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What I Need

I need to bring about a scenario where most, if not all, of the west coast has been abandoned before the alien-robot-zombie apocalypse wreaks havoc on the world. Sweet, sweet havoc! Chiefly, I want a few minor populations of a million people in California to produce food, and I want the currently existing naval and military bases to continue to exist and be fully manned. I need this between 2015 and 2025.

How I have considered getting this

Drought!

The first thought that came to mind was to simply continue the recent super-drought after El Niño wears off. The water supplies are dangerously low even after a crap-load of rain and will likely remain like that for quite a while. Humans (along with all other life) need water, and without it we have to choose whether to either stay and die or move somewhere where we can get water. This also means things such as power-plants can be safely shut down, which is s plus.

San Andreas makes big boom!

If the San Andreas fault went active, it could in theory cause mass destruction. Combine this with some other tremendous environmental disaster (such as a 5 year-long drought) and you have the recipe for a mass migration. If my family was under the nonstop threat of dehydrating and getting crushed under a fallen roof, I know what I would do.

That is pretty much everything...

It is hard to make ~40 million people move across the country. I cannot see many other ways to make this happen. Even if either or both of the above things happen, people will come back when conditions improve. The anarchists and the criminals (who suddenly have more than enough water if the powers-that-be leave the water running) would likely stay behind and take advantage of companies that did not loaded up their stock quickly enough.

The military would stay behind because they have invested massive quantities of money building and maintaining military bases. That, and relocating the Pacific fleet is not something that will be cheap or easy. Besides, with people gone, the military can test all of their experimental weaponry in a real urban environment. Furthermore, I am not entirely sure this will cause the mass-migration I want. People might need water, but those same people can be very stubborn, and the current drought has not caused an evacuation.

EDIT

Apparently what I want is not clear and my title contradicts my body. This has made my question potentially unclear and too broad, so I have edited to clarify. Given modern conditions and technology, how can I make the movement of between 30 and 39 million (a vast majority) of the ~40 million residents of California decide to pick up stake and move somewhere else (I really don't care where) in 19 years or less? Would either of or both of the suggested catastrophe's be enough to cause this? If not, is there any realistic way to accomplish this, be it political or natural disaster or some combination?

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    $\begingroup$ "You know. For a...story I'm writing." $\endgroup$ – JesseTG Apr 13 '16 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ Just keep raising the taxes. Eventually no one will be able to afford to live there anymore. $\endgroup$ – reirab Apr 13 '16 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ This is not an answer, but a contribution. If there was someone/something continuously cutting the grid connections at Nevada and Idaho, the only people left would be the few off-gridders, and the Military who are self-sustained. Hmm.. A lot of Portland would be fine, though... $\endgroup$ – Mikey Apr 13 '16 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ I personally think this is too broad/unclear. I'm not sure what your question even is since you've answered the one in the title with your question content, and if I were to answer the question in the title, it could end up being anything. $\endgroup$ – Aify Apr 13 '16 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon: alternatively, make the other southern states more liberal, so that those California folks consider moving there... $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Apr 14 '16 at 23:04

16 Answers 16

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San Andreas makes big boom! many little booms

So, the Big One is finally about to happen: Scientists have seen the pressures spike, all the signs are screaming DOOM! Fortunately, just hours from disaster, Bruce Willis and friends descend into the depths with an Elon Musk designed HyperDrill and stuff the fault line with HyperGlue to the tunes of Aerosmith.

The Big One is dampened down to a Little One! Only some houses collapse, the rest just have a few cracks. Death toll: 30 instead of 30 million.

Then another little one hits the area a week later.

And another one.

And another one.

After a few weeks, it's become clear that the earthquakes are going to keep happening until the entire fault system has settled into a new balance, which may take a century at this rate. Meanwhile, the whole west coast is practically unlivable:

  • The roads keep breaking faster than they can be repaired, causing non-stop traffic jams that make Hell look good in comparison.
  • Public transport is out of order as well because of constant need for repairs to rails.
  • Fires are constant and out of control because of broken gas pipes, until the entire gas network shuts down. Overworked firefighters can't reach the buildings in time to save them.
  • Water, already in short supply, doesn't come from taps anymore with any reliability.

