PASADENA, CALIF. -- Richard Andrews, chief deputy director of the California Office of Emergency Services, has labored in obscurity for years to fashion a statewide earthquake advisory system that might save lives in any aftershock of a major quake.
This week his dream bore fruit in the announcement of a statewide system to dispatch scientific information to threatened communities as quickly as possible, including a $15 million emergency satellite backup.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Tomorrow and Monday Andrews's friends and relatives across the country will see a fictional character with Andrews's title and responsibilities portrayed as a corrupt coward who stifles a brave scientist's prediction of an imminent, catastrophic earthquake just to please his friends in the real estate industry.
"It is a very strange kind of situation," said Andrews, carefully describing his feelings after seeing a tape this week of NBC's four-hour miniseries, "The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake," scheduled on Channel 4 both nights from 9 to 11.
Tom Heaton, scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey office here, was more direct. "It makes Dick look like a worm," he said, pointing out a number of places where science and truth were stretched to the breaking point in one more Hollywood attempt to turn his life's work into a recipe for hysteria.
"Dick was really quite hurt by it and I don't blame him," Heaton said of Andrews, with whom he has worked closely to set up the new short-term earthquake prediction response plan. "He is a dedicated civil servant who has struggled to promote the safety issue in public."
Bob Sertner, executive producer of the miniseries and of about 35 other television movies, sighed in exasperation. Andrews and the state agency declined to cooperate with the production, Sertner said. Andrews in response said Sertner never contacted him. Sertner also insisted there was no suggestion that the character, played by former "Hill Street Blues" star Joe Spano, was Andrews, even if he and Andrews have virtually the same job and title.
"This has been in production for three years," Sertner said. "A lot of people did not want to help us, but a handful of people, including some at USGS, did give us a lot of information." What Sertner and his writers have done with what they learned remains a subject of controversy. One of their most important scientific sources, who became a model for the heroine played by "Growing Pains" star Joanna Kerns, was Lucile Jones, a USGS seismologist who works for Heaton and is known for her research on earthquake probabilities. "It's a mixed bag; they take it to the extreme edge of reality," said Jones, on leave after the birth of her second son, Niels, eight weeks ago. "I hope people will remember that it's just a movie."
Seismologists like Heaton and Jones readily admit they cannot predict earthquakes, at least in the practical sense of warning of a specific place, time and magnitude. Andrews's new short-term prediction system, which uses some of Jones's research, is only designed to create a heightened awareness of the increased possibility of a major quake following any temblor of magnitude 5 or above. Usually such warnings put the chances of a major aftershock at 5 percent or less.
In the miniseries, Kerns's character feverishly tries to warn the city of what she expects to be a magnitude 8 earthquake after a 5.7 magnitude quake hits the area. Jones said the original script had Kerns putting the chances of an imminent Big One at 50 percent. When Jones objected they changed the figure to 10 percent "but still have her acting as if its almost certain," Jones said.
Donovan Kelly, a USGS spokesman in Reston, said USGS agreed to cooperate with the producers and was pleased when writers removed other bits of fantasy, such as snakes coming out of the ground when the quake hits. Kelly said he thought Sertner "was genuinely interested in helping earthquake preparedness" and provided background information that the producers distributed at screenings around the country.
But Jones, who is listed as a technical adviser, said when she objected to the portrayal of the emergency services official, and to the notion that a state agency would try to suppress a prediction, "they said, 'That's too bad. That's the dramatic story line.' "
Andrews's office of emergency services has been careful to release earthquake advisories as quickly as it receives them. "That part is really off the wall," Jones said. Sertner disagreed. He said he had been told some officials were trying to suppress a prediction of volcanic activity near the ski resort of Mammoth, but he could cite no source for this information.
Andrews said what bothered him as much as the suggestion of government corruption was the vivid, violent simulation of an earthquake "not just of catastrophic, but apocalyptic" proportions in Los Angeles. "We encourage people to take precautions, but if they look at this they're likely to say, 'What sense does that make? We're going to die anyway.' "
The miniseries shows preliminary panic -- so far unheard of after the few earthquake advisories the state has released -- and then colossal destruction and death when a magnitude 8 earthquake begins on the Elysian Park fault, a hidden fracture almost directly under downtown Los Angeles. The fault is difficult to study and no one knows if it could sustain an earthquake that large, nor do the writers give much weight to recent research indicating previously estimated death rates for a Los Angeles quake of that magnitude were grossly inflated.
Sertner insisted each part of the film had factual support, and denounced as "a bunch of hogwash" the suggestion it might discourage viewers from taking precautions. "We've shown this to thousands of people," he said, "and when they've left the theater they've picked up every bit of earthquake information we had."