Angeles experiences a range of severe physical risks that is scarcely equalled by any other mega-city. It has deployed some of the world's most sophisticated large-scale science and engineering responses to environmental risk, as well as legions of professional and volunteer emergency personnel, and it continually throws up nascent self-help grass-roots hazard-management initiatives. The city region also exhibits sharp contrasts between first world affluence and third world squalor, exacerbated by deeply differentiating demographic, cultural, and political forces that are themselves a reaction to South California's version of the global post-industrial crisis. Moreover, the contradictory role of southern California's entertainment industry as dream factory in a setting of gritty reality is not to be discounted. It is a community conceit that almost anything might happen in Los Angeles, though experience suggests that this has not yet included many of the hazard adjustments that are so urgently needed.

Fig. 11.1. Growth of population of Greater Los Angeles, 1781-1990 (Source: adapted from The Economist, 13 October 1990, p.15)


Los Angeles has grown enormously during the past 60 - 70 years, including a hefty addition of 2 million people in the 1980s (fig. 11.1). It currently includes over 15 million inhabitants, who occupy an area of 34,000 sq. miles (88,000 km2) spread over five counties in southern California. At its centre lies the city of Los Angeles (3.5 million in 1990), surrounded by the county of Los Angeles (combined population of 8.3 million in 1986), and both contained by the Los Angeles - Riverside - Orange County CSMA (Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area) (15,047,772 in 1992), herein referred to as Greater Los Angeles.

Greater Los Angeles is a mega-city composed of many communities and striking human contrasts. It includes 160 municipalities and accounts for roughly one-half of California's entire population. With a gross output of US$ 336 billion (1989), the economy of Greater Los Angeles is bigger than that of many nations. A large proportion of the residents of the city of Los Angeles (LA) are poor, young, unemployed, and non-White, whereas many suburban municipalities are islands of relative affluence and privilege. Twenty-six "edge cities" are located in the five-county region within 60 miles (96 km) of central Los Angeles (Garreau, 1991, p. 283). There, on the periphery of the mega-city, some 1.5 million jobs were created in the 1980s.1 This is where the White working class migrated to during the 1970s and early 1980s, leaving the less mobile African-American working class and newly arrived Hispanic and Asian populations behind in LA city.

1 Davis (1993a, p. 16, fn. 31) defines the "edge-city rim" slightly differently and comes up with the figure of 2 million new jobs between 1972 and 1989 in a region that is just 2 per cent Black (versus LA County with 11 per cent Black population and LA City with 14 per cent Black).

The population of this mega-city is highly stratified by race and income. Although Whites are numerically dominant, the African-American population has grown steadily since the Second World War. More recent immigrants have come from many parts of Asia and the Pacific, while existing Spanish speakers have been greatly augmented by arrivals from throughout the hemisphere, especially Mexico. The city of Los Angeles ranks second only to Mexico City in numbers of Mexican-born inhabitants. Population shifts in LA have been particularly dramatic. In 1990, the city's racial and ethnic composition was: White, 36 per cent; Hispanic, 40 per cent; African-American, 14 per cent; Asia and the Pacific, 10 per cent (Bureau of the Census, 1992, p. 36). A decade earlier there were considerably fewer members of minority groups (Bureau of the Census, 1988, p. 610): White, 61 per cent; Hispanic, 28 per cent; African-American, 17 per cent; Asia and the Pacific, 7 per cent. The process of uneven development, together with extremely rapid regional growth, has combined to increase risks of social, technological, and natural hazards in Greater Los Angeles. Vulnerability to the range of hazards is not evenly distributed across the population, but is differentiated by ethnicity and class. The ability of governments and local communities to mitigate hazards is severely curtailed by social, political, economic, and spatial factors.

"Top - down" hazard-reduction initiatives are limited by extreme fragmentation, decentralization, and complexity of governmental structure (federal, state, counties, municipalities, semi-autonomous bodies) and by the overwhelming influence of real estate and financial interests that have promoted weakly regulated growth for nearly a century. Economic recession and restructuring have eroded the tax base of government agencies thereby affecting their ability to plan, train, monitor, regulate, inspect, and deliver services. In addition, the city of Los Angeles has never undergone the democratic reforms that affected large cities of the eastern United States in the past few decades. Nearly 5 million people are represented by only 15 councillors, who control enormous precincts. By contrast, New York City has enlarged its council and other cities have created intermediate levels of government to encourage citizen participation (Davis, 1993b, p. 52). "Bottom - up" mitigation - action by communities on a local scale - is limited by social anomie and possessive individualism. Collective action is hindered by narrow self-interest (e.g. the NIMBY "not in my backyard" phenomenon), by the complex mosaic of ethnic and economic groups, and by inter-ethnic competition among the poor. There is also a long history of te fear, which has fuelled the disruption of grass-roots organizations. This began with early "open shop" anti-union activities (Clark, 1983, pp. 281 - 282) and has since included: clandestine police surveillance of citizen groups (Davis, 1990, p. 298); deportation of Chicano labour organizers (Clark, 1983, p. 302); and police attacks on peaceful demonstrations of African-Americans (Martin, 1993), Hispanics (Acosta, 1973), and workers in the "Justice for Janitors" movement of the 1990s (Olney, 1993).

Recent economic and political changes have hindered public initiatives in a variety of ways. Economic restructuring has cost Greater Los Angeles at least 200,000 traditional, high-wage industrial jobs since 1990 (Davis, 1993b, p. 46). This economic shock has reduced the availability of tax revenues that might have financed "top - down" hazard-mitigation measures such as enforcement of air pollution regulations and may have decreased the capacity of the poor to cooperate with each other in community-based activities such as hazard assessment and mitigation. In the eyes of one observer, there has been a "virtual meltdown of local government" involving the abandonment of various social and health services in the wake of a recent 25 per cent "doomsday" reduction of LA County's budget (Davis, 1993b, p. 44).

Economic duress contributed strongly to a widely publicized rebellion of the poor in 1992 - the so-called "Los Angeles riots" (Williams, 1993). This is the latest in a long history of rebellions by LA minorities (African-American, Hispanic, and others) against perceived police brutality and injustice (e.g. the 1943 Zoot Suit riots; the 1965 Watts rebellion). Mexican -Americans and many other minorities are angry that they are excluded from all but minimum-wage employment, that they live in deteriorating conditions, and that they receive little respect from other Angelenos.2 Poverty in the inner cities of the region is increasing at a rapid rate compared with the suburban ring (see table 11.1), and it is concentrated among members of racial and ethnic minority groups (Massey and Denton, 1989; Massey and Eggers, 1990).

2 Davis (1990, p. 316) identifies 230 Black and Latino gangs, and another 81 Asian gangs, including those composed of Filipino, Vietnamese, and Cambodian youth, as well as young Chinese from Pasadena "unwilling to spend lifetimes as busboys and cooks."

Table 11.1 Economic welfare: Central cities compared with suburban ring

Central cities' average as % of suburban cities' average



Households in poverty



% of suburban income



Source: Adapted from Davis (1993a), p. 14.

Growth and uneven development in a geomorphically unstable setting (Cooke, 1984) have also created one of the most hazardous urban environments on the planet. Los Angeles expanded rapidly outward from its original site on the coastal lowland, filling in the flat-floored basins of San Fernando, San Gabriel, and San Bernadino (Wittow, 1979, p. 347). The extensive urbanized valleys and low alluvial plains are connected by a dense network of freeways and minor roads that carry more than 10 million motor vehicles.3 A mountain chain (San Gabriel mountains, San Bernadino Mountain, and Mt. San Jacinto) acts as a topographic and climatic barrier that seals off this urban zone from the interior (Wittow, 1979, p. 347), and traps its infamous photochemical smog. Nearer the ocean, the Santa Monica mountains are somewhat cooler and less smoggy, but prone to wildfires, landslides, and beach erosion. This is a semi-arid area and extensive urbanization4 has been possible only because massive amounts of water (and electricity) have been imported from distant sources. During the 1990s, the mega-city's insatiable appetite for water collided with regional-scale drought combined with competing demands on these sources, and a major crisis ensued. Ironically, flooding is also a significant LA hazard that has its origins in winter storms, steep topography, and large areas of impermeable surface. Storm discharges that exceed water treatment capacities, illegal disposal of hazardous chemicals, and a growing population have combined to create a serious coastal pollution problem.

3 The total urban street and freeway system in the city of Los Angeles alone is 24,906 miles (40,000 km). This is the second-largest urban transportation system in the United States (behind the New York - Newark urban region) (Carpenter and Provorse et al., 1993, p. 354).

4 The city of Los Angeles has a population density of only 7,426 persons per sq. mile (2,867.2/km2), covering 469.3 sq. miles (181.2 km2), compared with New York City's density of 23,701 persons per sq. mile (9,151/km2) and the Manhattan density of 52,415/sq. mile (20,237.5/km2) (Bureau of the Census, 1992, p. 36).

The hazards notwithstanding, Los Angeles has grown rapidly for 70 years, and only now may be reaching the limits of what is socially and environmentally supportable. This chapter will discuss these twin limits to LA's growth. Challenges to social stability are deeply rooted and have been sharpened by economic restructuring and globalization during the 1980s. Different ethnic groups that exhibit extremes of wealth and poverty have been starkly juxtaposed here since early in the history of southern California. Polarization has increased in the 1980s and 1990s. Continuation of the rapid pace of urban growth, especially when combined with predicted global environmental changes including sealevel rise and atmospheric warming, can only increase the burden of many environmental hazards in Greater Los Angeles: seismicity, drought, wildfire, landslides, beach erosion, collapse of sewage-treatment facilities, coastal pollution, epidemic waterborne disease, air pollution, and increased cardio-respiratory diseases of various kinds. Given the complex pattern of government and the distribution of winners and losers in recent economic restructuring, it is unlikely that a general commitment to managed growth will emerge in the urban region as a whole, despite the fact that its physical infrastructure and social stability are so obviously interconnected. White suburbanites who fled the San Fernando valley into "edge cities" of Ventura County and who currently continue to settle in Orange, San Bernadino, and Riverside counties, hold tightly to the myth of separateness from LA and its social and physical problems. Ironically, it is the rapid growth of these edge cities, combined with an anti-urban political shift in state and federal legislative bodies, that has condemned the region's older core (the city of Los Angeles) to chronic conflict. Indeed, metaphors of warfare are often used to characterize the mega-city: struggles between urban governments and gangs. These deserve the label "low-intensity warfare," whereas a kind of "trench warfare" sets citizens against nature.5

5 War metaphors about LA are frequently used by the Mayor, police officials, urban planners, and gang members. Analogies are drawn with Bosnia, Viet Nam, Beirut, Lebanon, and Israel.

