By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Paging through Curtis' archive is like taking an excursion into some uncharted interior wilderness. That sense is only heightened by the slightness of the material -- just a small sheaf of file folders containing letters and diagrams, arranged in what appears to be no particular order -- which gives the act of reading an almost voyeuristic intimacy, as if this were the detritus of some small, intense subculture defined by its own lack of definition, by the way these random notes and notions yield one to the next with all the logic of a dream. Ever since I first called Curtis to ask about it, I've been referring to her collection as the "crank file," and at first glance it's the cranks I notice, from the so-called Master of Disaster, who faxes in forecasts of "potential disaster" and signs his missives with "Have a nice day," to John J. Joyce, a 75-year-old retiree from Dallas, Pennsylvania, whose own theory, spelled out in dozens of compulsively scribbled, virtually incomprehensible letters, involves tracking something he calls "earthquake strains" -- although what those are, and how they work, remains lost in the tangled circuits of what he acknowledges is "a warped mind (mine)."
Yet the deeper I get into Curtis' files, the more I realize that the extreme crank element is the exception, that, for the most part, the forecasts here seek some rational connection between mythology and fact. This might seem like its own form of extremism, or at the very least contrivance. Still, the interesting thing about the predictors' material is how ingenuous, how innocent, it seems; whatever else they may be up to, these are people who believe. That's a tricky idea to negotiate, especially when you consider that most of these predictions have been proved wrong by hindsight, that there was, say, no "magnitude 7.0 or greater quake, with an epicenter near Rancho Cucamonga" before the end of 1995, as forecast by Edward G. Muzika on September 4 of that year. More to the point, though, is the way this opens up its own set of questions about the nature of belief and credibility, which come into stark relief each time I stumble across a document that does seem to have something to it, like one dated December 6, 1996, calling for a 6.0-7.0 along the west coast of Mexico within a month (a 6.8 hit just off the coast of Michoacan on January 11, 1997, only six days late), or the elaborate booklet, complete with maps and charts and color illustrations, prepared in August 1993 by an "aero-engineering design[er]" named Kenny Rogers, forecasting a giant Southern California earthquake sometime in January or February 1994.
Where predictions like these leave me is with a shock of possibility, an almost physical sensation that makes me wonder what I'm looking at, as if I can't quite see the connections even though I feel them all the same. It's here, however, that the split between science and superstition opens up like a deep ground fissure, a vast and insurmountable seismic divide. The USGS, after all, refuses to give such predictions any credence; even Curtis, who describes herself as having "a very open mind about the whole thing," says that although she believes some people may be sensing something, it's vague, "like a vibe or a vibration," and not really useful, while the seismologists, for their part, dismiss the predictors and their theories as a waste of time. Perhaps no one is as vehement on the subject as Lucile Jones, the Pasadena office's scientist-in-charge, who is best known for the late-night press conference after the 1992 Joshua Tree earthquake at which she spoke to reporters while holding her own tired and frightened child in her arms. More than anything, Jones believes, this image has made her a lightning rod for various earthquake obsessives, as if she were a benign, maternal figure who might listen to their seismic fantasies -- or, as she puts it, with something between a smile and a grimace, an "earthquake mom."
Jones may be right about that; most of the predictions in Linda Curtis' archive are addressed to her, and many assume a revealing tone of familiarity, referring to her as "Lucy" or "Dr. Lucy," as if they'd been written to a friend. Some go even further -- during the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was the target of a bizarre series of letters, cards and hand-drawn maps, often inscribed in an eerie invented language, from a self-proclaimed prophet named Donald Dowdy who predicted all-out seismic apocalypse with himself as the trigger. The situation came to a head in March 1993, when Dowdy sent Jones a map of Los Angeles on which he'd written, "One of these days, I'm going to cut you into little pieces," a lyric from the Pink Floyd song "One of These Days." After the FBI was called in to investigate, Dowdy wrote Jones to explain that the lyric referred to "THE BIG ONE" and that he meant her no harm, but the memory still leaves a bitter taste. "I see prediction as having to do with severe psychological issues for a lot of people," Jones says, sitting at a conference table in her large, neat office on the second floor of the USGS. "On the one hand, it's about the need to take control, to exert control over an uncontrollable situation. But the truth is that we deal with hundreds of these people, and most of them get obsessed with their own theories and only want to be proven right. They don't want to have to measure their ideas against the same standards that I do, which contributes to a lot of misinformation about how earthquakes work."