Californians prepare for the Big One

by Nicole Branan and Megan Sever
Thursday, January 5, 2012

At 10 a.m. local time Thursday, a massive magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck Los Angeles. But don’t worry — it was only a drill.

During the Great Southern California ShakeOut Drill, more than 10 million people, ranging from businessmen to schoolchildren, will be exposed to extreme shaking. More than 5 million people will “drop, cover and hold on.” Meanwhile, fire and rescue, together with 300 scientists and engineers, will work to save the city. At least 600,000 buildings will have some damage — much of it from the fires that will rage after the shaking stops — and there will be at least $200 billion in damage. Electricity will be out in some areas for days, and water could be out for as long as six months. And about 1,800 people will be “killed” and 50,000 “injured.”

During the drill — the largest public preparedness drill in U.S. history — Southern Californians will learn exactly what being prepared entails, and what might actually happen in the event of a large quake, everything from fires to landslides to freeway collapses to water shutdowns. The ShakeOut scenario is based on a study that modeled both the immediate impacts and the long-term social and economic consequences of a large earthquake that originates at the Salton Sea and races northward along the San Andreas Fault.

The exercise is vital because how severe the consequences of a large earthquake will be depends on what actions individuals, schools, businesses and governments take to get ready, says Dale Cox, project manager of the USGS Multi-Hazard Initiative in Pasadena, Calif.

Southern Californians are well aware that they sit on one gigantic time bomb: Numerous faults, including the notorious San Andreas, underlie the region. Geologists have long warned that the question isn’t if but when a catastrophic earthquake will strike the area. Last April, the U.S. Geological Survey and a number of other organizations reported that the likelihood of a magnitude-6.7 or higher quake striking somewhere in California by 2038 is 99.7 percent.

The risk is highest on the southern San Andreas Fault, with a large earthquake already 178 years overdue, says David Applegate, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake and Geologic Hazards at USGS in Reston, Va. Although they can’t stop an earthquake, the 22 million people in the area can prepare themselves for this eventuality.

USGS and its partners are helping Southern Californians to do just that. Many businesses and schools are already signed up to participate, but individuals can participate as well by going to The Great Shakeout has a saying, Applegate says: “‘Let’s talk about our faults.’ The point,” he adds, “is to get people to act, to know what to do. We’re trying to get parents talking to kids and neighbors talking to neighbors,” so people think through the possible impacts and know what they would do when an earthquake strikes.

“Drop, cover and hold on” is the earthquake preparedness mantra: Therefore, when the drill gets under way tomorrow, participants will practice dropping to the ground and seeking cover under the nearest table or desk. If participants aren’t near a surface they can get beneath, they should get near a large, stable piece of furniture, like a couch, and cover their heads, USGS suggests. In fact, given how earthquakes affect structures, “drop, cover and hold on” is “the single most useful instruction that you can follow to protect yourself in the majority of situations,” according to the Web site.

A lot of damage in an actual earthquake will result from objects such as TVs, lamps or bookcases that are not tied down, Cox says. So, he adds, during the ShakeOut, participants should look around to see what might fall if the ground were actually trembling, and reorganize houses or offices accordingly.

But strapping down bookcases or TVs is only one of many small steps that can make a big difference, Cox says. “Ninety-five percent of all earthquake victims are rescued by other victims, so it’s a good idea to keep pairs of thick gloves at home” in case a person has to dig themselves or someone else out from rubble. And because all of Southern California’s water conveyance systems cross the San Andreas Fault, a large earthquake will likely cut off water supplies, so keep bottled water handy.

“We are trying to get a consciousness of preparedness instilled in people. We think if we have enough of that we will eventually reach a tipping point where we can keep a disaster from becoming a catastrophe,” Cox says.

The ShakeOut drill is part of a larger effort that reaches out not only to the public but also to emergency personnel and includes a large number of events, including presentations and fairs happening all this week. Visit the Great Southern California ShakeOut Drill site to register for the event, or USGS' corresponding site for additional information on earthquakes and animations of earthquake shaking in cities along the San Andreas Fault. Even if you just happen to live in or ever travel in earthquake country, consider taking a look around these sites. They will certainly help you be better prepared should an earthquake strike.

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