California drills for disaster ahead of next Big One

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A massive earthquake will someday hit the United States’ second-largest city. Will Los Angeles be ready?

The plaza at the University of Southern California was strewn with victims pinned under fake debris, wailing for help for their Hollywood wounds.

Real emergency workers rushed to help the volunteer victims, while students, laughing nervously, filmed the scene on smartphones.

This time, the aftermath of the giant earthquake striking Los Angeles was only a test. But next time, it could be real.

Los Angeles is the epicentre of the world’s largest earthquake safety drill, The Great ShakeOut. Organizers say 22 million people signed up to participate Thursday worldwide, 10 million of them in California.

The annual reality check, now in its eighth year, is a sometimes grim reminder of the subterranean dangers that are easily forgotten amid the view from the Golden State’s sunny, palm-lined shores.

California’s coast – and most of its major cities – sit along the Pacific ring of fire, the highly active seismic zone where 90 per cent of the world’s earthquakes occur.

The San Andreas fault, which extends 1,300 kilometres through most of the state, is one of the region’s most active. But new research has shown thousands of lesser-known faults, some directly beneath densely populated downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood, are ready to wreak havoc, too.

Emergency officials say Los Angeles, with its shaky geology and regional population of 18.5 million, is an earthquake disaster waiting to happen.

The ground usually shakes somewhere in greater Los Angeles several times a day. Most earthquakes are so small that they can be mistaken for a passing lorry, or missed entirely. But they are part of the culture in a city whose beaches are lined with tsunami warning signs, and which has a nickname for a coming seismic catastrophe: “The Big One.”

Los Angeles’ last major earthquake was in 1994, when a previously unknown fault ruptured under the suburban neighbourhood of Northridge. The 6.7 magnitude quake killed 57 people, injured 9,000, and caused 20 billion dollars in damage – still the second-costliest disaster in US history after Hurricane Katrina.

Scientists say, Northridge was just a preview. For ShakeOut simluations, seismologists posit a “hypothetical but plausible” 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the southern end of the San Andreas fault that would cause 1,800 deaths, 53,000 injuries and 213 billion dollars of damage.

Nearly all Angelenos say they believe a major earthquake will strike the city in their lifetimes, according to research by the American Red Cross.

But only a tiny fraction say they have taken the recommended precautions, from stocking up on drinking water to bolting homes to foundations, with nearly a quarter in a 2014 survey admitting they had made no preparations at all.

“People are fatalistic about the earthquake. They think, ‘it will happen, and if we survive, we’ll figure out a way,'” American Red Cross California director Jarrett Barrios told dpa.

Emergency managers fear millions of unprepared residents with no food, water, or evacuation plans could turn a disaster from nightmarish to apocalyptic. So public agencies have in recent years rallied to get the state up to speed.

Eight years ago, the Southern California Earthquake Centre at USC started annual ShakeOut drills that have since spread to New Zealand and Japan. Sponsored newspaper quizzes and video games teach people how to strap down framed pictures and TV sets and keep flashlights handy.

One supplier touts emergency kits with the help of an earthquake-simulating trailer kitted out like an American living room, that knocks the unwary off their chairs when the shaking starts.

“You hear the screaming?” a sales representative asked.

On October 9, after years of inaction, Los Angeles passed the country’s strictest earthquake building safety laws, which will require retrofits of as many as 15,000 wood- or concrete-structure apartments built atop and near faults.

But the work has yet to begin, and until then, the clock is ticking.

“How is it that so many Angelenos can be so unprepared, it is really a mystery to me,” Barrios said. “Maybe an earthquake or two will be necessary before some people realize that it’s imperative.”

On a Thursday morning, only a few dozen people gathered outside a cafe at USC for an outdoor quake drill. Organizers told them to get ready to drop to the ground and cover their heads, to protect themselves from the imaginary – for now – chaos around them.

“We all know about the risks, but we don’t do anything,” said Brittany, 23, a passing student who preferred not to give her last name. “Personally, I’m not prepared at all.”

Then came the signal – and like the others, she crouched to the ground and waited for it to end.

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