Flirting With Disaster
It’s been 20 years since the Northridge earthquake, which at the time was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. With the inevitable “Big One” expected on the horizon, local disaster experts applaud recent preparedness efforts while warning that, ultimately, it will be every man for himself.
- Written byJustin Chapman
January 17, 1994
As every glass, plate and bottle in Kim Salzer’s house shook, she quickly sat up in bed, awakened from a deep sleep. She remembers muttering, “This is definitely the largest earthquake I’ve ever felt,” to her roommate, who had also taken shelter in her room.
The magnitude 6.8 Northridge earthquake shook Southern California for half a minute that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, killing more than 60 people, injuring about 10,000 and causing more than $20 billion in damage. Freeways fell, streets cracked open, buildings collapsed, and 65,000 residential structures sustained damage. Roughly 2,500 aftershocks rippled throughout the region for the next three weeks—felt as far away as Las Vegas.
Having grown up in Northridge, Kim was used to the ground moving and shaking. At the time of the Northridge quake, she was living with two classmates from business school in the Tree Section on 31st Street in Manhattan Beach.
“I don’t recall being scared,” says Kim. “Just really alert and thinking that I didn’t remember earthquakes being so loud.”
Like everyone else in Southern California, she immediately tried (and failed) to get in touch with her family, who still lived in the San Fernando Valley.
“At that point I had no idea the quake was centered in Northridge,” she says. “I just knew that I couldn’t get through to anybody, which probably scared me more than anything else. Later, when my family and I compared stories, their experience was definitely more of a very violent, back-and-forth shaking versus what I felt was a strong rolling motion. Turns out, we were affected by different faults.”
What everyone did have in common? A good shock and immediate wake-up call. Two decades after this significant trembler, cities in Southern California have since done a lot to bring schools, hospitals and other buildings up to code and to improve disaster response.
Even so, future earthquakes could potentially cause more casualties and damage than the Northridge quake, and government agencies won’t have resources to help all who need it. As many residents did for those three or more days in ‘94 with no power, water and other important resources, we may all just have to survive it alone.
Faultless Fault Lines
Indeed, the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay lie on different faults, or at least different segments of a fault. There are more than 10 major faults in Southern California capable of producing earthquakes that could damage the built environment, according to research geophysicist Robert Graves, who studies earthquakes and earthquake seismology for the United States Geological Survey (USGS). He says it is difficult to quantify the exact number of faults.
“It kind of depends on how you define a fault,” Robert says. “Unfortunately the earth is a bit complicated, so even what we would refer to as the San Andreas Fault is actually made up of different segments. They tend to rupture together. Then there are other faults that might branch off from a particular fault, so it’s difficult to get an exact number.”
Robert also works as an earthquake coordinator at the USGS regional office in Pasadena, which oversees all of Southern California. He’s in charge of the scientific aspects of the earthquake currents and phenomena research.
“It’s pretty difficult to be in Southern California and not be somewhat close to an active earthquake fault,” he says. “Clearly, the closer you are to an active fault or a fault that produces an earthquake, the more the ground shakes and the more chance of damage.”
But just because the Valley bore the brunt of the last “Big One” while the South Bay felt only a “strong rolling motion” doesn’t mean the South Bay isn’t vulnerable. No one quite knows exactly which fault will rupture next.
“Since we don’t know exactly which fault will produce the next damaging earthquake, I can’t say there’s a better place or worse place ,” Robert says, “and that’s just based on the active faults that we know about. There are probably other geologic faults that are buried under the surface that have not been identified. That certainly occurred with Northridge. It hadn’t been recognized as an active fault prior to that earthquake because the fault that caused Northridge is called a buried fault. If you’re look-ing at the geology on the ground, there’s no clear evidence of a fault being there. It actually terminates about three miles beneath the surface.”
In fact, in 2013 several measurable earthquakes hit in or near the South Bay. They ranged from magnitude 2.8 to 4.0 and softly rattled cities from Marina del Rey in the north to Rancho Palos Verdes and San Pedro in the south.
As recently as the morning of Friday, January 3, a magnitude 3.0 gently shook the area. That quake was centered one mile northwest of Marina del Rey at a depth of seven miles, according to USGS, which has instruments throughout Southern California that continually monitor earthquakes. Fortunately there were no reports of injury or damage.
“We can record down to magnitude 2 or 3, and there are some even smaller that are not even recorded,” says Robert. “There are magnitude 2½ to 3 each day, and well over 1,000 a year. Earthquakes really are going on all the time. Obviously, from a public standpoint, the perception may be that not as many earthquakes occur. It’s only when we feel it does it become a news story.”
No one considers any of the recent quakes to be that big. So what, exactly, is the “Big One” everyone hears about? It depends on what criteria are being used.
“The Northridge magnitude would be called a moderate magnitude,” says Robert. “A couple of years ago there was an earthquake off the coast of Japan that was a magnitude 9 (158 times bigger and 2,000 times stronger). In that sense, Northridge really was not that significant, just looking at a geologic classification. But obviously it created very strong ground shaking; people lost their lives. At the time it was the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. In terms of its impacts, it really was a ‘Big One.’”
