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By Alfred de Grazia

Part Two: Geological Issues



They left without paying their bills, but that is not why the waiters hurried after them. At 22: 53 hours of this evening of February 23, 1981 a strange deep bassoon called the patrons of Philippo's Taverna to attention, and seconds later they found themselves altogether swaying like a ballet, their faces turned on in the unique poseidonian awe of earthquake recognition, and some were jostling at the door even before the lights went out. Once outside, there were those who hurried to their children, those who walked the middle of the streets towards home, and those who stood about in the little open plateia exclaiming at the marvel of Athens' first earthquake. Several sheets of lightning played over the scene. A car drove agitatedly by the human clots on the street, bewildered, one driver shouting: "Has there been a coup?" The failed Spanish coup had been the topic of the day. Shortly another tremor vigorously nudged the city, but it was the last until hours later and, by then, many Athenians had left town in their cars. Others cowered in their autos during the night; the plateia were crowded; so too the seashore; but most people lay nervously in their own beds, hoping for surcease.

The tremors were counted in hundreds over the next several days. Only the most sensitive people - and animals - could detect them. One woman - no doubt there were others - exhibited a surprising ability to feel trembling that no one else could sense. (It would be useful to investigate scientifically this acute sensitivity.) The next day, one could park anywhere and the ordinarily crowded center of Athens was empty of workers, a sort of class B movie setting of a city struck by plague. The Athenians who took flight behaved like true Spartans. These doughty ancient warriors, who flinched at no army whatever, would invariably be sent flying home at the rumble of an earthquake. It amounted to a psychological complex. The Hebrews, for instance, had the reverse complex. They might actually time their assaults with shaking of their enemies as witness the battle of Jericho where Joshua's men paraded around the town until the walls came tumbling down and they might rush through the breaches.

Ancient precedents were not the verbal currency of these several days, however. One heard only that "Athens has never had an earthquake." Well, almost never, and never in this generation. No matter that, in the times of its founding, Poseidon, god of the sea and of earthquakes, wanted to take over Attica, and you know what that means. Pallas Athene had other ideas, and Zeus lent her a helping hand, so Athens survived.

But Plato's Criton tells us that Solon was told by the Egyptian priests that, once upon a time, his Athenian ancestors lost an army that was struggling for the control of Atlantis when that fair land sank in furious trembling beneath the waves. This was fixed at 9000 years before, but possibly the years had been shorter in an earlier age - since a cosmic disaster, a comet or meteoroid, can both cause catastrophic earthquakes and slow down the movements of even a planet.

More and more, the archaeological evidence would indicate that earthquakes were anciently more terrible, not only in Greece but in Thrace and Anatolia and all over the world in fact. As Helen Churchill Semple's book on ancient geography argues: "If earthquakes would break the nerve and nullify the life-long training of Spartan troops, there must have been abundant reason."

Ambrayses was able to trace 3000 earthquakes of the Eastern Mediterranean since Christ's day, and perceives little change in frequency or intensity. So it appears that there were in the founding of Greek civilization great seismic eras, but that the seismism has petered out over the ages. Rome, to take another example, which presently is as "free" from earthquakes as Athens, had a couple of hundred in one year according to the encyclopaedist Pliny.

Plato also tells us that the fresh water springs that once flowed on the acropolis were blocked forever by an earthquake. Pliny and Plato lacked a Mercalli or a Richter scale, so it is hard to say how strong the early quakes really were. The Mercalli scale is the common man and the politician's scale. It provides as scale markers the sensory perception that accompany the different degrees of trembling.

The Richter scale was all that we heard about. It registered 6.6 and 6.3 at the epicenter below the northeast waters of the Gulf and Corinth, and a lot of other jiggles that duly engraved themselves upon the turning paper drums of the seismic instruments in Greece and around the world. What does 6.6 means? It means that Southern Italy's extra point months before was not just worse; it was many times worse - as if you moved not from 99F to 100F fever but from 104 to 105, whereupon your mind and body begin to fall to pieces.

Registers of intensity around 6.5 means that many structures will be destroyed at the surface below which the rocks are slipping and sliding, and less damage will occur as one moves out along the same rocks and the rocks with which they are connected by origin or proximity. Those nice circles that are drawn around epicenters do not means much; the area of spread should have been a splotch of many measurements at specific locations. Nor was the graph with its kind of fever chart useful to people; but to feed the public craving for "hard data" the newspapers publish these.

Perhaps Athens may be protected by its peculiar schist, a rock that has millions of cracks, all in fact tiny fractures that have their own slip and slide patterns. So that Athenians are provided with a kind of cushion that sends shocks flying in every disorderly direction and has space to take up shock as well. If the city were glued to the bedrock that was the prime mover, it would have suffered more extensive damage. As for the origins of this Athens schist itself, I think that it must represent an age when the ground below was in a continuous grinding torment of electrical and mechanical churning at high temperatures. Earthquakes are frequently a time to placate gods, go to war, and change governments. For a while we shall see not only a brisk commerce in plastering and selling bric-a-brac, but also a certain heightened religious enthusiasm. Something of this religious feeling must be behind the notion bandied about that the Mother Earth of Attica was rejecting the body of onetime Queen Frederika from burial in its soil (an event which had taken place only days earlier), an idea actually foreshadowed by one newspaper, although unaware of the imminence of the earthquake. Such absurd ideas can spread easily; an unscrupulous party might readily persuade an unsophisticated third of the Athenians of its relatedness.

