Quake Watchers' Role Is to Rattle Public Awareness

April 27, 1986|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

CARSON — "Earthquakes are like the weather," says Archie Snow, paraphrasing Will Rogers. "Everybody talks about them, but nobody does anything."

Yet Snow, a Redondo Beach councilman and member of the county's Emergency Preparedness Commission, still believes that the talking is needed to motivate people to get ready for the big one that the experts say is likely to devastate parts of Southern California within the next couple of decades.

Last week he emceed another round of discussions on the awesome subject in Carson Community Hall. About 350 representatives of local governments and industry showed up to hear the familiar scenarios of catastrophes that will be triggered when the ground again buckles along the San Andreas Fault or at numerous other cracks in the Earth's crust.

One of those cracks runs from Inglewood to Newport Beach. In 1933 a temblor estimated at 6.3 on the Richter scale rumbled along the fault, causing massive damage in Long Beach, Wilmington, Carson, Compton and nearby areas.

Experts at the Carson seminar said there is a moderate to low probability that the Inglewood Fault will produce a quake of 7.5 on the Richter scale within the next 20 to 30 years, taking about 23,000 lives and causing up to $70 billion in property damage.

In the same time span there is a high probability--more than 50%--of a disastrous upheaval along the San Andreas Fault in the lower part of the state, according to Paul Flores, director of the Southern California Earthquake Preparedness Project.

He said seismologists believe that major temblors along the fault occur on an average of every 140 years. If one measures from the last major quake in 1857--centered north of San Bernardino and estimated at more than 8 on the Richter scale--the likely time for the next big one is in 11 years, or 1997.

"But it could happen tomorrow," said Flores, an urban planner. "Or it might not happen for a number of decades. Unfortunately, we're still at a fairly primitive stage in our earthquake predictions."

Awareness of the South Bay's vulnerability appears to have been heightened by the Mexico City earthquake last September. A number of school districts, for example, staged emergency preparedness drills earlier this month.

"We're taking the danger very seriously," said Don Champlin, an administrator in the Redondo Beach City Elementary School District. "People realize that adequate preparations now can mean the difference between life and death."

Torrance Police Capt. Darrell Lanham said the Mexico City disaster, which killed at least 7,000, has increased interest in earthquake dangers in his city. He said Torrance has updated its emergency plans and hired a full-time employee last year to coordinate efforts with community groups. The city is also trying to find a way to bolster buildings that are considered unable to withstand a major quake.

The problem, Lanham said, is that interest in preparedness tends to wane with memories of the last disaster. "People get to thinking that it's never going to happen here," he said.

Progress on Predictions

Accurate earthquake predictions would go a long way toward dispelling such apathy, and experts at the Carson seminar said progress is being made on that front.

The most promising possibilities may emerge through an experiment in the Parkfield area of Central California, according to Robert Wallace, chief scientist with the U. S. Geological Survey's office of earthquakes, volcanoes and engineering.

He said scientists have been rigging that area with lasers and other high-tech devices to measure the slightest tilts and shifts that may precede an earthquake.

Parkfield is ideal for the experiment, Wallace said, because quakes have occurred there at relatively frequent and regular intervals--about every 22 years. If that average over the past century holds, the next Parkfield tremor will be in 1988, he said.

'Trap the Beast'

"The simple principle we're working with is that the Earth's crust must bend before it breaks," he said. "If we can trap the beast before it is unleashed, we may be able to apply what we learn to other earthquake-prone areas."

Government planners at the Carson seminar said they are following the Parkfield experiment closely in hopes that it will help them develop better approaches for dealing with earthquake emergencies.

"We are faced with some real dilemmas when the scientific community comes up with an earthquake prediction," said Richard Andrews of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

If the government ignores a prediction that later proves accurate, the quake will strike an unprepared populace, he said. On the other hand, "if we go around crying wolf too many times," he said, nobody will be listening when the big one finally comes.

To deal with the dilemma, Andrews said, public policy and scientific research should proceed on parallel tracks so that planners can make the best decision possible on when to sound the alarm.

"In the meantime," he said, "we should all be aware that an earthquake can happen anytime and in any place in California."

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