110. The Big One

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According to geologists, a huge earthquake will probably hit California within the next 20 years. If it hits a populated area, the number of deaths will greatly exceed the 1,070 deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

Three California quakes between 1987 and 1994 killed more than 100 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. From 1994 to 2000, the state spent several billion dollars reinforcing bridges, overpasses, and buildings. But budget problems have halted these repairs. Today, more than 1,000 schools and hospitals, not to mention thousands of other government and private structures, throughout the state do not meet earthquake standards. Many of these buildings will collapse like a house of cards if they are in the immediate area of a quake.

As usual, the state is between a rock and a hard place. If schools use their budgets to reinforce their buildings, they will have little money for teachers. Classes will be discontinued. Everyone's priority, of course, is to keep the schools open.

"All we're doing is crossing our fingers," said a state legislator. "But that's exactly what they did in Louisiana. They could have fixed the levee system for about $10 billion. But they didn't; they just crossed their fingers. Now it's going to cost $100 billion to rebuild New Orleans. Here in California, we're saying that we can't afford the $10 billion. But where are we going to get the $100 billion to rebuild everything afterward? People never learn. They always close the barn door after the horse escapes."

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