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In An Earthquake, History Fuels One Writer's Anxiety

San Francisco on fire in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. (Getty Images)

While most of America is thinking burgers and swimming this Labor Day weekend, I can't stop thinking about earthquakes.

Last Sunday, a shaker registering 6.0 on the Richter Scale struck the Napa Valley in northern California. It injured dozens and caused about $1 billion in damages. National media coverage focused on how the quake affected the area's famous wine industry — because America needs to know that our stock of Cabs and Zinfadels is safe.

I, on the other hand, immediately remembered the Big One: the catastrophic quake that seismologists have long predicted will wreak havoc on Southern California someday... but no one knows when. So every little movement, every sway of a lamp or rattle of pans puts me on edge, makes me duck and cover. And after the Napa quake, I turned to Simon Winchester's excellent book A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 — you know, for some light reading.

The book was released on the centennial of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which killed over 3,000 people and essentially leveled the city. Winchester details the devastation—houses turned into piles of sticks, blocks leveled by fires that followed, thousands left homeless for months. But the book's most terrifying passage takes place on the morning of the quake. Here, Winchester describes the calm before the disaster hit: "The breeze was westerly but light. Dawn was unfolding quietly, serenely. All was perfect peace."

Clichéd? Sure. But that's the scary thing about earthquakes: you never know when they're coming, or where.

Only one thing is certain: scientists say the San Andreas Fault that caused the San Francisco quake will unleash the Big One sooner rather than later. So I guess I'll just wait for it, and read and re-read Winchester's book again until then. Happy Labor Day!

Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif., and author of the book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

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