In addition construction material prices skyrocket because everything that's repaired breaks again in a week or two and shortages are all around. Insurance companies withdraw from the area, businesses relocate and the people go after them.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget the copper and fiber telecom infrastructure. As soon as that becomes too unreliable Google, Apple and CalTech will pack up and leave. In their wake many other businesses will follow. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Apr 13 '16 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Tonny If CalTech moves out of California, would it still be CalTech? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 13 '16 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Jasper yes, lets say your building can even withstand the big one, can the facility lines also survive? what good is a building when it gets no electricity, no water, no gas and gasp NO INTERNET AND NO CABLE TV $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Apr 13 '16 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @HannoverFist Not really, the fault is just generally unstable. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Apr 14 '16 at 4:01
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    $\begingroup$ You forgot to say how The Rock helped Willis. :P $\endgroup$ – Riker Apr 14 '16 at 20:25
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The San Andreas fault is not likely to be a big boom. A boom, certainly, but not huge. The Cascadia subduction is far more likely to create a catastrophic earthquake with an upper limit of 9.2 which will create a tsunami that will destroy much of the west coast of the US and leave thousands dead and millions homeless.

There is a good article on the possible effects here.

That'd be where I'd start.

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    $\begingroup$ And the event is long overdue--the estimates on this are currently a 1 in 3 chance in the next 50 years which is a freakishly huge chance when it comes to geological events. If humans (Like myself) had any ability to process this we would already be leaving the west coast in droves. $\endgroup$ – Bill K Apr 13 '16 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ And just when I had thought I was out of new reasons to be paranoid..... $\endgroup$ – John Robinson Apr 13 '16 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ How about a Mazama-scale eruption & collapse of Shasta or Rainier? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Mazama $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 13 '16 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ Motherboard published some speculative fiction about this scenario. It's sort of optimistic, actually. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hampton Apr 13 '16 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, that sounds pretty bad. From Wikipedia: "The resulting tsunami ...heights of approximately 30 meters...FEMA estimates some 13,000 fatalities ... another 27,000 injured... a million people.... displaced... another 2.5 million requiring food and water... 1/3 of public safety workers will not respond to the disaster due to a collapse in infrastructure and a desire to ensure the safety of themselves and their loved ones... even a magnitude 6.7 earthquake... would result in 7,700 dead and injured, $33 billion in damages, 39,000 buildings... destroyed, and 130 simultaneous fires." $\endgroup$ – DCShannon Apr 13 '16 at 23:45
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How about a new, deadly or debilitating insect-borne disease?

  • This insect can be impossible to eradicate and have a range that matches the area you want depopulated.
  • It is plausible that this would be hard to fight even with our best technology.
  • It would greatly discourage living in the area, but living and working there would still be possible for a smaller group of people who had a very compelling reason to be there.

There is a real-world analogue for this: a large swath of Africa is poor and underdeveloped, with a lot of land even going unused, because of the presence of the Tse Tse fly.

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  • $\begingroup$ Any suggestions on the insect or disease? $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Apr 13 '16 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ Nice real-life example. Rockies form a nice geological barrier to further eastward expansion. $\endgroup$ – Jared Smith Apr 13 '16 at 17:56
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They dysfunctional economic and political system in California is already causing a net outflow of business and middle class people, and if people in the political class "Double down" with these tax and regulatory trends then the situation can only get worse (or better for the State of Texas, which seems to be preferentially receiving these economic refugees).

This would leave the federal enclaves (military bases) still running, although I suspect the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines would huddle in federal encampments on base to avoid the punishing tax regime of California.

Small pockets of wealth like the Silicon Valley could still function by essentially trading high value products to the world, and rural California would still function at a very low level (there is some anecdotal evidence that areas of rural California is becoming a Mad Max wasteland overrun by illegal immigrants and drug gangs, while productivity is going down due to the deliberate lack of water being piped south to the Central Valley [a tremendous amount of water is deliberately spilled into northern rivers rather than sent south]).

This isn't quite the depopulated wasteland you are looking for, there will be relatively large urban areas (Los Angeles, San Fransisco, San Diego), but the overall population of California could be much reduced from the current 40 million.

