Quaking in Southern California Stresses of Daily Living Contribute to Migration

July 05, 1992|By MARTIN J. SMITH

San Juan Capistrano, Calif. -- Did last Sunday's earthquakes convince Don and Debbie Greco to move from California to Urbana, Ill.? Not specifically. Fires? Riots? Drought? The free-falling economy? Gangs? Freeway shootings? Illegal immigrants using the bike path near their home like an underground railroad?

No, no, no, no, no, no, no and no.

But as they moved from their San Juan Capistrano home this week, they remember the past four years here as an anxious, frustrating and, at times, frightening period in which neighbors got edgier, traffic got worse and even Little League games became potential flash-points.

For the Grecos and many others, last Sunday's earthquakes brought to the surface anxieties about living in Southern California that in some cases have built for years. The difference between them and others is that Monday's aftershocks rocked them while they packed.

"Generally, my husband and I feel like we're leaving behind a very stressful environment," said Debbie Greco, 38, whose family is joining the estimated 518,000 people leaving California this year.

"We had lived in San Diego County, then moved back East. We chose to come back to California four years ago, but it just hasn't turned out the way we hoped."

In truth, they never could have imagined the calamities Southern California confronted during the past few years. The Grecos and their two children are leaving a region that in the past three months alone has experienced the kind of upheaval that sends Chambers of Commerce and tourism boards into emergency session.

Thanks to careful planning, the family is looking forward to a saner cost of living, a slower pace and less overall anxiety with Don Greco's transformation from Newport Beach, Calif., lawyer to Illinois college professor. Their last glimpse of Southern California will bring fond memories, they say, but they're happy it will be from a rearview mirror.

They're not alone. State demographer Elizabeth Hoag said about as many people are expected to move out of once-booming California in 1992 as arrive in the state this year. That's the first time since the recession in the early '80s that California has not gained residents moving from other states.

The Grecos are like many others in that exodus. The departing half-million includes mostly people 45 and older, perhaps indicating that they are moving to change careers or retire early, Ms. Hoag said.

Sociologist David Heer said jobs are the most important reason why people migrate.

But until someone flags down those U-Hauls headed for the state border and asks people why they leave, Ms. Hoag said, specific causes of the outward migration remain a mystery.

A natural disaster such as an earthquake can magnify human stress while relieving stress on tectonic plates.

"There definitely are effects of these types of events," said Pomona College stress expert Suzanne Thompson. "Some individuals will be more affected by them than others. But generally it shakes our sense that we're invulnerable, that bad things can't happen to us. When it comes really close to home and your house starts shaking, you have to face the possibility that that could happen to you."

Some experts describe the Grecos' decision to move as a sort of slow-motion, fight-or-flight impulse. Benjamin Colby, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the human body produces a substance called cortisol during high-stress periods, which prepares the body to react immediately.

It took the Grecos nearly a year to react and another year of planning. In retrospect, Don Greco believes that the accumulated stress that is moving them out of the county was more rooted in the struggling local economy than in a fear of riots, earthquakes and drought.

He singles out one episode that helped confirm his suspicions about a population living increasingly on the edge. He has been president of the San Juan Capistrano Little League for the past two years, and recalls the day recently when a normally mild-mannered Little League manager overreacted to the rescheduling of a rained-out game.

"He blew up in front of the kids, used profanity, accused the other manager of cheating, things that were really out of his nature," Mr. Greco said. "That stuck in my mind as example of how people are not reacting the way they would under normal circumstances."

Martin Smith is a reporter for the Orange County Register. Register staff writer Susan Peterson also contributed to this report.

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