Friday, June 17, 2005

California Raining

After this week’s seismic jiggling, several friends have asked me, “How can you stand to live there? Aren’t you scared of earthquakes?”

The answer is, of course, that I’m prepared for them, but I don't obsess over them any more than I used to obsess over snowstorms and lightning and heat waves, back when I lived in a four-season climate.

Pennsylvanians keep snow shovels and salt for icy paths, and they unplug the computer whenever thunderstorms come; Californians fasten bookcases to the wall with brackets and watch where they place their beds to avoid being crushed by falling furniture. The weather (or the quakes) wax and wane as a topic of conversation. Occasionally a big quake or a notable blizzard will hit, producing a crop of anecdotes and a few untimely deaths.

Right now the biggest topic of conversation (not to mention the greatest hazard to life and limb) isn't the side effects of plate tectonics. It's the unprecedented rain we've been having.

It’s global warming!

It’s a sign of the Apocalypse!

It’s rain in June.

This year we've had twice as much rain in June as usual, and people are complaining bitterly. After a soggy May, we were all hoping for some sunshine, but so far June has featured spectacularly wet weather.

This is a state where mudslides routinely take out communities of million-dollar homes (which would cost about $250,000 anywhere else), where wildfires are an essential part of the ecosystem, where people continue to buy overpriced real estate despite the omnipresent threat of the Big Quake. Californians are nonchalant when it comes to dealing with Mother Nature’s biggest tantrums. To scare them, the rainfall has to be impressive.

How much rain have we had? Twice the average.

The average rainfall for June is a scant tenth of an inch.

That's right. We've had less than a quarter-inch of rain this month, and Californians are behaving as though they’ve been martyred—not to mention driving as though they hope to die for their faith that all roads are dry.

Rain has much the same effect on California freeways as ice or snow does in Philadelphia or Washington, DC: it causes panic in some drivers, who slow to 5 mph, and contempt in others, who continue to drive at 75 mph. Clearly a recipe for disaster.

Moreover, the dust and oil of the freeways tends to accumulate between storms, creating a viciously slick surface that, in the first minutes of a shower, can rival black ice for treacherous skidworthiness.

The mournful toll of multicar pileups, solo spin-outs, and overturned vehicles shouldn’t surprise me. I hope that someday people will adjust to the fact that they live in a place that gets rain sometimes, and learn to drive in it. Perhaps then Mother Nature will relent and give us clear skies until the rain is scheduled to start again in November.

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