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    $\begingroup$ The population of California went up by nearly 2 million over the last 5 years despite this trend. Greece has been a lot more dysfunctional than California, and everyone is free to leave for more prosperous parts of the EU, yet its population has declined only slightly in recent years. I don't think this works. $\endgroup$ – user16107 Apr 13 '16 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not really up to speed on the politics of California, but this answer reeks of political spin at first glance. It's really the adjectives and metaphors that make it particularly bad. $\endgroup$ – Ellesedil Apr 13 '16 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ So, basically your answer is to do nothing at all, and just wait out what you think is already happening based on anecdotal evidence? A lot of the major cities in California didn't/don't even notice the recession or the drought. I hardly think continuing as usual would cause 40 million to leave what is otherwise a pretty beautiful state to live in (politics and economies aside). $\endgroup$ – coblr Apr 13 '16 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ I happen to agree that California's policies are detrimental, but I simply don't think it is possible that this sort of thing could depopulate the state, even if taken to the extreme. Something far beyond normal politics, such as civil war or complete anarchy, would have to happen before a mass exodus occurred. $\endgroup$ – user16107 Apr 14 '16 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ Historically, there have been lots of instances of corrupt/incompetent governments ruining their economies much more drastically than California is currently. Even when these do cause population declines, they’re very rarely more than, say, 10%. The biggest I know of is Ireland, which declined by about 55% from 1841 to 1926 (of which the first 35% was during 1841–71) under British oppression and mismanagement; and that’s still a fair bit smaller than OP asks for. $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Apr 14 '16 at 19:09
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#1 Tsunami - a 40-foot wave washes away significant numbers of people/infrastructure

#2 Cascadia subduction zone - wrecks the PacNo, leaving refugee issues up and down the west coast to the point where many who could leave would leave

#3 Desertification - drought becomes permanent and large areas become unfarmable or supportable with existing water supply

#4 Algae bloom - leads to sea life die-off and unpotable/expensive drinking water

#5 Currents change and California current shifts, causing the coast's current ly moderate Mediterranean climate to tilt to a pure desert or hot-and-crappy-with-continued-hot-and-crappy model (think New Orleans or D.C. in summer, all the time)

#6 - an earthquake or terrorist activity destroys the Hoover Dam and/or disrupts the flow (or causes a drain-down) of the Colorado River, leaving six western states with a permanent 50%+ cut in their fresh water supplies. - Some areas pump groundwater for a while, but the cascade effects (including the general food supply disruption caused in the Imperial Valley, which supplies 2/3 of the winter vegetables to the entire US) causes large-scale local food/water shortages and drives prices to unsustainable levels. - Eventually the government decides resettlement is preferable to ongoing food aid, and leads a mass resettlement from the West Coast urban areas to abandoned areas in the urban Midwest (St. Louis, Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati) where better infrastructure and climate exists.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Ionstar. $\endgroup$ – James Apr 13 '16 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ These are some good ideas, but I will point out that there are major metropolitan areas in deserts in the USA, like Phoenix (roughly four million people). Desertification is surmountable, especially because CA has Pacific coastline, and therefore a desalinable water source (despite the increased expense). $\endgroup$ – Dan Apr 14 '16 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed that the system is sort of stable now, but Phoenix relies on other areas meeting their own needs. If something doubled CA's need for water, that would impact other cities in the region inc. Phoenix. Desalination is extremely expensive and local to coastal cities at least at current cost/engineering capability. If the money/mandate was there, of course, those hurdles would be tackled more aggressively. Your comment made me look into Phoenix's food and water supply situation and gave me a great idea for a #6, which I added to the list. Thanks for the idea. $\endgroup$ – lonstar Apr 15 '16 at 1:01
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Volcanos on the Ring of Fire start erupting, including Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, Mt. Shasta and Mammoth Mountain. Maybe some new ones get started in southern California.

Hot ash, Pompeii-style, rains down on all three Pacific states making them uninhabitable. There's nothing that Californians hate more than clouds, so they move inland.

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A reactive war on a massive scale would force the population to move inland.

