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L.A. Prepares for the Big Quake Amid the Questions of When and How Large

Seismologists agree that it’s a matter of when, not if, it happens, and that the resulting damage will be incalculable in the city of more than 4 million residents and 400,000 businesses.

It’s referred to as the Big One, the cataclysmic earthquake that will devastate Los Angeles when the ground around the San Andreas Fault gives a dramatic heave.

Seismologists agree that it’s a matter of when, not if, it happens, and that the resulting damage will be incalculable in the city of more than 4 million residents and 400,000 businesses.

Emergency response will have to come on multiple fronts at once. Beyond the immediate imperative of saving lives, the emergency community will need to coordinate activities in the realms of transportation, health, finances and diverse other sectors to stabilize the city. Water will be a particular concern in an area that relies largely on outside sources for its supply.

At the highest levels of emergency planning, authorities take a long view, putting in place contingencies for a range of possible scenarios. “What is big? Is it Haiti big? Katrina big? Or will it be Los Angeles big, and what does that really mean? How can we categorize it?” said Anna Burton, interim general manager of the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department. “Then we consider all those possibilities and ask: What have we done and what do we need to do to prepare the city?”


Given the magnitude of the event, it helps to begin by breaking down likely responses by sector. Brent Woodworth, Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Foundation president and CEO, describes a number of response scenarios.

Transportation encompasses diverse forms in this geographically dispersed city. There are bridges, highways and rail systems, as well as service providers, such as bus companies and rail lines. Woodworth said an effort began in 2008 to identify the major stakeholders in this realm and get them to the table.

feature-la4-770x512.jpgThe resulting Community Stakeholder Network examines transportation resilience, among other topics. It tracks historical data to gauge likely points of crisis: Where will the roads jam? What alternate routes will be available? The task is to combine historical data with as much real-time information as possible and create a better understanding of how to answer these questions and guide critical resources.

Banking’s first priority will be to give the public access to much-needed cash. Here again collaboration is key, as Woodworth’s office works to encourage information-sharing among major institutions. Private-sector participation is critical: The government doesn’t track ATM locations and will need the cooperation of banks during a crisis. Banks’ armored vehicles could play a key role in alleviating the pressure.

To make the wheels turn smoothly, emergency planners have helped broker reciprocal deals in which different banks will agree to cash one another’s checks or waive ATM fees in an emergency.

Schools will need to be ready not just to safeguard lives, but also to calm parents. Beyond pre-staging evacuations, schools are being trained to put in place formal communication plans, to keep worried parents from running to the door to claim their kids. In the aftermath of an event, the reopening of schools also will be a top priority. “These are some of the things that are most important to restore as a society, to show that you are in recovery,” Woodworth said. “You want to demonstrate a return to normalcy.”


In the first days and weeks following a major event, the city will likely go dry. Antiquated water pipes and connectors will fail, their brittle structures rupturing in too many places to even make repairs a possibility. Long-term replacement will be the only fix, and with supplies quickly running short, this process could be even more protracted.

As a hedge, Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he would like to cut the city’s dependence on imported water in half by 2025. However, that still won’t be enough to stop an immediate and profound drop in the water supply. For the vast majority of citizens, nothing will come out of the tap for days or weeks.

The Emergency Management Department has mapped out a response plan. It has charted key distribution points in neighborhoods across the city for distribution of gallon jugs. The department has mapped out likely traffic routes to these locations and teamed with local big-box stores to make water as well as other staples available.

Public education efforts constantly tout water preparedness as a necessary part of every home’s emergency planning. Most recommend keeping on hand three days’ worth of water at five gallons per person per day.

For emergency managers, the water peril may require new ways of thinking, said April Kelcy, founder and consultant for Earthquake Solutions in Irwindale, Calif. “Most emergency management people are still fighting the last war,” she said. “People don’t stop to ask the essential question: What has changed?”

A simple example illustrates the point. “Throughout the modern past people have had a hot water heater in their homes, typically 30 or 40 gallons,” Kelcy said. “Today the general policy in the region is to take them out and go tankless, to have a continuous stream into the house with no reserve water.”

That might be good short-term policy, but it removes a significant, built-in source of emergency supply. The heaters can be a critical source of water for people in the aftermath of an emergency.

The message for emergency managers is that while distribution points and supply chains are vital, it’s just as important to engage in public debate to help shape policy with disasters in mind, even when others may be eyeing shorter-term objectives.


Los Angeles is famous for its extensive network of roads, bridges and highways, its graceful interlocking overpasses. Should these buckle or crumble, which many likely will, it will fall to the city’s Department of Transportation to do much of the heavy lifting in terms of restoration.

“The ultimate goal is to re-establish mobility, open the major highways, the rail lines, the mass transit system,” said Aram Sahakian, transportation engineer in the department’s Special Traffic Operations Division. The first priority will be to open relief routes and then to work out from there. “But not everything is going to be back up and running instantaneously.”

In the first 48 hours, the department likely will be taking the lay of the land, assessing equipment and resource needs and availability, and developing situational awareness. The department’s own emergency operations center will coordinate with the city’s EOC to make the best use of its 100 engineering personnel and more than 300 traffic officers.