The mega-city

The rise of Los Angeles to prominence can be partly explained by classic urban location theories of Christaller, Losch, Berry (1977), and others. These assume that systems of settlement are arranged in population hierarchies and spatial patterns according to principles of efficient travel by producers and consumers in search of markets and other services. In Los Angeles, comparative advantages over neighbouring communities were secured first when the railroad from Chicago reached it in 1885, later when a deepwater port was constructed in the vicinity and connected to the city by a narrow corridor of annexed territory (1890 - 1909), and again when the Panama Canal was completed in 1914 (Goetz, 1985, p. 312). But other factors, which do not normally feature in urban location theories, were also highly important to the mega-city's development. These include advertising, government investment, the availability of a non-unionized labour force, speculative building of transportation systems, LA's monopoly of the southern California water-supply system, and inter-racial tensions.

Sustained and flamboyant promotion of the local environment had a great deal to do with the city's early growth. Between the late 1880s and 1930 a quarter of all new arrivals came for health reasons or accompanied a relative who was drawn by the sunny, dry climate (Clark, 1983, p. 271, citing Baur). The hyperbolic promotion of LA's attractions (e.g. sea, mountains, health, and modernity) during this period foreshadowed the city's current postmodern identity crisis: confusion of image with reality, dream become nightmare. Twentieth-century growth spurts took place after petroleum was discovered in 1920 and triggered the creation of LA's refining and chemical industries. The Second World War brought a Kaiser steel mill to Fontana and sparked the building of aerospace plants, which eventually grew into a mighty empire of defence contractors during the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1965 the US government made US$ 100 billion worth of defence purchases in southern California (Clark, 1983, p. 285). Once established as a growth centre, Greater Los Angeles attracted a diversified range of additional industries, including those that migrated there in search of a non-union labour force (Bernard and Rice, 1983).

The transformation of Greater Los Angeles' natural environment and urban form owed much to electric trolley lines and automobile freeways. These were pushed out onto agricultural land ahead of urban builders, at first ensuring that the city of Los Angeles would grow, and then facilitating the creation of competing edge-cities that eventually superseded it. Much has been written about the exodus of LA's working-class and middle-class urban dwellers to suburbs and satellite towns (Berry, 1976; Steiner, 1981). The lure of suburban jobs and White fear of inner cities both contributed to this process. The edge cities contained new industries and 4,000 shopping malls. The working poor and the "underclass" were left behind, together with dying central business districts and old industrial facilities. To some extent, outward migration has been balanced by gentrification in the city of Los Angeles. This has produced a complex mosaic of affluent residential and commercial enclaves adjacent to poorer areas. These complement the historical refuges of privileged groups in the Santa Monica mountains, in the Hollywood Hills, and beside the beaches.

Very little investment, demolition, building, or rehabilitation takes place in any city without a complex interplay between government agencies and major economic interests (Dear and Scott, 1981; Harloe and Lebas, 1981; Harvey, 1973; Tabb and Sawers, 1978). Los Angeles would probably not exist as anything but a small agricultural service centre if federal and state governments had not provided financing for massive infrastructural investments: an elaborate system that brings in water from hundreds of miles away (see fig. 11.2), sewage-treatment plants, the deep-water port at San Pedro, the Boulder dam, the San Onofre nuclear power station, and freeways.

Moreover, decisions about the internal structural development of the city have not so much followed the dictates of economic rationality as stemmed from self-serving alliances between politicians and investors. For example, the powerful Community Redevelopment Authority (CRA) is composed of mayoral appointees not subject to public recall, most of whom come from the business community. They have power to designate redevelopment areas, to commandeer land by means of compulsory purchase, and to raise money. Tax dollars generated by CRA developments return to the CRA, not to the city of Los Angeles. The state of California insists that 20 per cent of this revenue be spent for low-income housing. On balance, however, poor and minority communities have fared badly because of massive displacement owing to a series of 18 redevelopment projects (Sudjic, 1993, pp. 100 - 102). These and other minority neighbourhoods - especially in Hispanic areas - have also been fragmented by newly constructed freeways.

Fig. 11.2. Primary distribution system for water (Source: adapted from Nelson and Clark, 1976, p. 241)

The major influxes of African-American and Hispanic populations took place as an indirect effect of federal government policy. African-Americans from the US South came during the Second World War to find work in the rapidly expanding defence, construction, and transportation industries (Goetz, 1985, p. 309).6 Many Mexicans eventually settled in Los Angeles as the indirect effect of the bracero programme launched by the US government, which recruited Mexican farm labourers for California's important agri-business sector to replace poor White farm labour that had shifted to higher-paying jobs in war-related industry. Civil wars in Central America and uneven development have continued to drive Spanish-speaking people over the border, legally or illegally, so that now both the city and the county of Los Angeles are rapidly approaching a Hispanic majority (see fig. 11.3).

6 A similar migration in the San Francisco Bay Area during the war led to the development of one of the most stable and affluent Black working-class communities on the West Coast, West Oakland, which grew up around the high-wage jobs in the rail and port complex there.

Fig. 11.3. Hispanic population in Greater Los Angeles (Source: adapted from Davis, 1990, pp. ix and x)

Los Angeles as a challenge to urban theorists

It has already been noted that explanations of the growth of Los Angeles do not readily follow from conventional urban location theory. This mega-city has also stimulated a variety of speculations about other aspects of urbanization. For example, Los Angeles casts new light on the long-running debate about links between the size and shape of cities and the quality of life of their inhabitants. Two opposing camps - the "garden city" decentralists, beginning with Ebenezer Howard (1898) and Camillo Sitte (1889), and the "modern" centralists, who hark back to Le Corbusier (1918) (Sudjic, 1993, pp. 10 - 32) - have taken up different positions in the debate. In LA, however, excessive urban size and ill-adapted urban form are not the main factors that undermine living conditions. Greater Los Angeles is clearly too big, as evidenced by the crippling pressure it places on distant water sources and the damage it has done to the regional environment. But, even at its present size, this mega-city could be made a fulfilling and livable home for its people. The problems will not be cured by curtailing the size or rearranging the geometry of urban centres; they require political and economic reforms in the first instance.

Scholars such as Jean Gottmann (1961, 1983) and Emrys Jones (1990) have suggested that all human settlement will ultimately take on the size and general form of Greater Los Angeles. As early as 1968, Kevin Lynch believed that by the year 2000 a majority (60 per cent) of the US population would live in four "giant megalopolitan regions" that covered only 7 per cent of the country's land area (1971, p. 523). Lynch's view is an optimistic one and he believed that it was possible for the megalopolis to be a new kind of city that would lift its residents out of ignorance as well as poverty. His "educative city" is similar to the "transactional metropolis" of Gottmann and Jones and the "informational city" of Castells (1989). All reflect a post-industrial, information-based economy that facilitates and requires flexibility, diversity, and rapid change. This new world urban order is organized around knowledge-workers who are based at home or in satellite offices in edge cities. Jones believed the new patterns were already apparent in places such as the great obijo-toshi that stretches from Tokyo to Osaka, the corridor of large cities that runs from Glasgow and Hamburg to Lyons and Rome, and the "Boswash," "Chipitts," and "Sansan" urban regions of North America (1990, pp. 133 - 139). Doxiades extrapolated the process to produce a global "ecumenopolis" - a single world city (Jones, 1990, p. 135).

Mega-city theorists have not delved deeply into the economic and policy factors that encourage cities to "evolve" in this direction. But they are aware of the gap that separates their idealized formulations from reality, especially the existence of serious urban environmental problems and equally serious problems of race and class (Jones, 1990, pp. 163 - 212). Nevertheless, I believe that the situation in Greater Los Angeles is more lethal and urgent than most theorists have realized. With high school drop-out rates approaching 80 per cent in South Central LA, the "educative" city takes on an ironic meaning. During the 1980s, most of the institutions in what Davis (1990, p. 75) calls the "museum archipelago"7 expanded and redecorated, at the same time that the physical infrastructure of the city, including its major sewage treatment plant, deteriorated. The Malibu firestorm of 1993 neatly encapsulates the paradox. Probably set by arsonists, it nearly devoured the Getty Museum. So much for the educative city!

7 A narrow swathe of territory running from the J. Paul Getty Museum near the Pacific Coast Highway in the west to the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in the east in Pasadena, with the UCLA campus, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Southwest Museum in between.

This does not mean that the megalopolitan theorists are entirely wrong. Globalization is real (Angotti, 1993, pp. 22 - 25; Harvey, 1989; Palloix, 1977; Taylor and Thrift, 1986). However, the new world order is, in fact, also a new world disorder (Thrift, 1986). What the theorists have left out of their analyses is the historical fact of uneven development (Smith, 1984). Global integration has rapidly and brutally shifted industrial jobs from region to region, provoked indebtedness, and encouraged corruption and militarization. Within mega-cities such as Greater Los Angeles that are the fruit of globalization, uneven development has produced zones of dereliction and despair, as well as thousands of mini-malls.

Contemporary urban issues and trends

The factors that are most likely to bring major change to the Los Angeles region over the next two decades are economic, political, and environmental. They operate at scales from the local to the global. Only some of them are widely recognized and debated.

Successive legislatures and governors of California have tended to view the state's large cities as tax burdens. One reflection of this is Proposition 13, a measure that was passed by voters in 1978. It rolled back and capped property taxes, thereby precipitating a major fiscal crisis for many local governments, including, especially, those in San Francisco and Los Angeles. A further expression of unwillingness to aid cities occurred after the second Los Angeles uprising in 1992, when the state legislature not only refused to fund disaster relief for affected businesses and individuals but mandated further cuts in state funds for cities and counties. (This contrasted sharply with the compassion it showed to victims of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.) The results were predictable; during the fiscal year 1984/85, LA City and County owed creditors a total of US$ 10.5 billion. The city was already spending 22 per cent of its budget on police, 12 per cent on sewerage and sanitation, and less than 1 per cent on health and hospitals (Bureau of the Census, 1988, pp. 54 and 615). This continuing crisis raises painful questions for Greater LA. If sufficient money cannot be found to fund human services, infrastructural maintenance, and routine governance, is it likely that there will be new expenditures for hazard mitigation and preparedness? Where will the political support for bond issues and other means of raising revenue come from when the political climate is anti-urban and specifically unsympathetic to the city of Los Angeles?

The financial plight of city government also receives little attention from the federal government. Nationally, there has been a marked tendency over the past three US presidencies to disinvest in the cities, especially Los Angeles. In his provocative and thoughtful essay, "Who Killed LA: The Verdict Is Given," Mike Davis (1993b) presents federal funding figures (as a percentage of cities' budgets) that speak for themselves. The federal contribution to LA's budget has shrunk to almost nothing at a time when the states have also been labouring under federally mandated requirements to meet national standards for a wide range of environmental pollutants (e.g. the Clean Air Act). It might be asked how the federal government could tolerate the social and physical decline of the country's second-largest population centre? Although only a minority of scholars and activists are presently putting the issue in these terms, over the next two decades it will clearly become the focus of a new debate about urban policy.

At the regional level, Greater Los Angeles is embroiled in continuing disputes with the state of Arizona, with much of northern California, with residents of the Owens Valley, and with the Hopi Indians of New Mexico about preferential access to various natural resources that sustain the mega-city. These include: water supplies from the Colorado River, the Sacramento River, and the Owens Valley;8 and coal that provides Greater LA with cheap electricity. A new wave of environmental consciousness has brought with it a willingness to charge resource-users the "external" costs of land destruction, air and water pollution, and other impacts that are felt at the point of production. It is likely that such actions will significantly add to the economic burden of Los Angeles over the next 20 years.