Possible scenario;

The US repeatedly threaten the Annexation of South Korea. In order to "protect it" from North Korea and Chinese expansion

China/Russia/Other Asian Nations alliance see this as a major incursion into their security spheres. As a proactive measure they they invade America by surprise (think 7 day war on a larger scale) making massive land gains in very short amount of time which means capturing rather than destroying military installations.

This invasion is intended to not only curb America's ambitions, but also to break the spirit of the people. As such, the Asian Alliance follow a "salt the earth policy" levelling all settlements they reach. This news spreads quickly causing a mass migration of the people in the vicinity of the advance.

America, unable to handle the humanitarian crisis, agree to a cease-fire and the advancing armies withdraw to their respective nations. The west coast is left devastated with almost no population to speak of

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    $\begingroup$ I can't imagine a scenario where that would ever happen within our lifetime. US, China and Russia have a lot to lose in an open conflict and virtually nothing to gain. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Apr 13 '16 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @ECiurleo The South Korean government would not willingly be annexed by the US either. There is strong anti-american sentiment that would stop any annexation, even if it meant war. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Apr 13 '16 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @James I don't think it's a good answer, for a variety of reasons that this format doesn't really allows me to expand too much on. In a nutshell, US is inattackable on a military, political and economical standpoint. Not that China or Russia has anything to gain from it. A 2nd Korean war makes little sense. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Apr 13 '16 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ You probably should add some explanation of what the US Navy and Air Force are doing while your Asian Alliance is performing the largest transport and logistics operation in the history of mankind across the widest ocean on the planet. You'd have to somehow take out the Navy and Air Force from the picture entirely. And how the CIA succeeded in ignoring the massive preparations needed to the point of there being an element of surprise. In short: there are reasons the US hasn't had to do defensive wars, and you can see them marked blue on maps. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Apr 13 '16 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ @ECiurleo Never get involved in a land war in the US. There are still guns behind every blade of grass. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hampton Apr 13 '16 at 18:38
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The techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley finally get their wish and establish special economic zones off the coast of California, complete with entire population centers floating or at the bottom of the ocean, Bioshock-style.

Let's say they either get their energy from nuclear (imported uranium) or oil (drilling the seafloor, which has been illegal to do off the West Coast for a very long time).

The Cascadia fault (mentioned by another post here) triggers a major earthquake and annihilates the Pacific Northwest; the big cities like Portland and Seattle are done for, gone, kaput. The resulting shake-up shatters the offshore nuclear reactors and/or oil platforms.

Either way, a bad enough accident could lead to significant poisoning of the West Coast. As radioactive fog regularly descends upon San Francisco, the Bay Area depopulates almost overnight.

Or, crude oil drenches the beaches of Southern California, and wealthy Californians flee before their homes become worth next to nothing. This triggers a max exodus as everyone wants out before their home values are underwater (under oil?).

The US Federal Government responds by creating housing vouchers in knowledge economy cities like Austin TX and Boulder CO. The West Coast is divested from, and the area to the east of the Rocky Mountains is informally referred to as "the new West Coast."

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  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon Rule 1 of WB is "Be Nice!" $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Apr 14 '16 at 14:12
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Government-mandated evacuation backed by overwhelming military force would be the only way to get the stubborn element to leave. This could only be justified in the case of an extreme disaster.

  • A series of meltdowns in the West Coast's few remaining nuclear power stations (possibly triggered by the aforementioned earthquakes?). Think Chernobyl++

  • The release of something incredibly deadly from a military base or a research university -- the University of Oregon has a nanotech lab in an underground bunker that might be useful.

  • Bio-terrorism on a massive scale

  • The eruption of a super-volcano (probably not Yellowstone, as that would render the middle of the country also uninhabitable, but there are several around the globe to choose from). Hot ash and toxic rain make the area unlivable.

Your problem is with creating a situation that is ongoing, and non-negotiable. Otherwise, people are going to rebuild -- it's in their nature.

