Government Technology

Southern California Braces for the Big One During Earthquake Drill

November 14, 2008 By

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

The quake and its aftershocks produce between 10,000 and 100,000 landslides. Fires erupt across the region. Five high-rise buildings in Los Angeles collapse. Roads, railroads and utilities that cross the fault are ruptured. The worst damage is where the shaking is the strongest and longest, in the Riverside and San Bernardino areas. Emergency responders have to cope with chemical spills and the potential of dam ruptures. Overall, the region suffers 1,800 deaths and more than $200 billion in economic losses.

How ready are the public, first responders and emergency management officials to deal with such a scenario? That's one of the questions regional officials hoped to answer with drills it ran earlier this week. Based on this scenario, both the Golden Guardian emergency response exercise and the Great Southern California ShakeOut -- a drill for members of the public -- were designed to test California's capability 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 will be dramatically overwhelmed, said Dennis Mileti, a member of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

"This quake [would] be unlike any drastic emergency anyone has experienced or can remember," said Mileti, 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 pointed out that because it is so well practiced, California's emergency response community is among the best in the country. When they are 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 didn't happen right away, he said. For Riverside and San Bernardino counties, for instance, there wouldn'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 would be torn in half. Airports would not be functioning initially. So local emergency response teams in towns and villages, such as Rancho Mirage, where Mileti lives, would 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."

What that means is that non-emergency response individuals will play an important role. "The real first responders are victims," he said. Studies of previous 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 would 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. ShakeOut 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

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