8 In 1963 and again in 1985, Arizona won cases in the Supreme Court giving it a larger share of the river's water, but, with its own Sun Belt cities such a Phoenix growing rapidly, it will want more (Clark, 1983, p. 276; Goetz, 1985, p. 312).

Internationally, the most important political and economic factors that will affect Greater Los Angeles involve the mobility of capital, labour, technology, and commodities. Long before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified by the US Congress, Greater LA was losing high-wage, unionized, industrial jobs to plants relocated in the Caribbean and Mexico, elsewhere in Central America, and in the Pacific Rim. In the three years from 1990 to 1993, 27 per cent of all US job losses took place in Greater LA. One-fifth of the industrial workforce (nearly 200,000 workers) have lost their jobs (Davis, 1993b, p. 46). Many of these (85,000) were unionized workers; meanwhile, non-union, minimum-wage jobs continue to account for an increasing proportion of the employment that remains. The percentage of male workers earning US$ 20,000 or less has tripled since 1973, and the ratio of low-wage service jobs to high-wage industrial jobs grew from 2: 1 in 1970 to 5: 1 in 1990 (ibid., p. 47). The burden of these job losses has fallen disproportionately on African-American and Hispanic workers (see map of location of plant closings superimposed on ethnicity, fig. 11.4).

Not only have jobs been relocated outside the country; they have also been shifted to the edge cities, where they are beyond the reach of inner-city residents. Moreover, imported cars, electronics, textiles, and other consumer goods have undermined local production. Foreign capital accounts for 90 per cent of the investment in the new high-rise developments of LA's historic downtown and elsewhere (Century City, San Gabriel Valley) (Davis, 1992, 1993a, 1993b). Although these investments have created some construction jobs, they have also displaced large numbers of poor and lower-middle-class residents, continuing the process of "urban removal" initiated by the freeway system.

Fig. 11.4. Plant closings in Los Angeles County, 1978-1982 (Source: adapted from Oliver et al., 1993, p. 124)

Opinion is divided over whether NAFTA will decrease or increase Mexican immigration to Greater LA; the population of LA City is already over 40 per cent Spanish speaking. At the same time that foreign investments in edge-city business complexes are placing growing demands on infrastructure (roads, water, power, solid waste, etc.), the social service needs of the predominantly poor Hispanic population also have to be met. The crises in health care and education are so great that California's Governor has proposed denying citizenship to any child born of illegal immigrant parents and denying even emergency medical care to anyone who is an undocumented alien. In November 1994, the California State electorate passed a ballot initiative, known as Proposition 187, that would do precisely that. Its implementation is, however, now caught up in litigation. Even more recently (1996), federal legislation has been adopted that would cut back on the rights of legal immigrants to welfare payments and certain other public programmes. Given the continuing reshuffling of global economic arrangements, another major set of questions for Greater Los Angeles during the next two decades will concern the joint effects of NAFTA, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and increased cooperation among nations of the Asian Economic Development Council (AEDC).

Environmental changes will dramatically affect Greater Los Angeles during the next 20 years. Pollution is already bad (although a recent survey of 75 US cities misleadingly places the city of Los Angeles in the middle ranks - World Resources Institute, 1993, p. 220). Extreme natural events also pose acute threats. The probability of a major earthquake in Greater Los Angeles during the next 20 years is very high. Damage could easily be greater than from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, estimated at US$ 15 billion dollars (Place and Rodrigue, 1994, p. 1). Far more people could be killed and injured. It is estimated that there are as many as 50,000 older structures in the city of Los Angeles that pre-date the 1935 seismic building codes. Many of these are densely inhabited multiple-family dwellings. Large numbers of injuries and deaths must be expected in areas such as the Mexican barrio of East Los Angeles. Room occupancy is very high in other low-rise areas such as the unincorporated enclave of Lennox, near Los Angeles International Airport, where some 27,000 Mexican immigrant tourism and hotel workers "are sardine-packed into tiny bungalows and stucco hovels under an aircraft noise barrage so extreme that none of the community's schools can have windows" (Davis, 1993b, p. 47). Such areas will be very difficult to evacuate in the case of a large earthquake and the secondary risk of fire may be higher because of the dense, squalid living conditions.

One of Greater Los Angeles' more vibrant economic sectors also contributes to future hazard potential. Chemical production and transhipment plants have not suffered significant economic stress. The LA Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA) has the second-highest number and concentration of chemical facilities in the United States. Many of these are located near earthquake faults. The probability of multiple chemical releases in the case of an earthquake is considered quite high (Showalter and Myers, 1992, p. 14, citing Tierney and Anderson, 1990).

Longer-term environmental changes are also likely to affect the region within the next 20 years. Global warming may exacerbate the region's water problems (Hanson, 1988, pp. 260 - 262). Associated sealevel rise could combine with sinking coasts to inundate considerable portions of the littoral plain. Worldwide, there is a trend toward more rapid mutation and diffusion of new viruses and other known diseases. Continued large-scale immigration (legal and illegal) could combine with an impoverished health-care system, over-burdened water and sewage-treatment facilities, and poor living standards to create conditions ripe for epidemics of disastrous proportions.

Many of the preceding concerns have made their way onto the agenda of planners and managers. The catastrophic collapse of the main sewage-treatment plant in 1987 eventually led to historic City Council limitations on real estate development in 1988 (Davis, 1990, pp. 200 - 203). The implications of urban expansion for traffic and air quality have been a matter of concern for many decades, and continue to be a central focus. More recently there has been a debate over the deterioration of the quality of LA County schools, the secession of San Fernando schools from the county system, the problems of homeless youth and of health care, and increasing unemployment.

Unfortunately, all of the above have been overshadowed by vociferous public debate about drugs, crime, and street gangs. Law enforcement already eats up more than 20 per cent of the LA City budget and 7 per cent of the LA County budget (Bureau of the Census, 1988, pp. 54 and 615). Greater Los Angeles has some of the largest and best-financed security forces in the United States. These are complemented by a vast army of private security guards in the employ of wealthier residents who live behind walls in the edge cities and in "fortress LA" (Davis, 1990, pp. 223 - 263). Yet the general consensus in southern California seems to be that more police and more money for the police are needed. Cities and counties squeezed to finance crumbling infrastructure and to combat third world-scale hunger and disease among their poorest residents are likely to be forced by White voters to spend the little they have on additional deadly force. The November 1994 state elections in California saw passage of a referendum requiring mandatory life imprisonment after conviction for a third serious crime. The cost of the additional prisons and life-long maintenance of prisoners will eat further into state budgets.

The 1992 uprising and media-inflamed images of deadly and irrational "gangbanging" youth have driven majority White voters of the edge cities furious with anxiety and resentment. Their feelings were expressed through representatives in the California legislature when they voted against post-disaster aid for South Central LA. It was feared that the victorious candidate for Mayor of LA might dismantle the multiracial, liberal coalition that had dominated LA government since 1973 because he believed that police power was the answer to curbing drug use, membership in gangs, and civil unrest - not community economic development, jobs, youth training, or similar schemes. However, this does not appear to have occurred and he was returned to power in a subsequent election (1997).

Responses to the multiple public crises of Greater Los Angeles

What approaches have been taken to address such enormous urban problems? What have managers, politicians, and citizens tried to do about the rapid rate of growth, about the widening disparity between rich and poor, about city and county finances, about vital natural and physical systems - air, water, sewage treatment, roads - stretched to the breaking point?

There has been a complex and often contradictory mosaic of approaches. Though many problems that are intimately interconnected have sometimes been treated as though they were separate, energy distribution, water, air quality, and traffic have received relatively well coordinated and thorough attention for many years. The South Coast Air Quality Management Zone, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Southern California Edison, and CALTRANS (the state transportation agency) are large, professional bureaucracies. As good as these agencies may be, they can deal only with the effects of deeper-seated problems. Political decision-making and direction are required to manage the twin challenges that threaten the entire region: unregulated growth and a lack of jobs that pay a living wage. Here again the pattern is varied. Some California cities, such as Santa Barbara, have tried strictly to regulate new urban development. LA City itself attempted new growth regulations in the 1980s when water supply, sewage treatment, and traffic flow all threatened to collapse. On the whole, however, the history of the region shows the political dominance of banking and real estate interests, for whom "growth" is synonymous with profit.

In an earlier, simpler era, the problems faced by planners, boosters, and managers of Los Angeles were large but straightforward. The budding mega-city lacked a water supply, a deepwater port, and an energy supply for industry (Clark, 1983, p. 273). LA's early leaders set out to overcome these deficiencies in a direct manner, mixing bold modernist engineering with bare-knuckle politics. Boundaries were redrawn to give the city access to the harbour. A political battle was fought against the Southern Pacific Railway, which wanted federal support for a deepwater port at Santa Monica, where it monopolized the land (ibid., pp. 273 - 274). Equally impressive was the engineering required to move water some 223 miles (357 km) from the Owens Valley9 (while simultaneously generating electricity as it descended over 2,000 feet [667 m]) - all in the face of often violent protests by the valley's ranchers (Kahrl, 1982).

9 To bring water from the Owens River, 142 tunnels totalling 52 miles were required. The city was dependent on water from the Los Angeles River until the Owens Valley aqueduct was completed in 1913. In 1930 the aqueduct system was extended another 105 miles (169 km) further north into the Mono basin on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Construction on an aqueduct from the Colorado River began in 1931, adding water from this source in 1941 (Goetz, 1985, p. 312; Clark, 1983, pp. 275 - 276; Rolle, 1992, p. 756).

By comparison, the problems facing the current generation of Angelenos are much more complex. Engineering solutions no longer suffice and the mega-city's politics have become multifaceted and subtle. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt could dismiss opponents of the Owens Valley aqueduct as a "few settlers... [who]... must unfortunately be disregarded in view of the infinitely greater interest to be served by putting the water in Los Angeles" (quoted by Clark, 1983, p. 275). No present-day President, Governor, or Mayor would publicly dismiss the suffering of those who are now affected by Los Angeles' transition from Sun Belt industrial city to its new role in the greater Pacific Rim.

Table 11.2 Hazards affecting the Los Angeles region






HIV infection

Air pollution

Civil uprising


Drug overdose

Hazardous waste

Violent crime

Sinking coast

Childhood cancer

Chemical fire

Child poverty

Sealevel rise

Marine pollution

Dam failure


Hot winds

Heat exhaustion

Nuclear accident


Waterborne disease


Gale-force ocean wind




People who live in the LA region are at risk from at least 25 diverse hazards that interact in complex ways (table 11.2). These hazards can be classified as geological, climatic, biological, technological, and social. This list of LA hazards is longer and more varied than those that have customarily been compiled by other writers (Cooke, 1984; Nelson and Clark, 1976; Wittow, 1979). Previous accounts have largely ignored a vast number of hazards that originate in the industrial production process and in the organization of the region's infrastructure. The importance of environmental hazards in Greater LA has grown in recent years. Two periods, over half a century apart, illustrate these changes: 1928 - 1938; 1983 - 1993. The first decade brackets most of the Great Depression; the second encompasses another major societal transformation - the end of the Cold War.