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Inversion (meteorology) –Wiki

Temperature inversion stops atmospheric convection (which is normally present) from happening in the affected area and can lead to the air becoming stiller and murky from the collection of dust and pollutants that are no longer able to be lifted from the surface. This can become a problem in cities where many pollutants exist. Inversion effects occur frequently in big cities such as: Los Angeles, California, United States [among others].

These cities are closely surrounded by hills and mountains, or on plains which are surrounded by mountain chains, which makes an inversion trap the air in the city. During a severe inversion, trapped air pollutants form a brownish haze that can cause respiratory problems. The Great Smog of 1952 in London, England, is one of the most serious examples of such an inversion. It was blamed for an estimated 11,000 to 12,000 deaths.


1948 Donora smogWiki

The 1948 Donora smog was a historic air inversion resulting in a wall of smog that killed 20 people and sickened 7,000 more in Donora, Pennsylvania, a mill town on the Monongahela River, 24 miles (39 km) southeast of Pittsburgh. [...]

Hydrogen fluoride and sulfur dioxide emissions from U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant were frequent occurrences in Donora. What made the 1948 event more severe was a temperature inversion, a situation in which warmer air aloft traps pollution in a layer of colder air near the surface. The pollutants in the air mixed with fog to form a thick, yellowish, acrid smog that hung over Donora for five days. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in the inversion and accumulated until the rain ended the weather pattern. [...]

“I drove on the left side of the street with my head out the window. Steering by scraping the curb.” recalls Davis.

Eddie the Head phoned home and now they're coming to get us? Production is immediately ramped up to a rate never seen before, releasing unprecedented amounts of Bad Stuff. Unfortunately, there is a drought, but it doesn't have a completely disastrous effect on food production directly: California is one of the most heavily man-irrigated locations on the planet. What could happen, is an everlasting inversion until it rains again.

Straggler handwave: Anyone willing to live in this environment is most likely given a job at a, now military controlled, production facility or is employed directly by the government.

I'm no meteorologist, but I think with a little tweaking, these inversions that happen in The Valley, could be extended to encompass the entire US west of the Rockies. Coupled with toxicity levels way above healthy, if I have to drive with my head out the window - I'm out yo.

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You want the military and farmers to stay but everyone else leaves. That's tough! Earthquakes are one way to do that, but I think economic reasons are more plausible:

The state of CA teeters on bankruptcy. The federal government realizes it can't bail out the world's sixth-largest economy. Instead Washington economically "isolates" CA, hoping that the economic collapse doesn't spread to the rest of the country. Federal abandonment plus state bankruptcy leads to a massive recession in CA. Hollywood and Silicon Valley relocate to other parts of the country. Crime skyrockets and LA becomes the new Detroit. Utilities fail - no running water in major cities.

Maybe throw in an earthquake to finish them off.

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It's going to take a lot; L.A. residents love L.A., and aren't going to move for just any old catastrophe. Combine what evilscary said above about the Cascadia Subduction Zone with ongoing, medium-scale events in the San Andreas fault and perhaps the Antarctic Ice Shelf falling into the ocean and severe drought. You could make them all an on-going chain reaction to global warming. Rising sea levels might flood the California Central Valley, though, so you'd be up against nationwide starvation as well.

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What about tying into the reason for the crisis as the reason? Perhaps a biological issue spawning from the Pacific and is spreading inward...precursor to a zombie-like event. Perhaps we see increases of alien activity in the ocean or coastal regions and is moving inward...beginning of invasion. CalTech loosing control of AI android prototype that starts self-producing better and better units and is spreading as it gains resources to continue. Tie the events to a large story arc.

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Similar to my other answer, an eruption of nuclear power plants on the coast would make those areas uninhabitable. If a tsunami hit those plants, like the Fukushima accident, only mutants would remain. (I'm having fun with this question!)

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Current tax trends in California continue until all personal and corporate tax rates are set at 100%. Surprising the lawmakers, all corporations move from the state and anyone who somehow still had a job quits and leaves.

All remaining population is based on federal employees (primarily bureaucrats and military).

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A {INSERT NAME OF SOPHISTICATED TECH HERE} shuts down the financial networks that operate retail sales on the West coast, and keeps them down in spite of all efforts to restore service.

Suddenly, many millions of people are unable to buy groceries.

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