Fri, Feb

The Big One Hits … What Now?

NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS-When we talk about the Big One, most people think it will be an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault.

After all, we’ve had our fair share of rude awakenings, most recently last summer with the 7.1 jolt in Ridgecrest, 120 miles northeast of Los Angeles. 

Think of what would have happened if the Ridgecrest earthquake had ripped through downtown Los Angeles on a business day. 

Northridge was only 6.7; a Ridgecrest magnitude quake would be almost 50% more severe, and an 8 on the Richter Scale would be more than twice as bad. There have been 9s further up the west coast and the 9.5 earthquake that devastated Chile in 1960. . . 

But earthquakes aren’t all that Angelenos have to worry about. 

The most devastating event in modern California history was the rainy winter of 1861-62 which put a 300-mile stretch of the Central Valley 30 feet under water and flooded Sacramento eight feet deep. The newly inaugurated governor, Leland Stanford, had to take a rowboat from the capitol to his mansion where access was through a second-story window. 

Other than its church, Agua Mansa in San Bernardino County – once home to 15,000 people, the largest town between New Mexico and the Pacific – was completely swept away. Only the graveyard remains today. 

With a quarter of California’s taxable real estate destroyed, the flood bankrupted the state; damages from a similar catastrophe on that scale today would cost close to a trillion dollars.  

That was a once in a century flood. Do the math. Are we not overdue? 

California’s fire season grows longer and longer and, increasingly, high winds play havoc with any hope of early control. Here in Los Angeles, between arson and the spreading homeless encampments, the risk is multiplied. And the costs to fight these wildfires keep escalating. 

The 1953 Stafford Act defines a major disaster narrowly as any natural catastrophe (including any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, wind-driven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, or drought), or, regardless of cause, any fire, flood, or explosion. 

We probably don’t need to worry about volcanoes despite the 1997 film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche. 

But what about tsunamis, a nuclear meltdown, a Katrina? 

With all the oil and gas in Los Angeles, from pipelines under the city to the exposed butane storage tanks in the Harbor, we would be devastated by a major explosion. 

Plus, today we face concerns unheard of back then – planes toppling high rises, typhoid in homeless camps, gas leaks beside housing developments, ricin mailed in parcels, and a multitude of cyber security issues. 

The current regime in Washington has slashed so much from public health that the city may not be able to count on federal help if a Coronavirus variant was to break out in el Pueblo de Los Angeles. 

And after the U.S. president assassinated an Iranian general on Iranian soil, who’s to say a drone won’t bring chaos to the southland. 

So often there is not one isolated incident but a cascade of problems. The fire that ripped through San Francisco in 1906; the hurricane that took out New Orleans’ failing levees; the tsunami which inundated Fukushima. In our case, a major earthquake could take out the power grid and water supply, cut off communication and lead to anarchy. 

The Woolsey fire report shows that multiple demands do not have to be local; other crises in California and elsewhere can drain aggregate resources. 

Los Angeles relies on its first responders, the firefighters and police, to be the initial response to emergencies. And the Emergency Management Department is there to coordinate and manage the crisis among multiple departments and multiple jurisdictions. 

Its mission is to ensure that the City and its residents have the resources and information they need to prepare, respond and recover from emergencies, disasters and significant events. 

To repeat: its mandate is to provide for response and recovery of the entire City. And they have only 30 people to not only address immediate response and abatement of any major emergency, but also to develop and implement a recovery effort that might take years. 

The current budget for the Emergency Management Department is about $3.75 million, less than $1 per person in Los Angeles. Most goes to salaries, with just over half a million for community emergency management and preparedness. There is only one public health coordinator to address bioterrorism, epidemics, outbreaks of infectious diseases, and health care issues such as water contamination (a real concern given the fracking within city limits) and the Aliso Canyon gas leak.  

They don’t even have a vehicle they can call their own and outfit with 4-wheel drive for off-road capabilities and to serve as a mobile operations center with GPS, mapping, satellite communication and supplies, as well as serve as a field shelter for staff. 

When we look at the painstakingly long recoveries for New Orleans after Katrina and Japan after the 2011 tsunami, we need to ask why. Why? 

Los Angeles needs to prioritize the safety and welfare of all inhabitants over irresponsible short-term budgets aimed at pleasing those who fund campaigns and exacerbated by decades of political see-no-evil. 

Imagine the costs of a major catastrophe in the long term. Wise planning and a resilient city can’t be funded after a Big One strikes. 

The next two columns will look at what the city has done and what it should do better, and what you, your families and your neighbors can do – you may want to wait to read those before contacting your Councilmember. 

This is part of a series based on/inspired by interviews with various Los Angeles City Departments and research by the Budget Advocates in the fall of 2019. 

(The Budget Advocates are an elected, all volunteer, independent advisory body charged with making constructive recommendations to the Mayor and the City Council regarding the Budget, and to City Departments on ways to improve their operations, and with obtaining input, updating and educating all Angelenos on the City’s fiscal management.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.