Two historical windows

1928 - 1938

Among the noteworthy disasters that marked the 1928 - 1938 period were one dam collapse, several river floods, a major earthquake, and the onset of the Great Depression. In 1928, between 400 and 450 people were killed and the town of Oxnard was evacuated when a 172 foot (52 m) dam failed, sending a wall of water, mud, and debris down the Santa Clara River to the sea between Oxnard and Ventura (Caughey and Caughey, 1976, p. 293; Outland, 1963). A year later, failure of the New York stock exchange ushered in the Great Depression and a period of privation, homelessness, and immigration to Los Angeles by those seeking employment or refuge. The city of Los Angeles sent police to turn back migrants at the state border. Large numbers of Mexican nationals were deported from Los Angeles in this period of social unrest (Caughey and Caughey, 1976, p. 294).

In 1933, the city of Long Beach and adjacent areas were severely damaged by a Richter scale 6.3 earthquake whose epicentre lay offshore on the Newport - Inglewood Fault. It struck in the afternoon after schools had emptied for the day. This helped to keep down casualties, but 120 died none the less and damage of more than US$ 50 million (1933 dollars) was sustained. Lessons learned from the physical damage to schools and other structures were translated into stronger building codes by 1935 (Caughey, 1976). Finally, extensive floods during 1934 killed 40 and inflicted US$ 15 million in damages, and again in 1938, when the tolls were 59 dead and US$ 62 million (Wittow, 1979, pp. 364 - 365).

1983 - 1993

The decade from 1983 to 1993 was marked by an upsurge of hazard events. Winter 1983 brought torrential rain and gale-force storms that severely eroded the Greater Los Angeles coast. Destructive earthquakes were a frequent problem (1983, 1987, 1992). In addition to the associated deaths and damage, they provided a drum beat that measured out the region's slow march toward ecological collapse and social upheaval as a result of unregulated development. Indeed, the 1987 Whittier quake actually cleared a path for developers anxious to buy up real estate in the old downtown for redevelopment (Davis, 1992). Los Angeles also felt the grip of a drought that lasted five years (1988 - 1993).10 According to Hanson (1988, pp. 263 - 264), global warming is likely to add to existing water problems via negative feedback from increased water consumption in southern California and elsewhere, via contamination of Greater Los Angeles' own limited groundwater sources, and via reduced ability to recharge groundwater from surface waste water (as is the present practice, see Nelson and Clark, 1976, p. 241). Finally, in 1993 there occurred the most destructive and widespread brush fires ever throughout much of the region.

10 There is a long history of drought in southern California going back at least to the catastrophic drought of 1862 - 1865, which marked the end of the dominance of the large cattle ranches in the region (Goetz, 1985, p. 311; Cleland, 1951). There was also a severe urban drought in 1976 - 77 (Goetz, 1985, p. 312). In Los Angeles County, a full 35 per cent of all water use was devoted to landscaping irrigation in either public spaces or private homes (Rieff, 1991, p. 252).

Failures of technological systems contributed other important hazards. A massive breakdown of the Hyperion sewage-treatment plant in 1987 sent millions of gallons of waste into Santa Monica Bay. The same rapid urban growth that had produced the extra burden of sewage had also produced more runoff from impermeable surfaces that threatened to flood the flat urbanized basins and coastal plains (Davis, 1990, pp. 198 - 199). In 1987, studies revealed that as much as 40 per cent of LA's groundwater was contaminated by hazardous chemicals. This was extremely bad news for a city that is already dependent on limited heavily used water sources.

It was during this period that the deadline for compliance with federally mandated clean air standards passed. Modest but significant air-quality improvements that had been achieved in Greater Los Angeles through widespread use of catalytic converters and other measures were being cancelled out by the ever-growing number of cars on the road. Monitoring of industrial compliance with air emission standards was also declining.11 Moreover, voters had rejected several bond issues that would have financed rapid transit systems during the 1980s. Both traffic and air quality were becoming progressively worse.12

11 Inspections of air pollution sources declined by 48 per cent between 1989 and 1992 in the South Coast Air Quality Management District, according to an audit by the California Air Resources Board (Environmental Reporter, 26 August 1993, p. 605).

12 In 1992 there were 33 State I smog alerts and 96 days in which ozone levels exceeded federal health standards, up from 21 alerts and 70 unhealthful days in 1991 and 29 alerts and 89 ozone days in 1990 (Environmental Reporter, 20 August 1993, p. 1299).

The ongoing AIDS pandemic, which affected Greater Los Angeles as much as any Western mega-city, raised the spectre of other potentially catastrophic disease outbreaks. These included: a new cholera pandemic, which swept through much of South and Central America but stopped - for now at least - short of Greater Los Angeles; drug-resistant tuberculosis; and the return of preventable childhood diseases in large numbers of Los Angeles' children too poor to obtain routine immunizations.13 In the years between 1990 and 1993, economic recession hit the region as hard as any destabilizing event since the Great Depression and seriously reduced the tax base for county and city revenues. Combined with reductions in state support of county and city budgets, this meant that there was even less money than usual available to deal with a concatenation of environmental crises. As in the previous period of severe economic disruption (the 1930s), Mexican immigrants were again the focus of intense nativist hostility, with the Governor of California recommending that "illegals" be denied emergency medical care.

13 California had the highest rate of measles in the United States in 1992: 42 per 100,000 of the population. This is a good indicator of very poor immunization coverage (Carpenter and Provorse et al., 1993, p. 33).

For many, perhaps the most important hazard of the second period was a social one - the uprising of April 1992. In addition to the deaths, injuries, suffering, and property losses that occurred, at least 71 of the 671 buildings burned contained asbestos or other hazardous material that contaminated rubble, complicating its removal and disposal (Environmental Reporter, 15 May 1992, p. 411). Finally, although it did not take place during the decade under inspection, the Northridge earthquake (1994) provides a dramatic coda to the unfolding theme of recent increases in hazard.

Overview of hazards

An inspection of hazards during these two periods quickly reveals the contrasts. Matters have become much worse recently (see table 11.3). The tight coupling between overloaded natural systems and mismanaged technological ones is particularly evident. With the possible exception of flood control, little progress has been made toward preventing or mitigating even the more straightforward natural hazards. Not only is the ratio of technological hazard events to natural hazard events increasing, the dividing line between these two subtypes is often blurred because of complex interactions between society and Nature in this urban region. For example, road-building operations at the head of an unstable slope inaugurated the massive landslide at Portuguese Bend; extraction of oil triggered subsidence beneath the Baldwin dam and its eventual failure during a storm; the breakdown of a sewage-treatment plant is interconnected with the changing ecology of Santa Monica Bay; traffic congestion and airborne industrial waste are connected with the epidemiology of respiratory disease; and the release of asbestos from buildings damaged by earthquakes is connected with a suite of secondary health hazards (Gruenwald, 1988). In other words, amalgams of natural and technological hazard are increasing. For example, in 1987 the Whittier Narrows earthquake (Richter 5.9) displaced a 1 ton chlorine tank that was being filled, resulting in the release of a half-ton toxic cloud. Power failure caused by the earthquake disabled the company's siren, and malfunctioning telephones made it impossible to warn authorities (Showalter and Myers, 1992, p. 14).

There is probably no hazard or no mix of hazards that would surprise planners who work in southern California. But whether there is an institutional capacity to plan and budget for the increasingly complex Nature - technology interactions that characterize newer hazard amalgams is an open question. Undoubtedly the answers have more to do with lead-times and financing arrangements than with issues of psychology and intellectual style. The history of Los Angeles is one of rapidly alternating economic booms and busts (Rieff, 1991, p. 56). Planners and politicians have often reacted slowly to changes that challenged existing planning procedures.

The expansion of LA County is a case in point. Although growth rates have been modest by national and international standards, the addition of new homes and businesses in Greater Los Angeles places a disproportionately heavy burden on the environment. Unlike the faster-growing squatter populations of Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, or Lagos, Angelenos make disproportionately heavy demands on water, sewer, and electricity connections, on the absorptive capacities of roads and local airsheds, and on other natural processes.

Table 11.3 Selected hazards in Greater Los Angeles

Damaging earthquakes

Reservoir failures


Large landslides

Brush fires

Ocean gales & coastal erosion



1914 & 1916




Owens Valley (R8.3)

San Francesquisto

$14 million

Portuguese Bend,


60 k

Dam, 400 k


$10 million, 150 p





40 k, $15 million



El Nitorms

Long Beach (R6.7),





Winter 1992

120 k, $50 million

Hills Dam

59 k, $62 million

10 k

295 p




Imperial Valley (R7.1)

Van Norman


9 k, $12 million

Dam (severely damaged)

92 k, $62 million






Kern County (R7.7)

Big Tujunga


1,000 p

12 k, $63 million



San Fernando Valley (R6.6)

65 k, $439 million


Coalinga (R6.5), $33 million


Whittier Narrows (R5.9)


Yucca Valley (R7.4)


Northridge (R6.7)

57 k, $15 billion

k = number killed
$ million = cost of losses
p = properties lost

What has possibly been most surprising to the planning professionals is the shifting attitudes and political behaviour of citizens who perceive threats to their way of life. The "taxpayers' revolt" of the late 1970s that marked the beginning of the current fiscal crisis did, indeed, inspire "wonder and amazement" at its scale and rapid development. (At one point 1.5 million signatures were gathered on behalf of Proposition 13.) In retrospect, the sudden rejection of central planning and finance was compounded by a desire on the part of the White middle class to isolate itself from the social and physical problems of the inner cities. Although this was a common trend in the United States at the time, it clearly made the tasks of coordination, conflict-resolution, and strategic planning all the more difficult, if not impossible. The pulling of neighbourhoods and communities back into themselves, behind protective walls, may give the illusion of security, but the vital task of hazard mitigation is made more difficult, and, in the long run, security for all declines.

There have been two major uprisings in Los Angeles. Soldiers of the National Guard (state militia) were on the streets in 1965. In 1992, there were federal troops freshly returned from the Gulf War. The post-1992 period has at times approximated a state of war. In South Central LA clashes among gangs and between the community and the police have resembled other urban wars in places such as Kabul, Sarajevo, Belfast, Gaza, Johannesburg, and Mogadishu. The death rate among young people in this part of the city, especially young African-American men, is very high. Inter-gang truces have held, but the background conditions of violence are sobering. Drive-by shootings, revenge killings, and the marketing of addictive and debilitating "crack" cocaine continue. In inner-city neighbourhoods of LA, police tactics have terrorized many blameless people: low-flying helicopters shine blindingly bright searchlights in the night, youth are subject to random interrogations, and there are shows of paramilitary force directed against alleged "crack houses." Some observers speak of the " 'Ulsterization' of riot control in the inner-city" and "creeping 'Israelization' of residential security in affluent hillside and valley districts" (Davis, 1993b, p. 32).