Southern California does have faults that are capable of producing larger earthquakes, up to magnitude 8. In 1857 a magnitude 7.9 ruptured off the San Andreas Fault, so it has clearly generated a large earthquake within historic times. Robert says that if a repeat of that quake were to occur, it would have widespread consequences over a large region of Southern California.
One thing is fairly certain: At some point in the near future, there will be another magnitude 6.8 or higher. In fact, seismologists have determined that there is a 60% chance of an earthquake equal to or worse than Northridge hitting Southern California in the next 30 years. But while it may be probable, it remains unpredictable.
“It is unpredictable, especially in a very specific sense, what day or what hour or what year even,” says Robert. “But in a more general sense, it’s clear we have active faults, they will produce earthquakes, they’re producing earthquakes every day of a small magnitude, and in the future they will produce large, potentially damaging earthquakes. The level of knowledge and scientific information is just not complete enough to make specific predictions in terms of the exact location or time or magnitude.”
Look Out for #1
So where are we now? How prepared is Southern California for the “Big One,” which could literally come at any moment? Unfortunately there’s only so much we can do. Fortunately cities in South Bay are more prepared than most.
“They’re as prepared as they can be, though there is always more room for improvement,” says Jeff Robinson, executive director and disaster management area coordinator for Area G of LA County’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Area G covers 14 cities in the South Bay, from Inglewood and Torrance over to Rancho Palos Verdes and back up to El Segundo.
Jeff assists cities with planning, training and exercises, serves as liaison and advocate to OEM, and requests resources for disasters. He’s the go-between for groups of cities and the county. It’s a full-time job and then some.
“Manhattan Beach has only trained 10% of its population, and they’re still a little ahead of the game,” says Jeff. “People have to take the responsibility for being prepared themselves. When the large disaster happens here, and I’m an advocate of government, the government will not be there to help you. You have got to be prepared on your own for about a week. We used to say three days, but now we’ve realized there might be a possibility we won’t be able to get resources to people for seven days.”
Jeff adds that Area G is probably in better shape than many others. And while there will always be some issues, over time they continue to solve them.
“You’ve got to keep consistently doing it,” he says. “We don’t in every city. Emergency management is not on the top of the radar. And it’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen. Tomorrow, next week, 20 years. Caltech and USGS have told us it’s going to happen within 25 to 30 years. When the San Andreas ruptures, it’s going to be really, really bad. Cities are planning and training. I wish they would do a little more, but it costs money to do these things. So we’ve got to find a way to make it work for all of these cities.”
Jeff predicts that the “Big One” will be even bigger than Northridge, take out the Santa Monica (10) and Golden State (5) freeways, and make many routes, bridges and overpasses impassable.
“How are we going to get resources in here?” he asks, underlining how important it is for people to prepare themselves. “We tell people to have water, to buy an extra case or two when it’s on sale and rotate it out. There are tabs you can put in water that make it good for five years. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. Get a backpack for emergency supplies and essentials you need for children, such as games. Everyone needs to do these things because we don’t know how long it’s going to take to get supplies to people. Even cities don’t have enough for all their employees. They couldn’t afford it. The tax rates would have to go extremely high just to pay for it. Preparedness has got to start at the individual level.”
Volunteer groups are out there helping to make sure the next disaster will not be entirely every-man-for-himself. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which trains civilians in emergency preparedness in conjunction with various government agencies, was started in the LA area in the late 1980s. Manhattan Beach started training its residents in 2003. George Butts, who heads the Manhattan Beach CERT, got involved in 2006.
“We formed so that we could become an asset to the city and to our neighbors,” says George. “We train our residents, and we teach them a number of different things like light search and rescue, disaster preparedness, fire suppression and terrorism. The biggest thing I teach is the mitigation side of it, how to prepare for and prevent the problems that will happen during a disaster.”
He continues, “When the shit hits the fan, you’re pretty much not going to have any communications. We’re lucky because our city is behind us. They understand that in a disaster the city itself will not be able to meet the demands of the injured and what our citizens are going to be looking for. They realize that you as an individual will actually become a first responder. It could be weeks or even months before there is working electricity, running water and gas. We work hand-in-hand with the city to deploy our people where they would do the greatest good and report any problems back to the city.”
Manhattan Beach is better off than many areas of Southern California because of its CERT group and people like George, who wants to take his passion for emergency preparedness full-time when he retires. He agrees with Jeff Robinson that individuals need to take care of themselves first.
“You may need to evacuate in a matter of minutes, not hours, so you would want to be able to just throw your bags together and run,” he says. “Have it under your bed. Have a battery-operated radio, know what the emergency broadcast channels are and know how to use fire extinguishers. Your safety is paramount.”
While George says he’s not sure anybody is ready and that more training is always needed and more people need to be reached, he agrees that the South Bay is as ready as—or even a step ahead of—any other place out there. He pointed out that El Segundo has a CERT organization, Redondo Beach has a large contingency of CERT-trained personnel, and Hermosa Beach has its Disaster Service Workers.
