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California Braces for Fires, Landslides, Chemical Spills and Deaths That Follow a Massive Quake

Quake would be unlike anything the state has experienced.

by / February 5, 2009

At 10 a.m. on Nov. 13, 2008, Southern California experienced a "shaking" unlike anything felt in the region in more than 100 years. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake dubbed The Big One hit the southern San Andreas Fault near the Salton Sea and impacted Imperial, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties.

The quake and its aftershocks produced between 10,000 and 100,000 landslides. Fires erupted across the region. Five high-rise buildings in Los Angeles collapsed. Roads, railroads and utilities that cross the fault were ruptured. The worst damage was in the Riverside and San Bernardino areas, where the shaking was the strongest and longest. Emergency responders had to cope with chemical spills and potential dam ruptures. Overall, the region suffered 2,000 deaths and more than $200 billion in losses.

Thankfully it was a drill - but one that foreshadowed the chaos that would ensue after a three-minute quake that some seismologists predict is coming.

How ready are the public, first responders and emergency management officials for such a scenario? That's one of the questions regional officials hoped to answer during the November 2008 drill.

Based on this scenario, the Golden Guardian emergency response exercise and the Great Southern California ShakeOut, a drill for the public, were designed to test California's ability to respond and recover during a catastrophic earthquake.

The first thing emergency management officials should realize about a quake of that magnitude is that initially they'll be overwhelmed, said Dennis Mileti, a member of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

"This quake will be unlike any drastic emergency anyone has experienced or can remember," said Mileti, a professor emeritus in sociology at the University of Colorado and an expert on the societal aspects of hazards and disasters. "It is a class apart. That has ramifications for public information, sheltering, food and water, fire suppression -everything flows from that."

Mileti is quick to point out that because it's so well practiced, California's emergency response community is among the best in the country. When overwhelmed in a normal emergency response, such as during huge fires, unaffected neighboring communities help in mutual aid pacts. However, in this quake scenario, that won't happen right away, he said. For instance, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, there won't be any way for other responders to get there. "Riverside County will be ripped in half," he said. The I-10 freeway sits on top of the fault in many places, and it will be torn in two. Airports won't be functioning initially. So local emergency response teams in towns and villages, such as Rancho Mirage where Mileti lives, will be on their own. "That doesn't mean they won't work tremendously hard," he said, "but the demand will be way beyond their capacity."

This means everyday citizens will play an important role. "The real first responders are victims," he said. Studies of large earthquakes have found that 95 percent of people rescued were saved by other victims, not by search-and-rescue teams or firefighters.

Emergency responders will get some things up and running in about a week, but until then, the citizenry is on its own for basics like food and water.


Creating the Scenario
The ShakeOut Scenario was the first public product of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project. It brought together 300 seismologists, engineers, social scientists and computer experts from around the world to make projections to help Southern California improve its resiliency to natural disasters through improved planning, mitigation and response.

Why did they pick the southern part of the San Andreas? That section of the fault has had a quake on average every 150 years, yet it hasn't moved for 300 years. "Many seismologists think

it is 10 months pregnant," said USGS Project Manager Dale Alan Cox.

One goal of the demonstrations project is to help emergency management officials prepare to respond.

"We asked emergency management officials what tools they need," Cox said. "They asked us what it would mean to have an earthquake of this magnitude, because all they have to go on is earthquakes of the past, such as the Northridge earthquake of 1994, which was much smaller. It lasted only 18 seconds. This quake is projected to last three minutes."

For emergency managers and fire departments, goals of the Golden Guardian exercise were putting the drill into muscle memory and uncovering unknown vulnerabilities, Cox said. The first question they must address is how to reach people needing assistance, because traffic won't be moving and many bridges will be unusable.

"We are dealing with a large population that is transportation challenged," said Henry Renteria, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES). "It's too dependent on autos, with not enough public transit. So part of the scenario is how to move supplies and emergency personnel if the freeways are impassable [and] how to get first responders in and out. This will give us a scenario to test other systems for doing that, moving people by waterways and by helicopter if airport runways are damaged."


Fire Worries
The secondary hazard that immediately concerns emergency managers is fire. Extrapolating from previous earthquakes, experts predict that 1,600 fires would start, of which 1,200 would be too large to be controlled by one fire engine company. It's estimated that 133,000 homes would be lost.