Of course, the region is also subject to more conventional natural hazards. Apartment buildings and freeways were among the more common casualties of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Variables such as design, age, level of maintenance, and specific earthquake characteristics make identification of particularly dangerous sections of freeway difficult, but not impossible.14 Landslides often block portions of the Pacific Coast Highway as well as narrow canyon roads that serve the Santa Monica mountains, while brush fires and their smoke can temporarily block secondary roads in hill areas where alternative routes are more difficult to plot than on the dense, geometrical "grid" of the urban plains. Power outages and disruption of telephone service have accompanied earthquakes. Water, sewage, and solid waste removal services have seldom been disrupted for long, but future quakes could affect them more severely. If this happened, there would be a cascade of further public health hazards.

14 Several contributions to the National Academy of Engineering workshop on "Cities and their Vital Systems" bear on the question of freeway security; see Ausubel and Herman (1988); Ibbs and Echeverry (1988); Marland and Weinberg (1988).

Police, fire-fighters, emergency medical technicians and emergency room staff, and California Emergency Services staff are all trained for immediate response to short-onset natural and technological disasters such as earthquakes, explosions, brush fires, and large-scale transportation accidents. But existing budgetary crises and an intense preoccupation with "policing" as an all-purpose answer to urban unrest may undermine disaster-readiness among these professionals. In any event, what they provide is crisis management and relief, not mitigation of hazard causes. Short-term relief is coordinated by the state in combination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Relief for smaller, local events remains in the hands of city and county social services and voluntary agencies such as the Red Cross. On the whole, this means that there is more local flexibility, and less "red tape" is required to secure grants and loans (Popkin, 1990).

Longer-term recovery is another matter altogether. Here the private insurance sector is the most important actor. Many banks will not provide a mortgage if home-owners in floodplains fail to purchase available flood insurance. The purchase of earthquake insurance is less often required, and studies have found that many Californians decline to buy it (Palm, 1990; Palm and Hodgson, 1992). Apart from the fact that the poor are less likely to afford insurance of any kind, some low-income people, especially those belonging to ethnic minorities, may have more difficulty negotiating the recovery-assistance bureaucracy. There is evidence that they recover more slowly, if at all, from major disasters. Since the 1992 LA uprising, there had not been any major programme for rebuilding South Central and reviving its locally owned business despite presidential campaign promises, abortive attempts to legislate aid in both national and state legislatures, and an ambitious-sounding business-sponsored initiative called "Rebuild LA" (Davis, 1993a, pp. 4 - 6). Similarly, for a year or more after the Northridge earthquake, demolitions of damaged buildings were occurring much more slowly in Crenshaw, an African-American area that was among the more severely damaged, than in Northridge itself.15

15 Personal communication from the research team, Drs. Chrys Rodrigue and Susan Place, California State University Chico. These scholars note elsewhere (Place and Rodrigue, 1994) that even the name of the January 1994 earthquake reveals bias against the poor. Although the epicentre of this earthquake was in Reseda, it was named by the media and governmental officials the "Northridge" earthquake. These authors note that the per capita income of Reseda is only US$ 15,177 (below the US$ 16,409 average for California), whereas Northridge is more affluent, with an average of US$ 23,308 per capita. Place and Rodrigue suggest that this naming "may possibly reveal demographic bias on the part of the media, compounded by initially confusing pronouncements by the California Institute of Technology" (1994, p. 5; also see Rovai and Rodrigue, 1994).

This section has provided a general overview of hazards in Greater Los Angeles. Now let us turn to a more detailed accounting of trends in four different dimensions of hazard: risk (probability and physical characteristics of the hazard event); exposure (measure of the population at risk); vulnerability (probability of sustaining loss); and response (preparedness, mitigation, emergency action, short-term relief, and recovery).

Systematic analysis of hazards


With the possible exception of flooding, the risks of all hazards in Greater Los Angeles have increased over the past 60 years (Wittow, 1979, pp. 365 - 366). Earthquake risk has risen because of the length of time that has passed since a major release of tension in the "locked" portion of the San Andreas Fault near the mega-city. Other risks (e.g. drought, coastal erosion, landslide, brush fire) also have increased because of a combination of urban growth and probable long-term climatic change. During the same time-period, entirely new hazards have been created (e.g. potential nuclear accidents, HIV infection, violent crime, and drug overdose deaths of epidemic proportion).


Exposure has universally increased owing to very rapid expansion of the urban area and increased population density. Development of exposed sites has become common (hillsides, beach-front locations, canyons, air traffic corridors, gang war zones, locations near chemical plants and other hazardous activities).


Vulnerability has both decreased and increased in a complex pattern that is explained by technological innovations, governmental regulation and enforcement, changes in socio-economic well-being, and shifts of political power. For example, anti-seismic building codes that date from 1935 have reduced vulnerability to earthquakes in the built environment, but many low-income people, particularly Hispanics, live and work in pre-1935 structures. Buffer areas and other measures that are designed to reduce the risk of brush fires around homes have been offset by other trends such as the sheer magnitude of residential development in exposed locations, the use of fire-susceptible landscaping close to homes, and the size of resulting firestorms. A circum-Pacific tsunami warning system has probably reduced the vulnerability of persons to loss of life and injury near the beaches, but the amount of real estate exposed has increased.


Response has also showed a complex pattern of change since the 1930s. Warnings have improved considerably for tsunami, brush fire, floods, and some types of landslides. Conversely, a reliable system of earthquake prediction and warning is still not available, despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested in research. Hazard-mapping has also become very detailed, including large-scale maps showing even small earthquake faults, landslide probabilities, and flood recurrence intervals. Communities have become active generators and users of hazard data, particularly those relating to pollution of air, soil, and water. As noted earlier, some aspects of emergency response (emergency medical care, search and rescue, fire-fighting) have become highly professionalized and effective, but the pattern of short-term relief and long-term recovery is mixed. Considerable controversy surrounds the distribution of relief and recovery funds and services by some government agencies and the private sector - especially insurance companies.

Changes in natural hazards


Earthquake remains a major hazard in Greater Los Angeles. Those listed in table 11.3 cost a total of 323 lives. The most recent large earthquake was a Richter scale 6.7 event in January 1994 that affected many northern and central parts of the megacity: 57 people were killed, 16 of them in the spectacular collapse of an apartment building in Northridge; thousands were injured; several major highways were blocked, including the Santa Monica freeway (I-10), "I-5," which serves commuters in Antelope Valley, and Route 188 into Simi Valley and Grenada Hills. The total cost of this earthquake has been estimated at US$ 15 billion (Place and Rodrigue, 1994).

Earthquake risk is a controversial subject in Greater LA. The San Andreas Fault is believed to be "locked" for about 100 miles north and south of Palmdale. There has not been a major quake here since 1857. A large event has been expected for many years, but ground surface uplifts have not yet been followed by a major seismic shock (fig. 11.5). However, a series of smaller earthquakes may have reduced stress and along with it the risk of a "big one" (Jaume and Sykes, 1992).

Unfortunately, the theoretical models of earthquake causality upon which predictions are based are disputed (Robinson, 1993, pp. 57 - 65; Savage, 1991). Deformed strata at Pallet Creek (34 miles north-east of Los Angeles) indicate that earthquakes of Richter magnitudes 8 and above have occurred, on average, once every 160 years (Alexander, 1993, pp. 77 - 78). Past quake activity suggests that earthquakes greater than Richter 6 are likely to occur on various parts of the San Andreas Fault system by the year 2018. Probabilities range from 10 per cent for the Carrizo section to 30 per cent for the Anza section, 40 per cent for the Coachella Valley section, and greater than 90 per cent for the section around Parkfield (Alexander, 1993, p. 78, citing USGS, 1988; Ayer, 1992, p. 36, citing the same source). Unfortunately the recurrence interval is so variable for specific sites (e.g. 55 - 275 years for Pallet Creek), that it is impossible to "predict" actual events in any meaningful way (Robinson, 1993, p. 72). For example, it was predicted that there was a 95 per cent probability of a Richter 6+ magnitude earthquake at Parkfield by the end of 1992 (Bakun and Lindh, 1985; Robinson, 1993, p. 72). As this chapter goes to press (late 1997) scientists are still waiting to witness this event!

Fig. 11.5. Ground surface uplift around Palmdale, California, and the possible effects of a major earthquake on Los Angeles (Source: adapted from Wittow, 1979, p. 352)

Nevertheless, available evidence suggests that the risk of a major earthquake on the San Andreas Fault is high. So too is the risk of earthquakes on other fault systems that criss-cross the Greater Los Angeles area. Some of these faults have generated very destructive quakes in the recent past (Long Beach in 1933, San Fernando Valley in 1971) (Caughey, 1976; Griggs and Gilchrist, 1983, pp. 43 - 47), including the most recent, Northridge (1994).

Earthquake exposure is generally high and growing, but it varies in response to factors of location, depth, and magnitude of the energy release. Since the area circumscribed by a circle of 20 mile radius would contain around 15 million people, no matter where it is placed in the mega-city, any major earthquake will affect a very large population. Locations near faults are more exposed than those some distance away, but topography, coastal location, or other locational factors could be associated with increased exposure to secondary landslides, liquefaction (Greene et al., 1991), fire, or release of hazardous material.

Vulnerability is often a function of income level; in Greater Los Angeles income is in turn highly correlated with ethnicity, race, and age. The homes and workplaces of poor, non-White populations are particularly susceptible to loss. Somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 pre-1935 structures house low-income residents and are places of work for others, including undocumented foreign workers (Alexander, 1993, p. 337; Lee and Shepherd, 1984).16 Also, low- and moderate-income groups inhabit areas downstream from major dams (e.g. Van Norman) that could collapse in a major earthquake (Ayer, 1992, p. 27; Griggs and Gilchrist, 1983, p. 45; Wittow, 1979, pp. 350 - 351). Finally, many low-income families also live along the Newport - Inglewood Fault, in the vicinity of the country's second-largest concentration of chemical industries (Showalter and Myers, 1992, p. 14), and near major oil refineries.

16 Another study cited by Griggs and Gilchrist (1983, p. 55) found 14,000 buildings in Los Angeles "deficient in terms of earthquake design."

Response to earthquakes in southern California is limited by the lack of a precise short-term warning system. Automated systems for shutting down natural gas delivery systems, oil pipelines, etc. have been put in place, but the length of time that would be required to evacuate the area's very large populations - and the attendant health and logistical problems - make it unlikely that a reliable and practical warning system for humans can be developed in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the emergency preparedness and response system is highly organized. The planning context for earthquake preparedness (and mitigation) is provided by the Joint Committee on Seismic Safety of the California Legislature and the California Master Plan. The latter incorporates estimates of the economic significance of different geological hazards, which combine data on property values, infrastructure, and lives at risk in each urban area (Alexander, 1993, p. 349). Every department of city and county government has an earthquake plan, and a coordinating body brings together all of these plans for different geographical units (e.g. the City of Los Angeles Emergency Operations Organization). Schools have their own earthquake plans, as do many businesses and industries. Business and industry associations encourage earthquake preparedness (e.g. the Business and Industry Council on Emergency Planning and Preparedness and the Downtown Emergency Preparedness Action Council) (Mattingly and Melloff, 1992, p. 286). Considerable efforts have also been made to understand how laypeople respond to messages about preparedness and warnings (Dooley et al., 1992; Mulilis and Lippa, 1990; Palm and Hodgson, 1992; Turner et al., 1986). Some of these research projects have highlighted important cultural differences in disaster response (Johnson and Covello, 1987; Turner and Kiecolt, 1984; Vaughan and Nordenstam, 1991; Vaughan, 1993).