Indeed, cities in the South Bay take emergency response and disaster preparedness very seriously. In November Manhattan Beach did a full simulation of a serious earthquake. At the end of January every one of the city’s department heads is attending a three-day, LA-wide Emergency Operations Center (EOC) training. Every city councilmember is CERT-certified, and more than 300 citizens—out of 35,000—have been trained for emergencies.
“We’re on the ball,” says Manhattan Beach city councilmember Tony D’Errico. “If we have an emergency in the city, our EOC will swing into action, as well as every other aspect of our city. We also coordinate and work with all the other cities throughout the South Bay.”
Ron Laursen, battalion chief for Manhattan Beach Fire Department and emergency services coordinator for the city, also praised local efforts. “Disaster preparedness is a priority here, so we’re doing everything we can to make sure our community is educated and prepared for when that does happen. That’s our biggest role: preparing our community for disaster, every household, residence, business owner and our schools, so that when that happens, everybody’s prepared to help take care of themselves and their neighbors.”
Recently the city has ramped up community education and preparation through its CERT, activation of its EOC, and simulation exercises that tested its infrastructure and personnel. Department heads continue to train.
The city also recently acquired NIXLE, a privately owned communication notification system used by many local police departments, county emergency management offices and municipal governments and their agencies. NIXLE and social media will play a huge role in getting information out during an emergency, such as a big earthquake.
Another critical program, Map Your Neighborhood, run by the Manhattan Beach Police Department’s Neighborhood Watch Program in partnership with the fire department, offers specialized disaster training designed to empower neighborhoods. It focuses on teaching the first steps to take immediately following a disaster, mapping your neighborhood, identifying an inventory of skills, equipment and areas of concern, and determining which residents may need special assistance.
“When an event happens, they’ll be able to take care of their street and their neighbors,” Ron says. “There’s a whole system in place to mark signs, secure utilities, check on neighbors, check on fires and help the elderly and disabled. We’ll assist each other with information and training. When the time comes, we’ll all work very closely together to get through it.”
For an upcoming Map Your Neighborhood training schedule, contact the Neighborhood Watch office at 310-802-5183. Ready.gov has a list of ways to prepare yourself by being informed, making a plan, building a kit and getting involved.
READY TO RUMBLE?
When the next big earthquake hits, you will most likely need to fend for yourself for at least a week. Basic necessities you rely on every day in your home—like electricity, gas and running water—may not be available. Government services will be at higher priority locations for a long time.
You probably won’t be able to contact anyone for a while. It behooves everyone to be as prepared as possible and ready at a moment’s notice to deal with a potentially horrific scene that could follow a large earthquake.
Here are a few simple steps you can take now to better prepare yourself for the inevitable, with suggestions from the California Department of
Before an earthquake (now):
Stock up on water, food and supplies, such as a first aid kit, pet food, baby food, games for kids, a battery-operated radio, extra batteries, a fire extinguisher, or an earthquake kit.
Make sure you know how to use your fire extinguisher.
Sign up for emergency alerts from your local emergency management agency.
Visit ready.gov for strategies to build an emergency kit and put a plan in place.
Get trained by your local Community Emergency Response Team. Visit fema.gov/community-emergency-response-teams to find your local CERT.
When the earthquake hits:
If you’re inside, stay inside and get under and hold onto a desk or table. If you’re outside, get into the open, away from buildings or anything that could fall on you. Cover your neck with your arms and hands.
If you’re driving, pull your car out of traffic and stop. Avoid bridges and overpasses. Stay clear of signs, trees and power lines.
Check the gas main leading to the house and shut off the power if there’s electrical damage.
Listen to the radio for updates and instructions.
If you leave your house, let someone know where you’re going. If you’re able and uninjured, help those in your neighborhood who need it. The best and easiest way to get through a disaster like an earthquake is for everyone to look out for each other. Most places you go during the first few days, you will be the first responder—not governmental emergency services.
Earthquakes occur in Southern California every single day (Robert Graves, USGS earthquake seismologist)
People temporarily or permanently displaced because of damage to their houses and apartments following the Northridge earthquake
Major fault lines that crisscross Southern California, all with the potential for producing damaging earthquakes
Damage costs from the Northridge quake (National Institute of Standards and Technology)
Buildings in Los Angeles—and hundreds more throughout the county—at risk of falling in a major earthquake (October 2013 analysis by the LA Times)
Price per battery at a 7-Eleven store on Devonshire after quake
Probability that an earthquake measuring greater or equal to 6.8 will occur in Southern California in the next 30 years
Water per person per day needed for a full week in the event of an emergency
Fault maps yet to be completed by the California Geological Survey, including highly populated areas like the Westside of Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley (LA Times). However, the mapping budget is about to run out, which is bad news because the state’s strict earthquake building regulations only apply to faults that have been zoned by the survey. Late last year, state Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) called on the legislature to provide the funding necessary to complete the fault maps.
72 People dead & 11,846
People treated for quake-related injuries in LA, Ventura and Orange counties during and after the Northridge earthquake, (according to figures compiled by Michael Durkin and published in the state Division of Mines and Geology in 1995)
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