Feb 8 2014
The following excerpt from “Water Shock, The Day Southern California Went Dry” is a meeting between the president of Metahydro, Bill Randolph, the principal character in the story, Charlie Reagan, Christy Garcia, an associate and Frank Lund, another engineer.
“How much time do we have?” Charlie asked.
“How long can a person go without water?” Bill responded.
“Three to five days.”
“That’s how long we have,” Bill said as he rose from his chair. “Let’s do it.”
“Just a minute, Bill,” Christy said. “We’re talking in macro terms here, and not about the effect of all of this on the average citizen. Will they be dying of thirst, or just angry? Will any business be conducted? Transportation facilities still open? Buses running? Planes flying?”
“Christy, I couldn’t possibly answer those questions. We simply don’t know. But what we do know is people have a normalcy bias. That is to say, in times of stress, they attempt to act normally—go through normal and routine schedules, do things they would do in any given day. It’s their way of maintaining sanity in chaotic situations. So, yes, to the extent possible for the first few days after the quake, with the exception of San Francisco, a lot of the citizenry will do what people do under those circumstances—try to fix the broken, help the injured, bury the dead, and continue to earn a living. But that has a limited duration. For example, when power was off in San Diego for under twenty-four hours a few decades ago, people had outdoor parties using food that might spoil, candlelight dinners, and other coping activities. But because the pumping facilities in some areas were down, there was no water pressure. That caused some panic but nothing serious.
“After that,” Bill continued, “in my opinion the vilest traits of the human spirit start to emerge. Natural man is not a pretty sight. Law enforcement breaks down, vigilante groups form, water riots are common. People pay exorbitant prices for a single bottle of water. And, yes, people are literally dying of thirst. We are in the summer months now. The aged are the first to go, and then the young children.”
“I’ve never experienced it personally but have come close,” Charlie said. “Severe dehydration is not fun stuff. The skin is dry and cold, with loss of elasticity. The eyeballs are sunken into the skull, and there are no tears or sweat. The mouth is dry, and the tongue sticks to the roof of the mouth. In small children, the skin over the scalp is sunken in places overlying openings in the skull bones for continued growth of the brain. In the early stages, there is a strong sense of thirst, dizziness, and weakness—breathing is fast and shallow, and there’s blurring of vision and double vision. Later, confusion and delirium develop as the condition worsens, sometimes ending in convulsions and coma. That’s why the frantic out-migration started.”
Could water possibly cost $50 a bottle? Yes, it could, and has. When the disastrous Sylmar earthquake rocked the north end of Los Angeles, water mains were broken. People were desparate for water. Larry Edwards reported in a piece in San Diego Magazine that water was selling for $50 a bottle.
Milton N. Burgess, P. E., FASPE
Author of “Water Shock, The Day Southern California Went Dry”