The quake was a tragic but local event; none will be swooping down upon hapless Greece like the sons of Herakles during the huge earthquakes that ended the Mycenean culture. War is not in the offing.

Blaming the government is another matter. The communists have already declared that the government was forewarned of the quake to the very day by the seismic station at Uppsala, which was "99%" sure, according to certain dispatches. We can doubt that this "information" was provided or providable. That an earthquake or a set of them will soon occur is hardly a useful prediction, but is more likely the prediction that was provided. These paranoid rumors of "what others knew and we didn't know" were produced largely out of the inferiority complex many Greeks have about foreign expertness and at the same time fed upon the complex. (The American military's radio station, by the way, was almost totally useless for information and advice despite the urgent need felt by tens of thousands of English-speaking persons in the area.)

True, too, a science of earthquake predictions is slowly developing. Successful prediction within a day or two can occur, as in Mexico recently, this by an American scientist practicing for the momentous earthquakes building up along the San Andreas fault in California, where the San Francisco Bay area is at stake. But for every one such, there are numerous incorrect expert predictions. We can also be sure that, like election prediction by sample surveys, the predictions will not be able to go beyond 90% in accuracy as to the general time and place, and less and less accuracy as the moment of the quake arrives, until, of course, the dogs begin to bark and the birds take flight.

What can the government do? In one way, the state is more secure if earthquakes cannot be predicted. It is not a matter of incompetence alone. Imagine a 90% sure prediction for the long-range and the short-range of a 7-intensity quake in the Athens area, something now quite unattainable. Regarding the long-range, would you build a permanent vacant tent-city for three million people? And if so, where? And provide it unceasingly with its blankets, cots, freshwater, canned rations, toilets and medical supplies? Or would you rebuild Athens to withstand a 7- intensity tremor? Or would you design a new city to replace a ruined Athens, perhaps the only solution for many of Athens' urban problems, allowing, say, that three million people will live in tents or go home to No-where until it is finished?

And it is well to bear in mind that none knows how intense earthquakes can be; the measuring and reporting systems are less than a century old. I can hear the voices now: "I told you we should have built against a number 8, not 7, quake." And they would flaunt a study in Science magazine. (Or, "we should evacuate at the prediction of 6, not 7.")

In the short run, the curse of predictability is no less. Suppose you could march the population out of Athens in an orderly fashion upon receipt of an expert opinion that tomorrow or the day after all hell will break loose. Will the people resist? What essential services will be risked to remain in the city -- police, fire, water, light, bulldozers, building maintenance engineers, army units? Who will evict those who remained in the city from their quarters in the houses of others who are returning? Who will compensate businesses that must close down, some suffering damage, others very little?

Then what if the earthquake does not happen? Who wants to decide at what point to order everyone to return? Something like that occurred in Guadeloupe, in the French West Indies, a few years ago: a volcano was about to explode, said various experts, and half the people were sent to safe locations upon order of the prefect. The volcano did not oblige and ever since then the French have been arguing over the decisions and the restitution of losses in agriculture, business, and tourism. Too, should people be forced to leave, even if they swear to take all responsibility upon themselves? Can children be left to abide by parental decisions; can the injured then be left to scream from beneath the debris?

No doubt, steps can be taken to minimize damage and deaths: public education should go hand in hand with predictibility. A code of disaster behavior should be enacted and taught to the whole people.

European and American media were talking about the Attic quake right away. In France, where demonstrations had been held against building a nuclear power plant very near a major Alsatian earthquake fault, the media, which are controlled by the government, restrain their own coverage, especially in emergencies. In peaceful periods, it is best not to build up fears that can turn quickly into panic. But, in the crisis itself, prompt and full information and advice should be the policy. Much can be on ready-to-play tapes to begin with, approved, say, by a parliamentary commission engineers, political scientists, social psychologists, and seismic scientist. The same commission could be convened immediately upon the emergency to oversee the diffusion of instructions; if the commission holds public confidence, it can lessen the dangers of panic and of senseless orders.

The problems are so grave, in sum, that only deliberately partial procedures can be followed before, during, and after an earthquake crisis. Poseidon is tricky, cruel, implacable, surprising and infinitely destructive; human foresight and reactions can adapt to him but not prevail over him. He is no respecter of persons, no more than Yahweh. The Pharaoh's son and the slave's as well were struck down in the Passover before Exodus. The clients of the Hilton Hotel and Neofaleron cheap rooms sway in the same ballet.

Someday it may be possible to explode or grease the faulting rocks threatening the earth. Meanwhile, one might take comfort in the thought that the risk of being harmed by nuclear missiles is thousands of times greater than from an earthquake. And what is being done bout that?


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