California Looks to Update Quake Plans

By CARI TUNA and TAMARA AUDI  |  Wall Street Journal  |  Link to article

If a 7.8-magnitude quake ripped the earth open along the southern San Andreas Fault this afternoon, it would cut a swath of destruction from the eastern desert to the Los Angeles basin.

It would pull down buildings, kill 1,800 people and ignite 1,600 fires, according to a scenario worked up by a team of scientists and used for the region’s emergency-preparedness drills. Major roads, water pipes and power lines around Los Angeles and Orange counties would be severed, cutting off the region and slowing recovery and evacuation efforts.

In quake-prone California, the disaster forensics have begun-again.

The recent earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand have prompted officials in Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere to re-examine their own building codes, disaster-response measures and recovery plans. In particular, the Japanese quake and tsunami have raised fresh concerns about California’s two nuclear plants, which sit near fault lines that run though the central and southern parts of the state. The San Andreas is believed to be the most likely source of a big quake in southern California.

Local emergency planners are scouring for more information on Japan’s situation so they can update their disaster procedures. “We will learn things, and we will make changes,” said Jen Tucker, emergency planning officer for San Clemente, a city three miles from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The plant, built to withstand a 7.0-magnitude quake, sits on the Pacific coast within five miles of two fault lines, girdled by a 30-foot-high tsunami wall.

After each major quake around the world, L.A. sends city officials to assess the disaster response for lessons, said Deputy Mayor Eileen Decker. When they visited Chile after the 2010 earthquake there, they learned that tourists were especially vulnerable because they were unaware of evacuation procedures. As a result, Los Angeles aims more public-service announcements at its own tourists and has beefed up relations with hotel operators.

One immediate lesson from the Japan quake, Ms. Decker said, was how much more prepared the Japanese are than Californians. In Japan, preparedness means having hard hats and flat shoes at work desks and obeying evacuation orders, she said. In Los Angeles, it can be hard to talk people out of “wearing three-inch heels,” in case they have to rush down many flights of stairs, Ms. Decker said.

Another common problem: persuading residents to leave their homes during disasters. “Every [wildfire] season we have difficulty with individuals that insist on staying in their residences,” she said.

Los Angeles County now will publicize its assessment of the risk to residents from nuclear disasters elsewhere as well, said Jonathan Fielding, director of the county’s Department of Public Health. After Japan’s damaged nuclear plants spread radiation, some Californians rushed to buy protective iodine tablets for fear the radiation could cross the Pacific.

In the Northern California counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara, too, officials are waiting for information on how well response plans worked in Japan and New Zealand before re-examining their own.