The Day of the Big One: Two Alternative Scenarios

GELFAND’S WORLD--The big earthquake may not come for a hundred years, or it could happen in 2017. The immediate physical effects of a major rupture along the San Andreas Fault are predictable and probably inevitable -- immediate loss of water, electricity, gas, and sewer lines -- but how we respond does not have to be predictably ineffective. There is an optimistic scenario, if only we can consider the realities and prepare for them. The necessary preparation is going to require the participation of thousands of civilian volunteers. It is this latter, civilian element that is somewhat revolutionary. 

In order to get from our current state of blissful ignorance to that of an informed, trained force of volunteers that can function in a disciplined way during an emergency, it is going to take a new organization that will have the trust and cooperation of city agencies. To put it another way, the civilian volunteer force that can be created will need to be able to work with the fire department and the police in the case of emergency, and these departments will need to do their best to oversee the efforts of the volunteers. 

There is a need for one central organization that will be that point of connection between the city agencies and civilians. That  job will be the function (and obligation) of the newly created Emergency Preparedness Alliance. Right now, it's a gleam in the eye of a few dozen longtime participants of the LA neighborhood councils and their like-minded colleagues. It is destined to grow rapidly into a sizable citywide force if we can get our message across. It will add to and supplement some already-existing groups such as those with CERT training and the amateur radio groups aligned with the fire department. 

This column is the second in a series intended to inform you about this plan and how you can participate. 

The background: As many of you know, the city of Los Angeles recently brought in earthquake expert Lucy Jones to consider our vulnerabilities and to advise us as to how we might take precautions. Over the past year, she has been making the rounds of civic groups and neighborhood council alliances, explaining what a major earthquake ("the big one") would do. The earth movement of such a quake would be likely to result in the loss of our running water, electricity, and gas for a substantial length of time. 

How widespread the shutoffs will be, and how long it will take to repair things remains unknown, but a decent sense of preparedness requires that we think about outages that are essentially citywide, and that we contemplate weeks-long intervals prior to recovery of services. We have as examples the Northridge Earthquake of 1994 and Hurricane Katrina, just to mention two. The Northridge quake resulted in loss of natural gas for an extended period. Most electricity was functional within a few days, but there was a part of the city still without electricity after nearly a week. Some people relocated to relatives' houses or lived in mobile homes for weeks and months. 

The Northridge quake involved about 9000 injured people. In a more widespread disaster such as a major San Andreas Fault rupture, southern California might suffer more like 50,000 injured and more than a thousand dead.  

This sounds pretty dismal, but our service professionals -- the fire department, the LAPD, and the city agencies -- have been doing their best to be prepared. They will react properly if and when they have to. They will be coordinated from a single emergency response center that is designed to ride out a major quake and will continue to function, even in the absence of externally supplied water and electricity. 

But there are only so many police and firemen, not to mention trucks and ambulances. For the most of us, it will be the scenario I've characterized as You're On Your Own, aka YOYO, at least for a crucial 3 or 4 days. You won't have a lot of help from the uniformed agencies, because they will be tied up dealing with areas of dense population and mass casualties. 

For most suburbanites, you'll have to ride out the immediate aftermath on your own. 

But this does not have to mean that it's only your immediate family and you. With a little preparedness, your immediate family and your close neighbors will be able to combine resources, help each other, and deal with small issues. The most likely way that this will happen is that you and your neighbors are taught in advance to work together. You can organize as areas of perhaps 4 blocks. 

What's more important, these local organizations will be a part of a network of like organizations, each tied into a regional and citywide response network. Think of it as your block being able to communicate directly with the three surrounding blocks, and those 4 blocks tied into a network that includes the entire city. 

Why is this kind of structure so important? 

Imagine that somebody has a serious but survivable injury such as a broken leg. In addition, imagine that power lines are down in the street, making vehicular travel impossible, and that your regular telephone lines and cell phone towers are out of operation. What can you do to help that injured neighbor? 

Here's what. Your four block grouping will have a designated radio person who will be able to communicate to the authorities that your area has a particular type and severity of injury. The message will be passed up through the proper channels, and this will allow the fire department or other agency to send help as it becomes available. 

It will be important that the medical authorities hear about serious injuries all over the city as soon as possible, so they can make the best use of their resources. This is a way to save the lives of people who would otherwise perish for lack of transportation and care. 

How are we doing so far in forming this alliance? 

As I mentioned in a previous column, we held the first meeting at the city's emergency response center. The keynote address was given by a recognized expert on the El Nino phenomenon. The bottom line is that we can expect lots of rain this year, probably on the order of 30 inches, and this will stress our immediate responders as streets, intersections, and storm drains are flooded. We can expect that the rapid water rescue teams will be needed. We can also expect that mudslides will occur in some of the burnt out areas. 

The coming rainy season will be an exercise for the emergency response structure that the city already has in place, and it will be a chance for our volunteers to do a little on-the-job learning. Luckily, it won't be anything like what we might expect from a major earthquake. For one thing, the heavy rains and their aftermath are the sort of thing that the uniformed services are equipped to handle. 

In this sense, the coming El Nino year is a chance for the new volunteer group to see how the larger system operates without being required to be out in the field tending to casualties. 

There were about 75 participants at the first meeting of the new Alliance. We agreed to meet again on the morning of December 19. Anyone who is particularly interested in attending should contact the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment for more information. 

By the way, we have been putting together a citywide group of about 4000 volunteer participants over the past dozen years. They are the board members and stakeholders in the city's neighborhood council system. We should expect many of them to become part of this effort.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)  

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 99

Pub: Dec 8, 2015

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