From my perspective the Big Picture stretching out into the future is one of recurring overlapping structural challenges of all kinds. As an individual I have zero control over any of it. But I have a compelling interest in finding effective ways of navigating through whatever may come. I’m sometimes described as a doomer, but I’m actually quite optimistic about all the potential work-arounds.
I live in a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Buying this building collectively with a group of friends many years ago has proven to be a blessing as the local economy has provided bountiful opportunity. But it’s also a risk since this is earthquake country. An enormous asset could convert to a tremendous liability in a mater of seconds without warning. For the last couple of decades I’ve attempted to get everyone on board with a proper retrofit of the building. It’s finally happened this month.
The wood frame has been strengthened, the frame has been bolted to the foundation, and the foundation has been fortified.
We were all horrified when the engineer informed us that the main center beam that supports the building had been badly compromised. Back in the 1950s some of the posts that held it up were removed to make it easier to park more cars in the garage. We’re putting those back in. In a moderate quake these improvements will make all the difference. If a really severe quake hits it may not matter. But we’ve done what we could. And we paid cash for the work so we haven’t weakened ourselves financially in order to strengthen ourselves physically.
There’s something else I did last year to protect myself from the effects of the next earthquake. I bought a special kind of insurance. Earthquake insurance doesn’t exist in the same way fire insurance does. The insurance industry realized long ago that an earthquake is a systemic society-scale problem that would bankrupt them if an entire city crashed all at once. (The same is true of nuclear power plants. The federal government is the de facto insurer.) So they simply don’t offer coverage. But there are niche policies that can be bought.
In the case of my apartment I purchased a kind of policy that pays out my share of the collective costs of repairs if the condominium association should ever levy maintenance surcharges after an earthquake. It also provides a monthly stipend for two years so I can pay for alternative accommodations while the repairs are underway. Again, this isn’t a panacea, but in a number of possible scenarios it might mean the difference between a reasonable recovery and total loss. I’ve encouraged my friends in the building to do the same.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis I was able to afford a fixer upper fifty miles north of the city. It was the cheapest, smallest, worst house on the market at the bottom of a major economic crash. There’s no mortgage. The location isn’t quite rural or exactly suburban. It’s in a funky sweet spot where it’s possible to walk or ride a bike to an older farm town that has the basics of civilization. I originally bought it as a Plan B from future financial troubles or difficulties that might emerge in the city. But in the last few years the city has served as a refuge from serious threats in the countryside. I renovated the house in increments careful not to do anything that would trigger the ire of local authorities and aggressively ramped up a productive garden.
This month while the city place is getting its earthquake upgrades the country place is getting a new well. Water is a critical resource and the old well was 75 years old. It was just a matter of time before it collapsed. And the old well was only 71 feet deep. The new well will be much deeper. Again, there are no guarantees that this well will solve all the water problems to come, but it’s part of a larger set of arrangements that collectively help build resilience.
I’ve owned a variety of other properties stretching from Hawaii to Ohio thinking that diversification across the landscape was wise. But I’ve sold them off over the last couple of years as my understanding of the situation has shifted. I’ve hardened the places that I still own. I’ve built up resilience in both the city and country. Now instead of owning more such properties I’m putting my Plan C efforts into becoming liquid and flexible. I’m keeping other options open by being ready, willing, and able to just walk away from everything and starting over elsewhere if need be.