The earthquake-vulnerability of schools and other public buildings is comparatively small because most of these have slowly come into compliance with the strengthened building codes that were adopted in 1935 after the Long Beach earthquake. Building codes for housing are strict and were updated following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (American Society of Civil Engineers, 1990). New construction is required to observe easements or "setbacks" away from faults and fault traces. In addition, ambitious programmes of hazard abatement have been carried out by bracing existing structures. Fortunately, until recently there has been relatively little high-rise construction in Greater Los Angeles and the light wood and stucco design of many residences has stood up well to past shaking. Newly constructed skyscrapers are designed to withstand earthquakes, but they have not yet been tested by a major event.

Other natural hazards

Over the past 60 years there have been: solid successes in responding to some natural events, such as the creation of a tsunami early warning system; some questionable mixtures of success and possibly long-term failure, such as the almost complete containment of the Los Angeles River within concrete flood-control works (figs. 11.6 and 11.7); and some dismal failures. The greatest failure is the management of brush fire (Pyne, 1982, pp. 405 - 423).

The climax vegetation of Greater LA's coastal hills is oily chaparral, which produces abundant litter that is very flammable. Vast areas are susceptible to destruction, especially when hot, dry Santa Ana winds blow seawards from the Mojave Desert. Fire risks have traditionally been reduced by periodic controlled burning of leaf litter. As more people invade the hills, smoke from controlled burns has also become a nuisance and residents have demanded an end to the practice. This has set the stage for ever-larger fires. Table 11.3 above lists the dates of some of the largest burns. Figure 11.8 shows the extent of historical fires from 1919 to 1973.

Fig. 11.6. Flood hazards in Los Angeles County (Source: adapted from Wittow, 1979, p. 365)

Between 1950 and 1965, 242 fires larger than 100 acres (40 ha) consumed around 332,000 acres (135,000 ha) of vegetation and homes. The Bel Air fire of 1961 cost US$ 24 million, and the fires stretching from Newhall to Malibu in 1970 burned 180,000 acres (72,900 ha) and destroyed 295 homes (Nelson and Clark, 1976, p. 244). Since then the problems have accelerated. The fires of 1993 burned more than 200,000 acres (81,000 ha), destroyed over 1,000 homes, and caused losses of more than US$ 500 million, although only a few people were killed (New York Times, 31 October 1993). During the last days of October and early November 1993, 13 separate fires burned in six counties over a distance of 200 miles (322 km) from Ventura County to the Mexican border. Further urban encroachment into the hills combined with possible climate changes is likely to increase the hazard of future fires. There is, in short, no sign yet of success in mitigating the brush-fire hazard.

Fig. 11.7 Los Angeles County flood/control structures (Source: adapted from Nelson and Clark, 1976, p. 243)

Changes in technological hazards

The past 60 years have seen a wide array of new technological hazards. New risks, ever-greater exposure, more differentiated vulnerability, and more professionalized (and usually narrowly technocratic) responses have been the general pattern. Success in reducing technological risk through mitigation has been less than that achieved with natural hazards. Although air quality is better than it was in the 1950s, the air is still lethal.

Fig. 11.8. Areas of brush fires in Los Angeles County, 1919-1973 (Source: adapted from Wittow, 1979, p. 362)

Air pollution

In Greater Los Angeles there is reason to question Goethe's time-honoured assertion that "city air makes people free"; here it is more likely to make them sick. This mega-city is the largest producer of several classes of air pollutants in the United States.17 A combination of climatic and topographic factors exacerbates the underlying problem of vehicular and industrial emissions. Pollutants from these and other sources remain trapped in the air over the mega-city (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 6). Upward dispersal is stopped by a thermal inversion; lateral dispersal is blocked by mountain walls to the north and east. Photochemical smog forms as the stagnant stew is cooked by solar radiation (fig. 11.9). LA's smog is destructive to lung tissue. Even the young exhibit serious damage. Of youths between the ages of 15 and 25 who died from traumas in 1990, 80 per cent had "notable lung abnormalities" and 27 per cent had "severe lesions on their lungs" (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 5, citing Sherwin, 1990).

17 The US government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) that takes into account ambient levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and ozone as well as the differing standards and monitoring techniques used from city to city. The World Resources Institute assembled average PSIs for 75 cities in the USA for 1990. Los Angeles was by far the worst, with an average PSI of 73. Eight other cities had PSIs in the 50s. All the rest were 49 or below.

Fig. 11.9. Ozone smog in southern California (Source: adapted from Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 7)

The risk of damaging air pollution can be defined at two levels: (1) the probability of a day during which federal air-quality standards are not met (i.e. an air pollution "event"), or (2) the probability of a day when residents are advised to refrain from strenuous outdoor exercise, while infants and the elderly stay indoors (i.e. an air pollution "alert"). Risks become larger inland from the coast, with the worst air trapped in the San Gabriel valley (fig. 11.9). There are also diurnal variations: higher pollutant concentrations occur in the late afternoon and evening, lower ones at night. It has been estimated that air pollution in Greater LA has caused 1,600 premature deaths each year (Lents and Kelley, 1993, p. 38).18 Although many of these are among older people and others who already suffered from respiratory and heart diseases, the gross human toll is greater than any inflicted by earthquakes, floods, or other natural disasters. Moreover, almost anyone at any location in Greater LA is at risk, although the trend has been downwards in recent years as a result of improved emission controls. Whether this will continue is problematic. The number of cars on the road in Greater LA doubled from 4 million in 1978 to 8 million in 1985, and is now approaching 11 million (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 7; Lents and Kelley, 1993, p. 32; Wittow, 1979, p. 370).

18 Lents and Kelley (1993, p. 38) review a series of studies of the health effects of photochemical smog in the general population of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. One of these estimates that meeting federal air-quality standards would save US$ 9.4 billion in health costs each year and prevent 1,600 premature deaths annually. Also see Ostro et al. (1993).

Exposure can be calculated by estimating the number of people living within various zones of smog risk. For example, in the 1980s there were about 4 - 5 million within areas that exceeded federal air-quality standards on more than 150 days a year (fig. 11.9). As with other hazards in Greater Los Angeles, population growth and the spread of building into inland valleys has considerably increased exposure.

Vulnerability to air pollution is a function of age, sex, health status, and activity. Children are more vulnerable because they frequently play out of doors during the afternoon and early evening, when smog levels peak; small body weight and small lung surface area also allow children to receive higher pollutant doses per breath than adults (Kilburn et al., 1992; Kleinman et al., 1989; Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 22, citing Roan, 1990; National Academy of Sciences, 1988).19

19 Another child health issue related to air pollution that the community group Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles is trying to get the city to investigate is the likelihood that years of traffic using leaded fuel passing overhead on the multiple interchanges that traverse East Los Angeles have built up considerable lead in the soil. This lead may be causing brain damage to local children.

Pregnant women are especially vulnerable. Carbon monoxide pollution has been associated with low birth weight and sudden infant deaths (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 23, citing Kleinman et al., 1989). People with respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or asthma are also more vulnerable than others. This group contains many frail elderly and AIDS sufferers (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, pp. 23 - 24). Indeed, AIDS victims may be at a special disadvantage; preliminary animal studies suggest that nitrogen oxides - one of the more common pollutants - can accelerate the pathological effects of AIDS viruses (ibid., p. 24). Finally, those who are very active outdoors - athletes and people engaged in construction, gardening, or other heavy labour outdoors - are also particularly vulnerable to air pollution (ibid., p. 26).

Response has taken many forms. The problem of air quality was recognized in the 1940s, and the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District was established in 1947. Early attempts at mitigation included banning burning in open dumps of Los Angeles County (1948). At the time there were 54 such open-burning rubbish dumps, mostly municipally operated (Gordon, 1963, p. 72).20 The use of backyard solid-waste incinerators was outlawed in 1957. Regulation of factory emissions by permit began in the 1960s. Other early measures included banning of certain industrial solvents (1966), shifts to natural gas or low-sulphur oil for electricity generation, and a series of automobile exhaust restrictions from 1966 onwards (Gordon, 1963, p. 73; Lents and Kelley, 1993, pp. 33 - 37; Nelson and Clark, 1976, p. 247). Anti-pollution agencies began to appear after 1947. The Los Angeles Health Department monitors the air and issues warnings when ozone levels reach critical levels. "Level II" emergencies are declared infrequently and industries are asked to reduce activity by 10 - 20 per cent while commuters are requested to car pool. The department has never exercised its statutory authority to declare a "level III" emergency, which would shut down industry and halt traffic.

20 In an early example of the fragmentation and isolationism that continue to plague attempts to mitigate hazards in Greater Los Angeles, the city of Whittier nearly seceded from the county because it did not want to spend the additional money necessary to dispose of solid waste by other methods (Gordon, 1963, p. 72).

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) may require operators of fleets with 15 or more vehicles to use clean fuels such as natural gas, propane, ethanol, or methanol. The district currently requires companies with more than 100 personnel to offer cash incentives for using car pools on the journey to work (The Economist, 7 April 1990, p. 39). This measure eliminated 90,000 trips a day and increased car occupancy from 1.13 to 1.24 between 1987 and 1992 (Lents and Kelley, 1993, p. 38). Since 1976, the SCAQMD has required all new or expanding industries to use the cleanest available technology. However, loop-holes allowed many firms to avoid these provisions by setting up smaller branch units (ibid., p. 37). Citizens' groups such as Mothers of East Los Angeles and Concerned Citizens of South Central LA play significant roles in research, awareness-raising, and lobbying. For example, from 1985 to 1987 the Concerned Citizens of South Central LA campaigned against city plans to build a trash incinerator in their neighbourhood. As a result, the city withdrew this plan and started a recycling programme instead (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 32).

Taken together, all of the preceding efforts at mitigation reduced peak ozone concentration from 680 parts per billion (ppb) in 1955 to 300 ppb in 1992 (Lents and Kelley, 1993, p. 32). But the results may not be enough to bring the air in Greater LA within federal health standards. The SCAQMD estimates that, to achieve this goal, hydrocarbon emissions would have to be cut by a further 80 per cent, nitrogen oxides by 70 per cent, sulphur oxides by 62 per cent, and particulates by 20 per cent (ibid., p. 38). However, planners continue to try. A complex three-stage plan is now in effect that identifies 135 measures that can be accomplished with existing technology. If implemented by 1996, the plan anticipates an 85 per cent reduction in automotive emissions by the following decade. Stage one assumes expanded use of electric cars. Stage two involves large-scale use of alternative fuels (natural gas, ethanol, methanol, etc.). Stage three requires commercial development of new technologies. The SCAQMD has so far contributed US$ 40 million in seed money toward the development of these technologies (ibid., p. 39).

