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Friday, April 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:44 A.M.

Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist
Shaky '10.5' sets off tremors of indignation here

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Scientists and public officials tend to be blasé when it comes to disaster movies about giant rodents or runaway atomic trains.

But in the case of NBC's earthquake miniseries, "10.5," local experts and leaders are proving less indifferent to Hollywood's faults.

Tremors of outrage and opportunism have swept the Puget Sound region in the days leading up to the film's two-part debut, at 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday (KING-TV).

Maybe it was seeing those network ads in which the Space Needle topples like a poorly felled cedar. ("Mr. President, there's been an earthquake." "How bad is it?" "The Space Needle collapsed.")

Or maybe it's because the main character, played by Kim Delaney, is a University of Washington seismologist responsible for the film's wacky premise of an earthquake chain-reaction.

Earthquake preparedness

While seismologists have roundly criticized the science of NBC's miniseries "10.5," the scientists — and public officials — also regularly remind us that earthquakes are a fact of life in the Pacific Northwest, and we should be prepared. To help with that, on Monday, The Seattle Times will run a full page of earthquake-preparedness tips in our Northwest Life section.

On Monday, the UW issued a press release deriding the movie's technical elements, such as the strategy of exploding nuclear warheads to meld together the San Andreas Fault.

"You could imagine that a nuclear device would be the straw that breaks the camel's back," said J. Michael Brown, chairman of the Earth and Space Sciences Department. "But I don't know how a nuclear device would do the opposite."

And Space Needle marketing director Mary Bacarella has written a letter of protest, saying producers never asked permission to use the name Space Needle — transformed to "Spaceneedle" in the movie's illiterate news-crawl sequence.

Still, not everyone aboard the seismic bandwagon is annoyed.

Wednesday's Seattle Times ran an op-ed piece by King County's director of the Office of Emergency Management noting the central fallacy of "10.5" and suggesting better places to get data. Seattle's Emergency Management program released its own advisory, including a statement from Mayor Greg Nickels about earthquake preparedness.

Inés Pearce, who manages the Seattle program, said the main purpose of the advisory was to raise public awareness rather than challenge the film's shaky research, which the producers have acknowledged was done entirely on the Internet.

"Real disasters don't happen that often, so we take this as a window of opportunity," said Pearce. "The funny thing is, the actual science around earthquakes and what has been learned in the past 10 years is way more interesting than the fiction."

The tempest over "10.5" even has led to a local programming initiative.

Northwest filmmaker Michael Lienau has produced a one-hour television documentary about super-earthquakes called "Cascadia: The Hidden Fire," and a half-hour instructional, "Personal Survivor Kit." Both are endorsed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Washington Military Department of Emergency Management, among others.

Not coincidentally, the shows are scheduled for 7-8:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday, shortly before "10.5" begins. They will air on King County TV (Comcast Channel 22; Millennium Channel 72/80) before moving on later dates to KBTC-TV and KCTS-TV.

All this serious interest around a May sweeps miniseries might seem out-sized — a "10.5" on the Richter scale of reaction. Worse, it could indicate the Pacific Northwest lacks a sense of humor.

Others also have complained. In the April 11 Los Angeles Times, the state of California's top geological official said, "NBC would be well-advised to put a disclaimer up front and to list Web sites where the audience could get true information about earthquakes."

The report also said that a private screening of "10.5" reduced an audience from the California Institute of Technology to laughter. Now that's a disaster movie.

As for regional pride, there are worse fates in TV than the humiliation of seeing all your newspapers reduced to a make-believe "Washington Sun," Pike Place flooded and your governor apparently too much of a wimp to get by without help from the Golden State.

For instance, you could be from Oregon.

In the vastly overextended plot to "10.5," four earthquakes of mounting intensity wrack the West Coast. Seattle gets a 7.9; Northern California an 8.4; San Francisco a 9.2; and Los Angeles, the titular whopper.

A television critic can't help noticing a pattern here. Seattle is the nation's No. 12-sized TV market, San Francisco is No. 5, and Los Angeles No. 2.

And what of Portland? Not only is the city skipped for dramatic purposes, it's as if only blank, unlabeled land stretched from Washington to California. Portland ranks No. 24 in audience size — another way of saying that in Hollywood, it doesn't even rate an earthquake.

Kay McFadden:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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