Blankets and Body Bags


We did the drills in elementary school, packed the survival kits and planned our escape routes. And when a major quake happened – Northridge in 1994, Whittier in 1987, Sylmar in 1971 – we stood in our doorways and lit our candles and waited for power and safety to be restored.

People died, but not as many as might be expected. Property was damaged, but for the most part not irreparably. We made our insurance claims and shared our stories and as sure as bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405, our lives went back to normal.

There are around 100 earthquakes a day in California, tremors so small that we don’t feel them. We get two or three larger quakes (in the 5.0 range or more) each year, which sometimes cause minor to moderate damage but rarely any loss of life.

Earthquakes are serious business but they are also business as usual here. They’re part of the overall cost of living, right up there with sunscreen and valet parking. We don’t think about them until we have to think about them – and then we forget until the next one.

When the quake that hit Turkey and Syria happened, I admit I didn’t get it at first. The full scope of the damage and devastation took time to take hold. The death toll rose faster than a thermometer in the desert, from a few thousand to 10,000 to now more than 25,000 lives and still counting.

I didn’t fully understand until we had dinner with some friends who know someone in Turkey. Their Turkish friend lost her business and her home; her mother is missing.

“We need blankets and body bags,” she said. Not money or food, not first aid supplies or blood donations.

Blankets and body bags. That’s the reality we don’t see. The reality we don’t want to know.

The Turkish and Syrian governments failed to act quickly, failed to see the reality in front of them, failed to do the one thing, the only thing, that governments are supposed to do – protect and care for their citizens. Forget about Turkey’s shortsighted incompetence or Syria’s ongoing 12-year civil war. This was a time to put humanity first and they blew it.

Our infrastructure may be stronger here in SoCal. We may be more prepared and able to ride out a Big One with far less severe consequences. But that doesn’t mean we have to remain numb whether an earthquake happens next door or 7,000 miles away.

As Southern Californians we should know better. As people and as governments, we need to do better.

Because while 25,000 is catastrophic, one death, especially when avoidable, is still too many.

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