The current strategy is resolutely committed to so-called tech-fixes. Growth controls - such as have been enacted by Santa Barbara and some northern California communities - are rarely talked about by public leaders. By contrast, local community groups such as the Labor/Community Watchdog insist that "air quality and social justice must go hand in hand." This means that market forces alone should not be allowed to shape the growth of Greater Los Angeles or to determine such decisions as those that bear on industrial location, choice of technology, and levels of emissions. Instead, the wishes of citizens, workers, and industries should be equally weighted (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 65). This kind of tripartite model is not a rhetorical political demand but an increasingly accepted risk-management model that has been endorsed by the United Nations (Fiorino, 1990; UNEP, 1988, 1992).

Other technological hazards

Hundreds of thousands of people now live under the flight paths near 11 airports. Similar numbers live within a few miles of oil refineries and chemical plants capable of catastrophic explosions, fires, and toxic releases. For example, Los Angeles possesses 24 of the highly toxic "Superfund" sites designated by the federal government.21 Even without emerging new natural and technological (na-tech) releases, the "normal" environmental load caused by spills and releases of hazardous materials is cause for concern. Nuclear power stations also pose significant risks in Greater Los Angeles. The San Onofre nuclear power station is a particularly instructive example. After operating on temporary licences since 1967, one reactor was finally closed in 1992 when a suit was filed by community groups. Two other reactors were commissioned in 1982 and have been in full operation since 1983. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, 1979) estimated that 3.6 million people lived within 50 miles (80 km) of the plant in 1970. Since then this area has witnessed some of the fastest growth in the mega-city. Projections indicate that there may now be 5.6 million or more people there. At present there are only two nuclear power stations still functioning in California: San Onofre and the even more controversial Diablo Canyon station in northern California. Apart from concerns raised by na-tech releases during a possible earthquake, there exists a problem of small, intermittent releases (including "controlled" airborne releases of radioactive gases) and disposal of radio active waste in a region fast filling up with every possible sort of waste. Finally, there remains the problem of possible terrorist attacks - a not inconceivable risk, especially amid the troubled politics of Greater Los Angeles (Whittaker, 1978).

21 LA is fourth behind New York with 101 Superfund sites, Philadelphia with 77, and San Francisco - Oakland with 34 (World Resources Institute, 1993, p. 205).

Changes in biological hazards

The statistical risk of biological hazards such as cancer, AIDS, drug overdose, heat exhaustion, and waterborne diseases is more difficult to quantify than the risk of air pollution. Some risks are involuntary and the agents (e.g. carcinogens) are widely pervasive in air, water, and food chains. For example, Los Angeles County has the highest rate of excess deaths from childhood cancers in the United States (Goldman, 1991, p. 133).22 Other risks are voluntary, in that they are associated with specific behaviours. Thus, HIV infection is primarily connected with intravenous drug use (needle sharing) and unprotected sex. In 1989, an estimated 112,000 people were HIV positive in LA County (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 26). This is equivalent to a population-wide rate of 1.4 per cent, but most of the risk is actually concentrated in specific vulnerable groups (see below).

22 "Excess deaths" are those observed in excess of what would be expected if the whole of the USA had the same "average" death rate from childhood cancers, with no variation from county to county, once the effect of random variation has been accounted for (Goldman, 1991, pp. 17 - 19).

Exposure to biological hazards is growing almost everywhere in Greater LA because population is increasing along with the prevalence of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, and other conditions that are associated with high-risk behaviours and high-risk environments.

Vulnerability is highly dependent on age, gender, income, race, and ethnicity. In the 1980s, 40 per cent of the children in LA County lived at or below the poverty line, a high proportion of them in single-parent households headed by their mother. Females headed 14 per cent of all households in LA City in 1980 and 12 per cent of LA County households (Bureau of the Census, 1988, pp. 43 and 611). A disproportionate number of these family units were African-American or Hispanic (Davis, 1990, p. 306). The percentage of LA County residents living below the poverty line increased from 11 per cent in 1969 to 13 per cent in 1979 and to 16 per cent in 1987 (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 7). Of those living below the poverty line, 28 per cent receive no welfare benefits (Davis, 1993a, p. 25, citing Kennedy, 1992), and the value of both the minimum wage and the median welfare benefit for families with dependent children (AFDC) has declined by 40 per cent since 1970.23 These are the young women who cannot afford prenatal care, who seek primary health care from hospital emergency rooms, and who cannot have their children immunized against the same childhood diseases that UNICEF identifies as characteristic of the third world (i.e. measles, tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus). Young people from such families are the ones most at risk from drug overdose, death by violence, and HIV infection. These families are also the ones at greatest risk from epidemics of waterborne disease if and when the precarious water and sewage-treatment infrastructure breaks down again. Many of the homeless street children and youth are gays and lesbians who have been turned out of family homes elsewhere and have migrated to LA in search of refuge and new lives. Likewise, the frail elderly living on small, fixed incomes and those who have fallen into homelessness are much more vulnerable to the stress of LA's heat waves and bad air.

23 Davis (1993a, p. 24), who continues (pp. 24 - 25, citing the US Congress, House Ways and Means Committee, Green Book, Washington D.C., 1992) to the effect that the median welfare benefit for a family of three is now barely equal to one-third of the poverty threshold.

Response has taken the form of an elaborate social welfare system dating from the 1960s' and 1970s' era of the "Great Society" and "Model Cities" expenditures of state and federal money on programmes for the poor. This approach is rapidly disappearing, the social safety net unravelling, as limitations on property taxes and the decline in federal contributions have cut over US$ 1 billion from the heart of such programmes (Davis, 1993b, p. 44). The other approach has been technocratic. The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is another large, highly professional bureaucracy like the South Coast Air Quality Management District discussed earlier. Although designed to accepted standards of water quality and sewage treatment, rapid growth of population within the system has exceeded its capacity. The 1988 - 1993 drought, complex legal and financial negotiations to try to increase water supply, and the breakdown in 1987 of the Hyperion treatment plant are signs of stress on a system that is vital to the public health of many millions of people. As with many of the hazard responses reviewed in this chapter, there appears to be an over-reliance on engineering solutions and not enough attention is paid to the larger issue of growth control, or even to the many management issues that might be called the "software" counterpart to infrastructure's "hardware" (Herman and Ausubel, 1988, p. 1). For example, if the MWD were to charge the marginal price of additional service to its new customers (and not its old customers), there would be both more funding available for maintenance, hazard mitigation, and "surprises" as well as a significant disincentive to growth (balanced by incentives for conservation) (Hanson, 1988, pp. 265 - 266).

Solid-waste disposal is also a problem of possible significance for the future of public health, and another to which the response has been a technical solution. Greater Los Angeles creates 80,000 tons of garbage a day. The 1991 City of Los Angeles Solid Waste Plan predicted a shortfall of 22,000 tons per day in nearby landfill capacity. As noted earlier, there is community resistance to incineration. In the face of this large problem, the technological/commercial solution is a partnership between Waste Management of North America (the largest waste-management corporation the world) and the Atchison and Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. They are investing US$ 100 million in an integrated system of recycling recovery centres along existing rail lines throughout the Los Angeles area, where non-hazardous recyclables will be separated from the waste stream and sold locally to industry, and a long-distance disposal site some 225 miles from Los Angeles in the high desert of San Bernardino County for the rest. Each of the recovery sites is to have a capacity of 3,000 tons per day. The high desert site has a capacity of 200 million tons in a very arid zone planners claim is seismically stable. Waste Management promises to run the facility in an ecologically sound manner, covering each small cell, and eventually returning the site to its natural condition (Jacobson, 1993, pp. 34 - 35).

Whatever the pros or cons - and there have been some objections to the giant scheme - one has to ask why the plan revolves around only one of three basic waste-management "R's": recycling should be the last resort once attempts to reuse material (internally within industries, for instance) and to reduce it have been tried. Here again, as in the cases of air quality, drought, and brush fire, the fundamental issue such technical fixes avoid is the eventual need to control and regulate growth.

Changes in social hazards

The risks of many social hazards, like some of the biological ones, are small in the aggregate but are increasing. A practical distinction must be made between the "social problems" of individuals and families and the "social hazards" that affect a large proportion of a subgroup such as the African-American or Hispanic population. Civil unrest of the kind seen in the first24 and second Los Angeles uprisings is both the cause and effect of social hazards. To the extent that economic recession, youth unemployment, and disinvestment in social services are major causes of rioting, the future is likely to hold more uprisings (Williams, 1993). The vicious circle of poverty, degraded urban environment, anger, despair, drugs, and refuge in alternative paramilitary solidarity (the "hood") and alternative economic systems ("gangbanging") leads toward more and more confrontation with rival gangs and with the police. Escalation of violence is the necessary result.

24 Six days of looting and burning in Watts, at the centre of South Central LA, began on 11 August 1965; 34 people died, 1,032 were wounded, and 3,952 were arrested (Goetz, 1985, p. 309).

Exposure is also growing. Gangs are now present throughout the Greater Los Angeles region, and alienated youth from poor White, Hispanic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and other ethnic groups have become features of the mega-city landscape alongside the original African-American gangs (Davis, 1990, pp. 267 - 322).

Vulnerability to social hazards is age and race dependent. Los Angeles City had a "violent crime" rate of 9,239 per 100,000 population in 1985.25 These violent acts are disproportionately suffered by young African-American and Hispanic people (Sorenson et al., 1993) at the hands of other young people of colour. This is the second-highest rate in California, after the city of Oakland in the Bay Area, and one of the highest in the United States. The rate for the county of Los Angeles is only somewhat lower at 7,189 per 100,000 (Bureau of the Census, 1988, p. 45). A little less vulnerable are those youths who stay in school. However, the highest drop-out rates in both junior and senior high school are in the South Central district (Oliver et al., 1993, pp. 128 and 129).

25 "Violent crime" is defined as murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, and aggravated assault (Bureau of the Census, 1988, p. 611).

The predominant response to this complex of social hazards has been the use of deadly force and imprisonment. This includes the well-known "war on drugs," which really is experienced as a war by citizens caught in the cross-fire. In April 1989, the Los Angeles Police Department began "Operation Hammer" by sweeping 10 square blocks of South Central Los Angeles, arresting more African-American youth than at any time since the Watts uprising in 1965. One Mayor of Los Angeles has called the gangs "the Viet Cong abroad in our society" (Davis, 1990, p. 268). Although many public health and social service workers believe it is possible to prevent youths joining gangs by dealing with socially embedded causes (Lasley, 1992; Ostos, 1991), the Los Angeles Police Department appears committed to the notion that some youth are irreparably evil and must simply be "weeded" out of the community (Gates and Jackson, 1990). Construction of prison space is a second prong of the predominant response to social hazards. It is equally technocratic, narrow in its social vision, and self-defeating because the scarce city and county resources devoted to prison construction and policing have been extracted from the programmes for job-training and school retention, drug rehabilitation, family counselling, and economic welfare that might do something about the root causes of the problems (Davis, 1993a, pp. 23 - 25; 1993b, pp. 41 - 45). More constructive and humane is the approach of the Los Angeles Department of Children's Services. During the 1992 uprising it activated an earthquake contingency plan in children's shelters, provided additional counselling, and engaged in immediate relief activities (Patterson and Boehm, 1992).