"In areas of dense wood-frame construction, these fires, if not controlled, will grow quickly to involve tens or hundreds of city blocks," the scenario predicts.

For the Los Angeles area, in particular, there'll be so many fires that there'll be no way to put them out before they merge into a major conflagration.

According to Mileti, the scenario projects that almost every water pipe in the Los Angeles area will break. "The damage is going to be so extensive that the water companies are going to determine that it's cheaper and easier to replace the entire system rather than fix it," he said. "It will be six months before you will be able to turn the tap back on."

"Fire chiefs tell us that water is to firemen what bullets are to police," Cox said. "Well, with so many pipes breaking during the quake, there isn't going to be water to fight the fires."

Renteria, who worked in emergency management in Oakland during the magnitude 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, noted that in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it was fire - and the lack of water to fight it - that destroyed much of the city. That's why San Francisco is the only U.S. city with an underground cistern system to store water, he said.
Renteria said fire departments are adding tools to get water to where it's needed, including above-ground hydrant systems on trucks that can pump water out of a lake, river or even the ocean.

"What keeps me awake at night is the weather after a quake," Renteria said. "If it comes in September or October, the time of strong Santa Ana winds, that would be the worst-case scenario."

Mileti said the ShakeOut Scenario poses difficult questions about fire response. "How do you manage in a situation like that? There may not be an answer," he said.


In San Bernardino
In the ShakeOut Scenario, San Bernardino County would see some of the worst damage from the quake and secondary hazards.

The lifelines that cross Cajon Pass on the way to Las Vegas would be completely severed, disrupting telecommunications, electrical transmission lines, water pipelines, and rail and truck routes for major Southern California ports. The scenario includes a 50-car train derailment, and area hospitals would only be at 25 percent functionality.

Denise Benson, director of the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services, has been working on the Golden Guardian exercise for 14 months. The scenario it depicts is devastating, she said.

"We know this is going to be a major catastrophe with massive debris and hundreds of fires," she said. "In the first two to three days, it will be catastrophic and hard to get resources to people who need them. We work to remind citizens that they will have to prepare themselves to be self-sufficient, and the first 24 hours is the worst, before our employees can get the EOC [emergency operations center] established and get things better organized."


Proactive Efforts
Renteria said the OES is being proactive by enlisting the community to help in case of a large quake. "We are working on developing relationships with private-sector companies and nonprofit agencies that have the availability to respond," he said. For instance, the OES is in discussions with retail stores and suppliers that have fleets of equipment about incorporating them into emergency management response. "They are part of our team instead of part of the problem," he said.

Improved communications is also a key benefit of the Golden Guardian exercise. The regional event lets responders practice cooperation across jurisdictions and include hospitals and schools in their efforts.

One goal of the Golden Guardian is to determine where outside help would most likely come from, Benson said. "We know it will come from the National Guard, and parts of the state not as significantly impacted. For instance, in San Diego County, there is not a lot of disruption from this scenario." She also noted that in the scenario, San Bernardino's airports receive little damage, so some supplies, such as drinking water, may be flown in.

Golden Guardian planning meetings revolve around multiple objectives, including: communications, restoration of lifelines, emergency operations center setup, mass care and shelter, and economic and community recovery. Each objective has a working group that brings in people from the community to work together on solutions. For instance, the lifelines group has representatives from Verizon, the California Department of Transportation, the California Highway Patrol and the water companies.

"These groups are great because they help us realize what needs to be done, so we can start developing protocols we need to have," Benson said. "Nothing compares to the value of having these networks established or enhanced."
Mileti is convinced California's emergency response community will discover gaps in coverage by participating in these drills. They can then tell their bosses and politicians where they need extra resources, but he admits it's a difficult sell.

"In the wake of the 100-year anniversary of the 1906 quake, we commissioned a timeline of all the major laws and ordinances having to do with seismic safety," he recalled. There were more than 200 of them, and 99 percent of them followed within three months of an earthquake.

"The time that politicians respond to a need for change and fund it is after major events, not before," Mileti noted. "In this country, we manage needs after the horse is already out of the barn." Politicians may only respond to events the public has just experienced, he said. "But the professional emergency management community is going to push and nudge and cajole them to do more."

David Raths is a writer based in Philadelphia.

 

 

David Raths contributing writer