Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: The magnitude of the 17 January 1994 Northridge earthquake was deliberately under-reported in order to spare the government from having to pay out emergency relief funds.
Origins: On 17 January 1994, Los Angeles area residents were shaken awake at
It was devastatingly awful. Folks were shocked when the quake was reported to have registered a mere 6.7 on the Richter scale. They were thus prepared to believe almost anything that would confirm the quake's intensity to have been much higher.
After the Northridge quake, a bogus fax on fake Caltech letterhead (misstated as "Cal Tech") was circulated throughout the
Caltech (actually the U.S. Geological Survey at Caltech) had not under-reported the figure — the Northridge quake was a 6.7 no matter who measured it. Earthquake data is almost instantaneously shared among a number of organizations worldwide, and one group's under-reporting the magnitude would have been quickly picked up by the others. Even if Caltech had wanted to suppress the real numbers, it would have been unable to do so without the cooperation of a number of other scientific organizations.
The scary fax played into what people wanted to believe. Those who'd lived through the quake swore it had to have been much stronger than the 6.7 that was being reported. From this belief was the legend born: if Caltech was fudging the magnitude of the event, there had to be a reason. Inventive sorts that humans are, it wasn't long before someone advanced the plausible-sounding explanation that the amount and type of aid provided to disaster victims by the government was predicated upon the severity of the event; by convincing Caltech to under-report, the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) slipped off the hook. According to this rumor, since the quake's intensity was under 7.0, FEMA only had to provide loans to earthquake victims rather than outright grants, which saved the agency billions of dollars.
The rumor, of course, was false. FEMA never gives loans to those disadvantaged by disaster; its assistance comes in the form of grants to those affected. That agency works with the Small Business Administration (SBA), which provides
Also, FEMA bases its aid on need, not upon a standardized chart that determines how much can be allocated according to what scientists measure. Likewise, insurance companies base their earthquake policy liability on damage estimates, not on magnitude scales. This makes sense — under a system like the one hinted at in the legend, survivors of a large earthquake in a relatively unpopulated zone would be eligible for free aid while those trying cope with the aftermath of a lesser disaster in a far more densely populated area would be saddled with repaying government loan debts (or would receive no financial assistance at all). An extreme hypothetical example could see millions of free dollars directed towards the rebuilding of one house in Alaska while 200,000 uninsured and homeless Californians had do without, all because Alaska was hit by an 8.2 while California had to cope with only a 6.7.
The legend took off the way it did for reasons other than just the usual mistrust of government and science that marks such whispers. Getting up close and personal with the unthinkable heightens the experience, which explains in part why this legend was so widely believed by Los Angeleans: they'd been shaken out of bed and back to reality by this earthquake, whereas they had experienced other large quakes that had taken place in other lands merely as words on a page or images on a television screen. In a world where the ruin of the 6.9 Kobe quake
There was yet another reason for this legend's running rampant: its location. The quake's epicenter was in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, a heavily-populated area, and so felt stronger to many people because those who experienced the sensation were right on top of the worst of it. Additionally, we humans have a desire to star ourselves in the drama of the moment. A 6.7 didn't sound worthy of the harrowing experience endured by those resident on
On a final note, one further rumor attached to FEMA in California: that illegal immigrants who surfaced to apply for disaster relief would be rounded up, handed over to INS, and deported. That rumor did not begin with the Northridge quake, however; it was recorded in the aftermath of the
While FEMA's aid is now available only to U.S. citizens, legal residents of the U.S., and the resident parents of U.S. citizens (that is, children born in the USA), at the time of the Loma Prieta quake, the assistance it directed was available to citizens and non-citizens alike. As for alerting the INS to potential illegals, FEMA pointed out at that time that it didn't ask about the citizenship status of aid applicants, with questions about citizenship status not even being presented on any of its forms. (That has since changed — FEMA
Barbara "not a milked shake" Mikkelson
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