While the details are always changing — you need a range of contingency plans in the face of an undefined threat — it’s clear that debris removal will be a top priority. To this extent, the department is working with the Bureau of Public Works to ensure outside actors will be ready to move.

“There are contracts in place where companies need to stop all their operations and come be part of the emergency. There is an understanding that all these companies will have their heavy equipment available,” Sahakian said. For emergency planners, contracts alone are not sufficient. “We send our people to train. We don’t just exercise internally, but there are also constant exercises with the private sector. And this is not just training: It is also about meeting people and developing relationships.”

But if L.A. falls into a hole in the ground, how long will it take for the city to be drivable?

“There are just too many timelines, too many agencies, too many things that must move forward for the final plan to move forward successfully. So there is no way to put a timeline on it,” Sahakian said. “Would we be up and running in six weeks? I wouldn’t even know how to answer that question.”


The impact on communications would be virtually immeasurable. Should the Internet, TV or other avenues go down, the public would lose major sources of information. Power stations and other Internet-connected utilities could suffer significant failures. Emergency response locations could find themselves cut off.

“We think data communications would come to a screeching halt,” said Patrick Mallon, executive director of LA-RICS, an organization tasked with creating data and voice networks that could withstand a major disruption. Such a network would have to span the 81 public safety agencies presently operating on 40 different radio systems.

If the crisis came today, emergency responders could probably communicate over an ad hoc patchwork of radio networks. In the long term, LA-RICS is looking to create something more formal, thanks in part to a $154 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The group already has procurements in place with Motorola to develop data and voice networks that would incorporate some 229 sites, enough to keep information flowing relatively smoothly. Ideally the data network would be in place by 2015. Ten years from now, voice communications would share a common platform for seamless and instantaneous contact.

In the meantime, emergency communications will likely mean pounding the pavement. “In severe cases, law enforcement officers would have to go door to door. They do that with fires, telling people to evacuate. But that would be a last resort,” said Joyce Harris, previously a public information officer with Los Angeles County and now an emergency management consultant for Dewberry.


To survive and rebuild after the big one, experts say, the city will need a high degree of organization in its emergency systems. There won’t be the time or resources available to just pull it together on the fly.

Garcetti recently announced that he will appoint L.A.’s first chief resilience officer, as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities campaign. The new position comes as the City Council ponders several seismic safety initiatives, including a plan to investigate potentially dangerous concrete and soft-first-story buildings. That’s been a hot topic ever since the Los Angeles Times reported that at least 50 of more than 1,000 old concrete buildings in the city likely would collapse in a major earthquake.

Garcetti announced the new effort just before the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which killed 57 people. That event still looms large in the local psyche, a constant reminder of the deadly potential that lies just below the surface of the soil.

The city already has a fairly high degree of organization within its emergency response community. By necessity, planners have taken the massive tangle of interwoven systems and tried to divide it into manageable chunks.

“When we look at it, we have a department of 23 people and we have broken it down into divisions,” said Burton in the Emergency Management Department. There’s a planning, training and exercise division; a facilities division for the city’s EOC; and a communications division for public information, social media and communicating with public information officers from various departments.

Then there’s the geographic breakdown. “We have assigned a professional emergency management coordinator to each district in the city, four individuals who know the police and fire commanders in their districts, who know where the critical facilities are, who know where the primary stakeholders are,” Burton said. “So if something is happening in an area, somebody is going to be able to say just what is going on in that area.”

While the Emergency Management Department attacks the planning situation by chipping down the iceberg into smaller cubes, others are taking the reverse approach, stepping back from the individual components to tackle the greater whole. A key player in that effort is foremost seismologist Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey. She is consulting with the city in an effort to develop a comprehensive resiliency plan. To do that, she said, everyone will need to take a holistic view.

“If you are the kind of person who gets into the details, you are never going to get a plan of this size,” Jones said. “You get lost. So you have to have people who can step back and see the big picture. You need someone who can get out and see the big landscape.”

In the case of emergency management, for example, this means looking beyond the daily needs of such elements as firefighting and medical response, to consider the ability of these elements to function citywide, to operate smoothly. “Your failures happen in the parts of your systems that are already weak, so everyday resilience is a big piece of your planning, even before response,” she said. While emergency systems may show few potential fault lines, so to speak, emergency planners need to be aware of the other areas in which systemic failure is likely.

This brings us back to water. “These systems are old — they are the first things put into buildings, so by now they are brittle,” Jones said. “There will be communities where the only way to repair the water system will be to build a new one, and it will take us six months. And that is a best-case scenario.”

Jones is convening experts to address the water situation systemically, and she said the city could soon have a viable plan to carry it through the next 50 years.

For emergency managers in the short term and city officials in the long term, Jones urges a dose of realism. Even if all the planning and preparedness proves successful, a major quake along the San Andreas Fault will not be readily remedied. “We can’t prevent all the losses,” Jones said. “We are trying to prevent enough of them to prevent a mass evacuation where the economy comes apart. That will be the measure of real recovery. And I really do think we can do it.”

This story was originally published by Emergency Management

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.