Now What? Californians to Rehearse 'The Big One'

People wait outside a downtown Los Angeles building after evacuating following an earthquake Tuesday, July 29, 2008. The 5.4-magnitude jolt was felt from Los Angeles to San Diego, and slightly in Las Vegas. (Image credit: AP Photo/Kim Johnson Flodin)

Some Southern Californians are said to have stampeded yesterday as they tried to evacuate a high-rise during the 5.4-magnitude quake outside Los Angeles.

That is exactly what Margaret Vinci didn't want them to do, yesterday or during future earthquakes, especially "The Big One" that scientists predict will come any time in the next 30 years. "People really didn't know what to do. A lot of people evacuated buildings," said the manager of the Office of Earthquake Programs at Caltech.

And so it's time to rehearse.

Vinci's office along with dozens, possibly hundreds, of other organizations and millions of Californians will be part of a mega-earthquake drill — the largest in U.S. history — set for Nov. 13 and aimed at preventing this and other potentially catastrophic behaviors and results during the disastrous quake predicted along the San Andreas Fault.

The fault has snapped in big and cyclical ways historically, but it's been relatively quiet in modern times and scientists know the respite simply can't last forever.

"Earthquakes don't kill anybody. It's buildings that fall down and things that are unsecured that hurt people," Vinci said. Overpasses and bridges are risky, "but it's usually not the earthquake itself. They don't open up and swallow people up. It's man-made objects that kill." People need not fear buildings, she said. "What happens is they all run out of buildings instead of ducking, covering and holding on. When the shaking has stopped, then people can evacuate and follow other instructions." 5,000 times the energy of Chino Hills

The Great Southern California ShakeOut drill, planned long prior to yesterday's temblor, will give individuals, businesses and emergency services a coordinated opportunity to rehearse their response to a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, which would release 5,000 times the energy of yesterday's event that was centered near the city of Chino Hills.

That type of major seismic event, modeled to be centered on the southern end of the San Andreas, would result in 1,600 fires, 1,800 deaths (half from fires, half from building debris striking them) and $213 billion damage, the prognosticators say. Electricity could be out for anywhere from a week to a month in some areas. Tap water could stop flowing for a few days up to six months depending on where one lives.

Nearly 2 million people have already registered at to participate in the event, said Mike Blanpied, associate coordinator of the U.S. Geological Survey's Earthquake Hazards Program. The USGS is one of the event's organizers and sponsors. Even if you don't live in California, it's worth checking out the ShakeOut's Web site and resource pages, because after any disaster, when the shaking or winds or rain stops, the response by emergency responders, businesses and families is the nearly the same. Nine counties, no water Many Californians these days are lulled into thinking that large earthquakes are a cake-walk. The last major earthquake in the L.A. area, the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake in 1994, killed 72 people and caused $12.5 billion in damage. It was, like yesterday's event, actually a "moderate" quake by geological standards, Vinci said. "We are not looking at a Northridge event, where you can afterwards go to the ATM, or go five miles away [from the epicenter] and everything is normal," Vinci said. "We are looking at an event that will cause problems such that people will not be able to get to roadways … many overpasses and cities in local cities and incorporated cities do not fare well. Also debris on the road and getting that debris cleared. Where are you gonna put the debris? A lot of roads will be impassible, people will not be able to get home from work … We need for people to be prepared, aware, proactive. Emergency services will not be there for them. They are going to be overwhelmed." As part of the run-up to the drill, USGS seismologist Lucy Jones headed a team of 200 scientists, engineers, economists and sociologists to model the impact of a major earthquake. The area of concern stretches from the desert southeast of Palm Springs north for 180 miles to Lancaster. "We know this will be a regional-sized earthquake involving nine counties," Vinci said. The scenario is detailed on a 24-page document (and in another much longer one) available on the ShakeOut Web site. The worst part is that the San Andreas goes through the Cajon Pass, a pass between the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains where all the major lifelines for Southern California run through — lines for much of the area's water, power, communication lines, transportation and gas. "We were looking at 15 to 30 feet of offset and of course those lifelines will be severed," Vinci said. "The greatest threat is a lack of water. We have water stored, but it's getting it to the households because as we saw yesterday, at the airport, one of their main water lines broke, a lot of the infrastructure in Los Angeles is 100 years old or older and with heavy shaking throughout Southern California, we are looking at many pipes breaking." The California economy (the fifth largest in the world) needs to keep trucking after such an event, so blocked railroads and streets must be cleared, Vinci said. "We don't want to lose any of that industry to other places in the United States, because they'll never come back here and we want to keep that economy resilient," she said. "There are many things that many of us can do now before the disaster. If we do it will make a difference in what our lives are like after." What to do At this point, pre-drill, most people are overwhelmed at the idea of preparing for a mega-earthquake, Vinci said, so they do nothing. During the drill, families need to look critically at their homes to see if they have enough water, fire extinguishers, shoes under the bed, shoes in car trunks, $1 bills and screws holding furniture into the walls. They should have enough drinking water stored for a week to 10 days without it. "People don't realize that refrigerators walk through your kitchen," Vinci said. "When the earth is moving, everything else is too. Tall furniture. Bookcases." At the ShakeOut Web site, there is a blog where Californians can note preparations they have made. The ShakeOut also has a presence on MySpace and Facebook, "because sociologists have told us that the way to get people to act is for people to talk about it amongst themselves," Vinci said. "What we want to do," she said, "is change the mindset in Southern California away from, 'I made it through Northridge, I'll make it through the next one, I'll take my chances,' to 'I live in Southern California and this is a way of life. Just like you don't need heavy clothes because of our climate, I need to be prepared.'"

Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.