by Marc Reisner, Pantheon Books, 2003, 181 pages, $22.
Don’t let the hyperinflated housing market fool you. The Bay Area is sit-uated atop some of the most seismically unappealing real estate in the world. In fact, the nine-county region has the highest density of earthquake faults per square kilometer of any metropolitan area in the world.
Despite the probability of a devastating temblor, people continue to pack into the region with uninhibited zeal. In the past two decades, a population equal to Oregon’s has moved _to the quake-prone Bay Area. In A Dangerous Place, author Marc Reisner, best known for Cadillac Desert, his seminal examination of the environmental and economic consequences of water policies in the American West, illuminates the folly of our urban planning amid the inevitability of a repeat of a 1906-type cataclysm.
The first two-thirds of the book delve into the state’s rich earthquake history and decipher the current conditions that would exacerbate the effects of a major convulsion in the region. Perhaps the Bay Area’s biggest disadvantage, Reisner notes, is that so much of it—airports, freeway approaches, entire neighborhoods—is constructed on top of semi-saturated, unconsolidated soils.
Reisner then spends the final third of the book offering a first-person account of surviving a hypothetical 7-plus doozy along the northern section of the Hayward Fault (in the East Bay). While this approach is jarringly unconventional in a work of nonfiction, the author injects enough legitimate science to prevent it from entering the realm of pure Hollywood. But in describing the mayhem that would ensue following such a temblor, Reisner exhibits a cinematic flair: “In a single minute, downtown Oakland has become Sarajevo, or Chechnya.”
Unfortunately, the book feels too rushed. Perhaps because Reisner finished the manuscript shortly before his death in 2000, he was unable to give it the same type of exhaustive energy he lavished upon Cadillac Desert. Despite this shortcoming, A Dangerous Place effectively conveys an equally harrowing message: We can only dodge nature’s wrath for so long.