New York Times Magazine: The Invisible Catastrophe

“It just seems like a beautiful day in Southern California,” Bryan Caforio said.

It was late January in Porter Ranch, an affluent neighborhood on the northern fringe of Los Angeles. Caforio and I sat at a Starbucks overlooking an oceanic parking lot crowded with shoppers. The air was still, dry, 70 degrees. Caforio, a young trial lawyer running for Congress in the state’s 25th District, gestured at the pink and orange striations of sky above Aliso Canyon, its foothills bronze in the falling daylight. “It seems like a beautiful sunset in a wonderful community,” Caforio said, “and we’re sitting outside, enjoying a wonderful coffee.”

But there were scattered clues that suggested that everything was not so wonderful. Near a trio of news vans parked in front of the Starbucks, antenna masts projecting from their roofs, a cameraman stared quizzically up at the canyon. Next to the SuperCuts, security guards stood outside two nondescript storefronts; stenciled on the windows were the words “Community Resource Center” and, in smaller letters, “SoCalGas.” The guards asked for identification and dismissed anyone who tried to take a photograph. At the entrance to Bath & Body Works, a device that resembled an electronic parking meter was balanced on a tripod; the digital display read “BENZENE,” followed by a series of indecipherable ideograms. The parking lot held a preponderance of silver Honda Civics bearing the decal of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Inside the cars, men sat in silence, waiting.

Beyond the Ralphs grocery store and the Walmart rose a neighborhood of jumbo beige homes with orange clay-­tiled roofs and three-car garages. The lawns were tidily landscaped with hedges of lavender, succulents, cactuses and kumquat trees. The neighborhood was a model of early-­1980s California suburban design; until October, it was best known for being the location where Steven Spielberg shot “E.T.” But now the meandering streets were desolate, apart from the occasional unmarked white van. As you ascended the canyon, reaching gated communities with names like Renaissance, Promenade and Highlands, the police presence increased. On Sesnon Boulevard, the neighborhood’s northern boundary, an electric billboard propped in the middle lane blinked messages: “REPORT CRIME ACTIVITY; L.A.P.D. IN THE AREA; CALL 911.” Holleigh Bernson Memorial Park was empty aside from three cop cars, patrol lights flashing.

But the most significant clues were the spindly metal structures spaced along the ridge of the canyon. They resembled antennas or construction sites or alien glyphs. Until recently, most residents of Porter Ranch did not pay them much attention.

“You look at the hills, you see a few towers,” Caforio said. “But do you really know what they are?” He shook his head. “You try to say, ‘Hey, we’re having an environmental disaster right now!’ But it just looks like a beautiful sunset.”

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