Summary of hazard vulnerability

Of the four principal hazard dimensions discussed here (risk, exposure, vulnerability, response), patterns of vulnerability provide most insight into the complex interaction of social, technological, and natural processes in Greater Los Angeles. These are summarized in table 11.4.

The socio-economic and ethnic group that is most vulnerable to the first five hazards listed in table 11.4 is poor and non-White. These people are most likely to inhabit one of the 20,000 - 50,000 older buildings that pre-date earthquake building codes (Alexander, 1993, p. 337). A large number of immigrants from Mexico and locally born Mexican-Americans occupy such structures in East Los Angeles. Poor, non-White families are also more likely to live in the floodplain of the Los Angeles River, and they are more likely to live in areas where air pollution is not abated by coastal breezes. Likewise, low-income people - including many people of colour - live in heavily industrial areas, especially those near oil refineries in such places as Wilmington, El Segundo, Carson, and Torrance (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991). These are the areas that are most at risk from chemical fires and these are the people most likely to die in such blazes (Bureau of the Census, 1980, p. 208). More recent statistics, localized specifically for Greater LA, may well reveal that the poor, non-White population is more vulnerable to home fires.26

26 My guess is that the high numbers for people of colour on a national basis is the result of an epidemic of arson perpetrated by the owners of dilapidated apartment buildings in many big cities, who had them burned for the insurance money (so-called "insurance fires") and in order to get rid of "sitting tenants" and clear the way (albeit illegally) for more lucrative property redevelopment.

Table 11.4 The distribution of vulnerability in Greater Los Angeles

Earthquake injury


Bad air exposure

Chemical fire

Home fire


Drug overdose


Bad air injury

Heat exhaustion


Nuclear accident

Brush fire

Coastal storm & beach erosion

Poor, non-White






Poor, non-White youth










Poor, old



Homeless, old




Homeless, youth





Rich, White





Youthful members of families in the foregoing group are vulnerable to all of the hazards just discussed, but are also particularly vulnerable to the next four hazards in the table. Children are more vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution. Their older siblings are at risk of violence (assault, murder), drug overdose, and HIV infection, because of shared needles and sex with drug-using partners.

The elderly population, whatever its ethnicity, is physiologically vulnerable to heat exhaustion and to the ill-effects of air pollution on pre-existing cardiopulmonary conditions if they do not have enough money to live in the cooler and less polluted hills or at the beach or to afford air-conditioning. Those of their number who become homeless are also vulnerable to street violence, in addition to the stresses of malnutrition and exposure to heat and to some of the worst air, which collects around the old downtown area where many homeless congregate (Macey and Schneider, 1993).

It is estimated that there are as many as 50,000 homeless youths on the streets of Los Angeles County.27 They are subject to diverse hazards of the street, including violence (e.g. rape and sexual exploitation), HIV, drug overdose, malnutrition, and chronic diseases such as tuberculosis, compounded by the effects of air pollution.

27 Personal communication from Gabe Kruks, acting Executive Director, Gay and Lesbian Community Services, West Hollywood, 1992.

Beach and hillside locations render upper-middle-class and rich Angelenos more exposed to landslides, coastal storms, beach erosion, and brush fires. These are natural hazards not generally visited upon the poor of Greater LA. Although spared the worst of the bad air and proximity to hazardous chemical industries, a large number of the rich live well within reach of the San Onofre nuclear power complex. A Chernobyl-scale event could spread a radioactive cloud well into the Mexican barrio of East Los Angeles (just 57 miles from San Onofre), but smaller (and more likely) accidents could well mar the "perfect" Orange County lifestyle in, for example, Irvine Spectrum or John Wayne, CA.

Opportunities for intervention

This chapter has emphasized the contribution of pathological social processes to hazard-vulnerability in Greater Los Angeles. It is necessary to focus on these pathologies not simply because social (and biological) hazards are important components of the mega-city's hazard portfolio, but also because a clear understanding of social pathology is crucial to the formulation of effective "bottom - up" strategies of hazard reduction. Given the shortcomings of existing "top - down" strategies, bottom - up strategies offer alternative paths toward a less hazardous future. These reasons are amplified below.

First, "biological" and "social" risks threaten large numbers of people. In terms of contributions to overall rates of suffering and death, their magnitude is greater than all the "natural" hazards combined, with the possible exception of a very large earthquake.

Secondly, social and biological hazards bear most heavily on specific groups. For the African-Americans and Hispanics who are most affected, they are more than random events; they are perceived as further products of racial and ethnic discrimination. Therefore they threaten to add to social disintegration as well as to induce direct harm.

Thirdly, the potential is strong for interaction between social and biological hazards on the one hand and natural and technological ones on the other. Continued racial tension, economic polarization, and social disintegration may produce more arson, sabotage, and environmental terrorism.

Fourthly, denial and flight from burgeoning social and biological hazards have set in motion political processes that stripped inner-city LA and LA County of the funds necessary for mitigating all kinds of hazards.

Fifthly, in Greater Los Angeles comprehensive community-based hazard mitigation depends on the willingness of people from all ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds to work collaboratively for the common good. Continued polarization perpetuates short-term parochial interests and frustrates this goal.

Bottom - up hazard mitigation

Ideally, communities should be able to assess the hazards that affect them and to plan and execute effective mitigation programmes (Anderson and Woodrow, 1989; Blaikie et al., 1994; Hardoy and Satterthwaite, 1989; Maskrey, 1989). Despite anomie, economic polarization, and spatial and social fragmentation, this opportunity still exists in Greater Los Angeles. Groups such as Mothers of East Los Angeles, Concerned Citizens of South Central, and Labor/Community Watchdog have shown that it is possible. Unfortunately, such initiatives are exceptions. Many people remain locked behind their security fences and trust that large bureaucracies will "solve" hazards by means of technology: police helicopters and computers; fire-fighting air tankers that drop retardant chemicals in 250 gallon (946 litre) batches; a Rail Cycle that hauls garbage into the desert; more and fancier treatment plants; perfect "clean" fuels for cars.

What is needed is more active community participation in decisions that affect people's lives, and, specifically in hazard identification and mitigation. Models for this kind of planning have existed for a long time (Clavel, 1986; Gans, 1968; Wisner et al., 1991). The obstacles - lack of funding, economic collapse of many communities, racial separation, and fear - are very great, but the effort has to be made. As shown by Puente in chapter 9 in this volume, Mexico City has achieved considerable progress in community-based disaster reconstruction, and the same principles could be applied more widely to other hazard-management initiatives. Not only did the Mexican programmes strengthen the city's capacity for mitigating, coping with, and recovering from any future disaster; locally based programmes created 115,000 new construction jobs that were filled almost exclusively by locally recruited workers (Pantelic, 1991, pp. 92 and 93). Do the social networks that support poor people in Mexico City not exist in the Los Angeles barrios (Lomnitz, 1977; Romo, 1984)? Is it not possible to organize recovery, from riots and fires as well as from natural disasters, in ways that strengthen the social and economic capacity of the local community in the long run? For a start, it is necessary to listen to what people in such communities are saying (Madhubuti, 1993; Martinez, 1993).

Conclusion: What future for Greater Los Angeles?

Casting about for futures, I am drawn to the past. Catullus and Plutarch provide descriptions of flood, fire, and redevelopment in Rome c. 50 - 40 B.C.:

"The low parts of the city were subject to periodic floods, and the collapse and conflagration of buildings were common occurrences. In the Principate it is said that not a day passed without a serious fire, yet then there were 7,000 vigiles to put them out, in the Republic only a small force of publicly owned slaves. Crassus had a gang of five hundred builders, and bought up houses that were afire or adjacent to a blaze at knock-down prices with a view to rebuilding on the sites." (Brunt, 1966, p. 12)

This pessimistic view of the urban future is one that has been shared by many who have written about Los Angeles. In one novel, the mega-city of 2052 is a place where water and gas are rationed, disease flourishes, and everyone is regarded as a stranger (Kadohata, 1992). In the movie Bladerunner (Harvey, 1989, pp. 308 - 323), the picture of 2010 is no less inviting: the county's population of 10 million contains 5 million living in poverty; there are half a million homeless; and commuters spend two hours in freeway traffic travelling at 15 mph (24 kph), surrounded by air so poor that it is a major cause of death for 100,000 people each year.

These portraits are hardly just speculative science fiction. They can be arrived at by modest projections of current trends (Labor/Community Watchdog, 1991, p. 9). However, by the time conditions deteriorate to the levels envisaged above, the last historic chance to put "planning as debate" or "participative conflict planning" into place, both from the top - down and from the bottom - up, will be lost. Despair, anger, and fear will seal the haves and have-nots off from each other. Such a future might bring sabotage of water and sewage-treatment plants, nuclear terrorism, or brush fires set by arsonists, combined with police sweeps of suspected communities. Or it might involve an intensification of "natural" disasters and "normal" accidents (Perrow, 1984), or some combination of socially instrumental retaliatory hazard and "normality."

Is such a future avoidable? It must be. Deyan Sudjic probably had something of the sort in mind when he wrote:

Unfettered capitalism, when it meets the absolutes of photochemical smog and water shortages, finds itself having from necessity to think about its future just like any social-democratic, Northwest European utopia - particularly when the city's dispossessed begin to take the law into their own hands and start burning down shopping centres. (1993, p. 102)

Since the election of Mayor Riordan in 1994, there are signs that the sheer magnitude of the multiple hazards facing Los Angeles have deflected the ideology of growth and the marketplace toward more pragmatic directions. For example, Mayor Riordan did not support his fellow-Republican, Governor Pete Wilson, when he campaigned for Proposition 187 - the ballot initiative that would deny public services such as health and education to illegal immigrants and their children. The new Mayor was also impressive in a technical way as he pushed agencies and contractors to repair the Santa Monica freeway after the Northridge earthquake. He succeeded two months ahead of schedule.

On a gloomier note, in December 1994 it was announced that the city of Los Angeles would not be awarded federal "enterprise zone" grants to rebuild after the riot of 1992 and the earthquake of 1994. This was another financial blow to the mega-city, following on the heels of an announcement that Orange County had lost US$ 2 billion in risky investments. If the dystopia is to be avoided, what is needed, above all, is financial stabilization combined with closer integration and coordination of county and municipal governments. As this chapter has emphasized, the economic force of globalization and the political force of possessive individualism both tend to work against integration and coordination. Yet many competent and caring professionals and energetic community groups in Greater Los Angeles are working for a safer and more humane future. In these people is the hope of the mega-city.


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