x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

An ocean away, LA still vacillates between mellow and panic

Southern California sympathises with Japan's plight, but that doesn't stop the wingnuts from panicking about the highly unlikely event of a radioactive cloud crossing the Pacific.

Last week, walking the dog along Venice Beach for an early morning jog, I noticed a huge crowd gathered by the bike path.

Normally, at that time of the morning, there are only a couple of hardy surfers making their way to the water's edge, boards tucked under their arms, making a purposeful trot across the sand. That day, though, the water was dotted with dozens of surfers, the sand was full of people, and all along the bike path wall there were photographers with expensive rigs, all pointed out to sea.

The surfer dude next to me must have noticed my baffled look.

"Waitin' for the tsunami, boss," he said. "You know? From Japan?"

He and I spend a few moments talking in serious and awestruck tones about the devastation in Japan - at that point, no one knew the extent of the tragedy and despair that was about to unfold, but it's hard to look out at the mighty sea and not say a prayer or two (or three) for the poor souls, an ocean away, who were caught in its thrashing.

"We're lighting candles and praying," he said to me in deadly earnest.

I nodded.

"Can you imagine that? A wall of water? Dude," he said. "Unreal."

I nodded again. And then my surfer pal leapt over the bike path wall, pulled his surfboard over after him, and raced out into the surf.

In Southern California, we really only have two settings when it comes to natural disasters: Mellow and Sheer Panic.

Last Friday, the switch was decidedly set to Mellow. The highest seas had been predicted to roll into the southern beaches by 8.30am or so, and die-hard surfers were expecting major swells. The rest of the crowds along the beach were there out of sheer reckless curiosity.

That's the way we handle these things out here, when we're set on Mellow. It's all about getting a great photograph, surfing a great wave, experiencing a colossal natural event.

In Southern California, this is the attitude that causes us to build cities on earthquake fault lines, to live on mudslide-prone hillsides or tinder-dry canyons. When the rest of the world hears "tsunami", it runs for the hills. When we hear it in Southern California, we grab our longboards and head for the beach.

As it turned out, when the wave finally did reach the Southern California shore, it was barely detectable. Up north along the Oregon coast, it was a different story: boats were beached and piers damaged by the force.

Having spent the week on Mellow, though, Southern California is now ready for a little Sheer Panic. News reports are forecasting that a radioactive cloud - dispersed from the failing nuclear reactors in tsunami and earthquake struck Japan - is heading out to sea, and should reach Southern California by Sunday.

It's almost certainly overblown. Despite the breathless local headlines - "Radioactive Cloud, Heading Our Way! - the truth is, even if the plume manages to make it to Los Angeles, whatever toxic radioactivity that remains is going to be miniscule.

But that isn't stopping the panic from beginning. At dinner tonight with friends, half of the table was trying to get iodine tablets to protect themselves from the "fallout". Which is, of course, ludicrous. Iodine is for serious and sustained exposure to the chemicals, like strontium and cesium, that are dispersed when a nuclear reactor goes kablooey. Taking iodine pills here, though, makes about as much sense as putting on a raincoat in Los Angeles because it's raining in Munich.

Another tablemate, a screenwriter friend of mine - a man who I know for a fact possesses little or no scientific knowledge; a man who has yet to successfully pair a Bluetooth device to his iPhone - held forth for several nonsensical minutes about thermal currents and plume trajectories, until our eyes glazed over and he snapped us all to attention by citing some (dubious) cancer statistics. The result was that he convinced a huge portion of his audience to head out of town for the weekend. "Until the plume disperses," he said, which is a sentence that contains precisely zero connection to reality.

One week ago, people were gathering along the shore in eager clumps waiting to see a giant wave. One week ago, it was Situation: Mellow - despite the fact that a tsunami could really have hit, could conceivably have done some damage, might even have swept some surfers and lookey-loos out to sea. One week later, in total contradiction to known science, we're shifting into Sheer Panic.

And that's the problem with Southern California. The first rule of show business is, timing is everything. But despite a town filled with experts on that subject, we have a hard time following that rule.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood