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The quake in California

OUR hearts go out to the southern Californians digging out from Thursday's earthquake, and especially to those mourning loved ones. This temblor, rated 6.1 on the Richter scale, was not the ``big one'' widely expected in southern California sometime in the next half century. But it was ranked one of the three strongest in the Los Angeles area in the past 55 years, behind a 6.3 quake that struck Long Beach in 1933 and a 6.4 quake that struck the San Fernando Valley in 1971.

That the damage last week was relatively minimal, given the severity of the quake, is a testament to the measures taken to reduce the region's vulnerability to earthquake damage. Building codes introduced after the 1933 and '71 quakes have helped ensure that buildings, roads, and other structures are better able to resist the temblors, big and small, that rumble through so often. Thus it was all the more tragic that some of last week's fatalities were attributed ultimately to sheer fright.

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A larger question remains about the responsibility of the state to protect people from their own folly by preventing construction in earthquake hazard zones. But beyond that, there is no need for Californians - or anyone else - to accept the inevitability of geological catastrophe sooner or later.


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